This video is a raw interview with Dr. Bill Ayers of the University of Illinois at Chicago for the award-winning TV series The 90's. Ayers is a professor and former member of the radical group The Weather Underground. In the interview, Ayers discusses the many problems found within the education system in Chicago and across the nation.
00:00Copy video clip URL The video begins with a black screen.
00:10Copy video clip URL Cut to a shot of Dr. Bill Ayers on the UIC campus. The interviewer, Tom Weinberg, gives Ayers a quick run down of the subject matter for the interview. Weinberg asks Ayers about the need to fix the education system.
00:55Copy video clip URL Ayers responds by stating that there is a desire to fix the education system, but that most people are looking in the wrong direction in fixing the problem. “The crisis in education really is a national crisis, and it has several aspects but there’s several. I think there are a couple of things you can identify underneath the crisis that are important.” Ayers talks about the many inner city schools that are failing in Chicago. He states that the system is in “total collapse” and labels the problem as an “urban educational crisis.” He then goes on to talk about the notion of a “general educational crisis,” and labels it as a “crisis of responsiveness.” “The schools don’t really respond to, even the so-called ‘good schools,’ the good high schools, in general don’t respond to the needs and the demands of a modern society nor to they respond to the desires and hopes and aspirations of children and their families.” Ayers goes on to explain some of the underlying causes that he sees for the educational problems that are prevalent in our society. He discusses the disabling and inequitable aspect of the educational funding system and uses Chicago’s system as an example of the problem. Ayers also cites the lack of responsiveness to the realities that children and families bring to school. He cites the inefficiency in set curricula created and promoted by educational experts. “We end up with kids being bored out of their minds most of the time. And so even those of us who went to the so-called ‘good schools’ and were very successful, we spent an awful lot of time learning how to be obedient, and learning how to how to get along, and learning how to conform. And one could argue that those are valuable things but I think that anyone with their head screwed on would look at the organization of school and say ‘this is a real waste of time.’ Everything about it is kind of crazy: the structure, the rhythm, the routine. Nowhere in life, I mean you know we claim sometimes that schools are preparation for life. Where in life do you change settings every thirty-five minutes, get a different supervisor, try to start off with a different set of expectations with a whole different group of people? It’s nuts.” Ayers finishes by reaffirming his point that many people who have a strong desire to change the educational system seem to have “missed the boat.”
05:17Copy video clip URL Weinberg asks Ayers about his time spent at the Children’s Community School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was at this school that Ayers practiced many of the Summerhill educational methods in teaching children. Ayers talks about some of the methods he and the faculty used and reminisces about his time at the school. “The thing that we did fundamentally and the thing that good schools do consistently no matter what philosophy or what label or what slogan they come under, is that we were serious about looking at children. You gotta look to the learner in order to know how to teach, and this is the fundamental flaw in a lot of the reform plans that get popularized and thrown around. If you’re not willing to look at the child, look at the person before you and understand what experience, knowledge, know-how, skill, ability, what dreams, what hopes that child brings to your classroom; if you don’t start there, then you can kind of deliver a lot of goods, and it won’t go anywhere.” Ayers then recalls a time in which he visited a classroom that represented what was wrong with the educational system. He then goes on to make an observation about teachers that are engulfed in the current system. “Teachers no longer are professionals in our big systems, they are clerks. That is, they mediate the interests of the system, they take orders, and they figure out how to distribute it.” Ayers then makes a few comments about the flaws of the testing program in schools.
10:31Copy video clip URL Weinberg interjects and asks Ayers how to fix the flaws in the system. Ayers is quick to say that there is no simple answer and that it is a complicated process. He states that teachers have to create partnerships with students and their parents which will aid teachers in garnering a better sense of where those families come from. Ayers then tells a quick story about a teacher putting this into action in a non-urban setting.
12:35Copy video clip URL Weinberg then asks Ayers about how the current educational structure can be changed. Ayers first states that there is no simple solution to the problem, but goes on to make a few observations about how to change the system. He points out some of the flaws within the structure, specifically how it is set up to only reward obedience. Ayers then delves into some of the solutions for the problems. He states that the bureaucracy in the urban educational systems is falling under its own weight. He talks about hope and optimism and how they drive the much needed change of educational systems, but that those who are trying to change it tend to stay fairly unimaginative about exactly what to do because of the conforming aspects of the system itself. “We’ve on the one hand said parents and teachers and partnership have power to run their own schools, and ‘what would you like to do in your wildest imagination?’ And all too often the response is, ‘I’d like the test scores to go up.'” Weinberg then gives some of his input and feelings on the matter. Ayers then goes on to talk about some of the accomplishments in Chicago that have promoted a positive change in schools. “What I think we’ve accomplished in Chicago is we’ve created the conditions for change. We’ve created the conditions to break through. But I don’t think there is a simple answer that you can pull this plug, that you can push this button, and then the system is going to change.” Ayers then makes a very interesting point about the teaching and learning process. “The fact is that teaching and learning and the growth of children is still a very slow and a very small process and it happens slowly and it takes time.” He then quickly talks about the notion of immediacy found within our culture and how that has transfered over into the educational field. Ayers emphasizes the need to be reminded that the growth of a child is a very slow process. He then highlights some of the positive conditions created for change in Chicago. Ayers gives a few examples of how the structural change has begun in the city.
20:21Copy video clip URL Weinberg asks Ayers about the problem of inequality in schools. Ayers responds by talking about the elitist reforms that systematize the educational field. “In many ways you could argue, that the schools are a large sorting machine. They sort kids out. That’s what they do.” Ayers then talks about the inaction in adequately fixing those very school systems that categorize students according to race, gender, and class. Ayers then presents what he believes is the solution to the problem. “What I want the schools to do is to not train people to fit in comfortably to hierarchy. I don’t want kids to emerge from schools understanding hierarchy and their place in it. I don’t want them to emerge from schools as obedient little, you know, people who can work at a McDonalds or on an assembly line without any other aspects to their person who had developed. … And I would say that I would like kids to emerge who are fully capable of participation in a democratic society; who are able to names things that they find useful and name things that they find objectionable and then work on behalf of changing those things or adopting those things that they find helpful and useful. … I want to see people who can participate fully in human life. That means you have to have a different kind of education than an education that says, ‘Here’s the canon. Read it. If you don’t get it, you go to McDonalds. If you get it, you go on to graduate school.'” Ayers then goes on to talk about the transformative possibilities found within some of these present school systems. “The interesting thing is that while the schools are successful as sorting factories and so on, they also have held within them and continue to hold transformative possibilities. So even kids who go into them kind of marching down a certain road, if they can find a moment, if they find a teacher, if they can find a school, if they can find an opportunity to really examine and really think and have light bulbs go off, that can be a very changed experience for kids.” Ayers then talks about his years spent in school and says that he only had a few moments that really had an effect on him.
24:01Copy video clip URL Weinberg asks Ayers about how a teacher could go about truly making an effect on his or her students. Ayers then begins to talk about some of his own goals and methods he uses as an educator. “As a teacher of teachers, I try to look at things that students will never get in their preparation, and then I try to expose them to those things. For example, if you’re going to teach in a way that’s empowering, it’s very hard to do if you’ve never experienced education as a powerful experience for you. … If you’ve never learned through discovery in a formal setting, if you’ve never had a wonderful idea in a classroom, and I’d argue that probably most of us haven’t, it’s hard to know how you would structure a classroom so that the having of wonderful ideas is a daily occurrence for lots and lots of kids.” Ayers then discusses some of the methods he uses in creating a powerful classroom environment. He goes on to talk about some of the qualities of an outstanding teacher. He emphasizes the need for teachers to truly know themselves and to be able to evaluate and analyze their own autobiography. Ayers states that there is a lack of opportunity for introspective exploration in the schools of education. “Where in the colleges of education is there an opportunity to talk about yourself and how you came to be who you are, how you took on the ideas you took on, what you make of what you were made; where is the opportunity? There is no opportunity.” Ayers emphasizes the need for inquiry and critique among teachers as well.
28:03Copy video clip URL Weinberg asks about the notion of trying different structures. Ayers then begins to talk about the “home schooling movement” in the country. He goes on to talk about the challenge of handling the collapse of the Chicago educational bureaucracy. “The challenge is to take a system that’s falling down and really up for grabs, and to try to initiate action on behalf of the great majority of kids who are housed in those schools, and those schools in many cases are just like prisons. I mean there’s nothing there for them; there’s nothing of interest, there’s nothing to invite them into a life of learning and a life of participation. There’s nothing there. So the challenge today in my mind is to really go into schools that know they’re inadequate, that have failed so many times before and break all the rules. And then instead of asking permission, instead of memorizing the rulebook and then saying ‘well I can’t do this and I can’t do that,’ do what you think is the right thing for kids and then turn around and say, ‘gee I’m sorry’ and ask for forgiveness.” Ayers then talks about the courage teachers get when they band together to change aspects of the system.
31:11Copy video clip URL Cut to a shot of Ayers on a different part of the UIC campus. Weinberg asks Ayers where some of these changes are being implemented. Ayers begins to talk about the work of Dennis Litke and Central Park East High School in New York. He then talks about some of the urban schools he has seen where these positive changes have been implemented. Weinberg eventually asks Ayers about his thoughts on racism within urban schools. The crew follows Ayers on his way to teach a class while he answers the question. The camera only picks up audio while they follow Ayers. The three eventually stop near Ayers’ classroom building. Ayers then once again begins to answer the questioned posed. Ayers talks about some of the features at different urban schools that create a positive educational environment. He also talks about the inaction in teaching children who come from bad homes and poor communities and gives his thoughts on what type of action teachers and schools need to take in these cases. “The fact is that the job of a teacher and the job of a school is to take the kids as we find them, not the kids as we’d have them. … The fact is that we have to take the kids as they are, and our job is to nurture and challenge them to learn and that’s both a very simple, very straightforward and immensely complex task.” Ayers goes on to talk about the cynicism of many of those involved in the educational field in relation to the increase of minority groups in public schools. He states that the ideal of every child having the right to a public education has suddenly been questioned because of the influx of minority groups into the school systems. He states that it is a “cynical example of how the racism that kept black kids out for so long is now used on the flip side to say, ‘well it wasn’t a good idea in the first place.'”
37:51Copy video clip URL Weinberg asks Ayers about the inequality of educational funding in the city of Chicago. Ayers talks about some of the perils of certain Chicago schools being underfunded and how the current “funding formula” has become a big problem for many inner city schools. Ayers goes on to talk about some of the initiatives being taken to offset these problems in the state of Illinois. He also briefly describes what the equitable distribution of resources includes and how just putting more money into schools doesn’t truly benefit those institutions. Shortly after he makes his point, Ayers quickly runs off to a class for which he is late. The cameraman shoots Ayers as he walks to class with a few students.
41:05Copy video clip URL Tape ends.