Ayers talks on today’s education, ’60s radicalism, at ECC
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org @emmillerwrites September 26, 2013 4:52PM
William Ayers, former 1960's radical-turned-distinguished education professor, speaks Thursday at Elgin Community College. | Emily McFarlan Miller/Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2013 7:34AM
ELGIN — After setting the ground rules for his talk Tuesday at Elgin Community College — basically, no question was off-limits, even about his “sketchy history 45 years ago” — former 1960s radical-turned-distinguished education professor William Ayers started with a question of his own.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ayers asked.
The question was directed to the students studying to become teachers at the community college.
Teaching is “my favorite occupation, my favorite calling,” he said. But teachers make little money, he said, and they get little respect.
“I want to encourage you to be teachers, but I think everyone knows this — in the world of teaching — this is a fraught moment,” he said. “This is a moment when teachers are under increasing attack, as if they somehow created the sorry mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
Security began turning away people after students, staff and community members packed out the Community Room at ECC to hear Ayers, the first guest in Elgin Community College’s 2013-14 Humanities Center Speaker Series. Capacity is 220 people, according to college officials.
The former distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago had been requested by students on the college’s Peace and Justice Committee to speak on the topic of “Democracy and Education: Teaching for Liberation,” according to humanities professor David Zacker.
He shared his beliefs that teaching is “more complex than the narrative out there,” that students should be taught to ask questions, and that all children should have what the wealthiest parents are able to offer theirs. In a democracy, he said, students should develop minds of their own and have the freedom and ability to create and participate and to invent.
“We base education on a profoundly democratic idea. That idea is a belief — it’s a fragile idea, too — but it’s a belief in the incalculable value of every human being,” he said.
Afterward, Ayers took more than a half-hour of questions from the audience, mostly about education — although three community members brought up his past as a self-described “militant radical against the Vietnam War.” He was part of the anti-war Weather Underground and spent 10 years on the lam with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, for their alleged role in “domestic terrorist” activities.
Robert Haase of St. Charles — who said he was “physically threatened” by the Weather Underground as a recruiter for a large national corporation at the University of Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s — challenged him about the group’s involvement in the 1970 bombing of Park Police Station in San Francisco.
Many of the stories that have been repeated about him aren’t true, Ayers claimed. For one, he said, the Weather Underground never took credit for or was charged with the Park Police Station bombing.
“It’s true what I did was extreme. It’s true a lot of it was illegal. It’s true that a lot of it went off the rails. Some of it I regret. Some of it I don’t regret,” he said.
Elgin Community College had received a number of phone calls, emails and letters before Ayers’ appearance, both in support of and against it, according to college President David Sam.
The administration tried to respond to each, Sam said.
First-year student Daniela Herrera, a member of the Peace and Justice Committee, said she had learned about the speaker and his past, but she didn’t expect that.
“It took me by surprise. I thought everybody would be more open to it,” Herrera said.
But, Sam said, that’s part of the purpose of the community colleges: to bring together “diverse opinions and ideas, and people can have a civil discourse and learn from those kinds of exchanges.”