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Education Under Fire: Introduction

William Ayers (billayers123 [at] is an activist and scholar, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has written extensively about social justice and education. His books include Teaching Toward Freedom; A Kind and Just Parent; Fugitive Days; and, with Bernardine Dohrn, Race Course: Against White Supremacy. Rick Ayers (rick-ayers [at] is an adjunct professor in education at the University of San Francisco and Mills College. He is a doctoral candidate at the Language, Literacy, and Culture program of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education. He is the author, with his brother William Ayers, of Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom (2010), and is a regular blogger for

Education at the beginning of the twenty-first century is in crisis and contestation. The economic instability of capitalism—reflected in the slowdown in the economic growth trend since the mid-1970s, worsening financial crises, and the growth of draconian neoliberal policies—has had the effect of further compromising a capitalist educational system already beset with problems.

The hijacking of school reform by neoliberal corporate planners, private foundations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, U.S. government strategists, and conservative-oriented education elites has led to an intensified attack on teachers, teachers’ unions, teacher education, schools, and the kids themselves. The aim is to recreate the privileges of the powerful while forging a generation of technicians and passive followers, disciplining the lower classes to accept their place in the matrix. The gravitational pull of this narrative is so great that even radical reformers find themselves re-voicing the deceptive goals and phony frames. If we are to take a thorough and honest look at the educational landscape before us, we cannot accept the standards and benchmarks established by the power elite, from the acceptance of capitalist development, meaningless and wasteful work, and ecological depredations as the only way forward, to the normalizing of white, middle-class discourse as the gold standard of excellence, anointed with titles like Standard English or Academic English.

The conflict over the agenda of the powerful with respect to schools is increasingly apparent. On the one side we find: privatization; drastically lowered expectations for students and families; the demonization of teachers; zero-tolerance as a cat’s paw for surveillance and control; sort-and-punish curricula; a culture of obedience and conformity; and narrowing definition of learning as job-training and education, i.e., as a product to be bought and sold in the market. On the other side we find: a growing fight-back based on the principle that all human beings are of incalculable value and that life in a just and free society must be geared toward and powered by a profoundly radical idea: that the fullest development of all human beings—regardless of race or ethnicity, origin or background, gender identity, ability or disability—is the necessary condition for the full development of each person; and, conversely, the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. On this latter side are those who recognize that access to education, the development of skills, and critical capacity, make citizens and residents not just college-ready but also ready to become leaders of struggles for a humane future, as we saw in the youth who emerged in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

The dominant neoliberal metaphor of the rich and powerful posits schools as businesses, teachers as workers, students as products and commodities. It also leads to thinking that school closings and privatizing the public space are natural events; relentless, standardized test-and-punish regimes are sensible; and zero tolerance is a reasonable proxy for justice. This is what the true-believers call “reform.”

In this metaphoric straight-jacket, school learning is a lot like boots or hammers and subject to the same metrics of business planning. But unlike boots and hammers, the value of which is inherently satisfying and directly understood, the value of school learning is elusive and indirect. Its value, we are assured, has been calculated elsewhere by wise and accomplished people, and these masters know better than anyone what is best for the kids and for the world. “Take this medicine,” students are told repeatedly, day after tedious day; “It’s good for you.” Refuse the bitter pill and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are assembled.

Schools for obedience and conformity are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies for control and normalization—the elaborate schemes for managing the crowd, the knotted system of rules and discipline, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks, the laborious programs of sorting the crowd into winners and losers through testing and punishing, grading, assessing, and judging, all of it adding up to a familiar trap, an intricately constructed hierarchy—a place for everyone and everyone in his (or her) place. In schools as they are—and as they are more and more becoming—knowing and accepting one’s pigeonhole on the towering and barren cliff becomes the only lesson one really needs.

Teachers and students who long for schooling as something transcendent and powerful find ourselves locked in institutions that reduce learning to a mindless and irrelevant routine of drill and skill, and teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested (and often false) bits of information. This is unlovely in practice and it is unworthy of our deepest dreams.

In a free society, i.e., a society that promotes human freedom, students would be able to think for themselves and develop minds of their own, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, and to build capacities for exploration and invention. They would be encouraged then to ask the most fundamental and essential questions that are, like the young themselves, always in motion, dynamic, and never twice the same: Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices and my chances? What did I learn that the teacher did not know? What is my story, and how is it like or unlike the stories of others? What is my responsibility to those others?

We must resist the ways in which critical, outsider approaches to learning are now being coopted, domesticated, and turned on their heads for the purposes of elite-directed schooling. Teachers are told they are doing a “Freirian lesson” when they let students pick their research topic—a far cry from the project of conscientization and reading the world that Paulo Freire practiced. The powerful research on apprenticeship and situated learning, designed to empower the voices and experiences of working-class people, is taken over by consultants for corporate training. Research that has illuminated the ways in which the master discourse privileges the white middle class under the guise of meritocracy is distorted by trainers who tell schools that poor students need to be rescued from the pathology of their communities in a recycled, racist/pluralized “culture of poverty” argument.

The critical process of code-switching, which recognizes the equal importance of different discourses and the ways people change communication styles depending on audience, is being turned into a fancy way to admonish black and brown kids to submit to the master narrative. Outsider initiatives, which inspire and embolden youth with media and arts expression throughout our cities, are now being inundated with academics and granting agencies who—always on the lookout for authenticity—seek to bend their successes back to the normalizing project of imperialist schooling. However, the youth, the working classes, the oppressed communities, have their ways of fighting back, their counternarrative, their reappropriation and repurposing of the tools of capitalist hegemony.

Educators who are today truly oriented toward justice and liberation and enlightenment as living forces and powerful aspirations focus their efforts not on the production of things, but on the production of fully developed human beings capable of controlling and transforming their own lives; citizens and residents who can participate actively in public life; people who can open their eyes and awaken themselves and others as they think and act ethically in a complex and ever-changing world. This kind of teaching encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name and constantly interrogate the world, the wisdom to identify the obstacles to their full humanity and to the humanity of others, and the courage to act on whatever the known demands. Education, in these terms, is changed from rote boredom and endlessly alienating routines into something that is transformative—always opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider world.

Teaching in this political moment of economic instability and political reaction is both a challenge and a gift, for this moment embodies what educators, beginning with early childhood teachers, have always called “a teachable moment.” Teachable moments are times of disequilibrium and dislocation, times when lesson plans are thrown into doubt and newness can enter, times when the predictable and the commonplace are recognized as inadequate and fresh, and startling winds can blow, for teachers no less than for students. The teachable moment aligns neatly with a certain kind of pedagogy, one that does not know the answers and is compelled to improvise with the unfinished, the contingent, and the surprising/unforeseen.

In the schools we need, education would be constructed as a fundamental human right geared toward the fullest development of the human personality, and the reconstruction of society around basic principles of equality and justice and recognition. These are not the schools we have. But that does not mean that we can simply abandon the schools we have. In the face of the relentless privatization that is now directed at public education, we must struggle both to defend a truly public education and to make these schools of emancipation, geared to the free development of infinitely valuable individuals.

The articles in this issue are designed to do exactly that: to defend the hope that public education (an education truly controlled by the public) provides, while promoting the goal of all true education—the emancipation of human creativity, i.e., of human beings themselves.

2011, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July-August)
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