Saturday, March 14, 2009

This is cross-posted at Social Issues

This week freedom fighter/terrorist William Ayers (who is also an educational theorist and reformer) will be giving an endowed education lecture at Millersville University (Pennsylvania) where I teach.   Ayers coming has generated a high level of controversy in the community as legislators have demanded cancellation, citizens have written damning letters to the editor, and "patriots" have made, ironically enough, terroristic threats against the University and its President.  Press coverage has been significant and generally fair. (For a look, go to and search "Ayers.") 

The University President has made it clear that the lecture will go on, but the university is under an intellectual "lock down."  Tickets for the lecture were limited to students, faculty and staff, and community in that order, and supplies were exhausted before the faculty stepped up to claim theirs.  Faculty members have been directed not to talk about the lecture or the lecturer.  Security is -- appropriately -- heightened.  

What follows is my commentary on the decision to limit discussion and downplay Ayers' visit.  It will appear in the university newspaper, "The Snapper," this week.

What are we afraid of?  Bill Ayers is coming to MU and we’re missing a huge educational opportunity.  We’ve opted instead for prudence.  Nobody will ever know for sure if that was the right choice, but we can at least meditate a bit on the decision.

We could all -– conservatives and liberals, hippies and preppies, protestors and supporters – have been licking our chops.  We could have planned teach ins and special sessions, sold books and passed around electronic copies of articles, engaged the whole community, invited them to join us in our dialogue about who we are as American educators -- because Bill Ayers embodies two issues that are the bread and butter of American politics and American education.

The first issue involves civil disobedience.  Ayers protested -- violently and admittedly illegally -- against the war in Vietnam and the draft that threatened the lives of his generation of men.  Property was destroyed.  Was he right to do so?  Does his case meet Thoreau’s standards for challenging the tax collector?  How is Ayers’ case different from the Boston Tea Party for instance? 

The second question asks what education is for.   Ayers espouses education for intellectual freedom (rather than for economic adjustment), not just for those with the means to exercise such freedom but for those disempowered students who attend urban schools.  Is his position the obvious one for a democratic educator or is it an anarchist challenge to American capitalism?  Or perhaps both?   These are fabulous questions, worthy of our consideration and definitive of the liberal arts education we claim to provide. 

Some say – even some who agree with Ayers’ educational philosophy and see, in his Weatherman days, justifiable civil disobedience – that we shouldn’t have invited Ayers to give the Lockey Lecture.  “Not prudent” (as Dana Garvey used to say in his imitation of the first George Bush).  No, it probably wasn’t prudent.  But it’s done now and I’m glad it is.  I have read the often nasty letters to the editor of the past several weeks , but I have also listened to friends and others -- near and far – comment on how pleased they are that Millersville is  hosting Ayers and/or that the university is not caving to unreasonable demands.

Unfortunately, though, we’re not licking our chops.   We are hunkered down, waiting for this too to pass.

Let me be clear.  President McNairy has stood tall on the issue of academic freedom.  She has done so in a dignified way in the face of organized opposition. I applaud the Administration, not for backing up Bill Ayers, but for finding a center and staying there.  And the Administration has exercised prudence, acting to control the media buzz, the potential circus of protestors, and the unfortunately real possibility of “counter-terror.” But our prudence is preventing learning.   We are not engaging the community; we are excluding them.

Why didn’t CCERP (Center for Community Engagement) grab a hold of this and schedule speakers who balanced Ayers’ presence, including especially our own alums who have spoken eloquently in local papers on both sides of both issues?  Why didn’t the Office of Social Equity use their considerable talents at facilitating dialogue on difficult issues to invite every single person who wrote a letter to the editor or made a phone call to sit at a table with a liberal faculty member and conservative member (there are some, you know J), with conservative student and a liberal student (there are some, you know J) to talk all of this through?  Why isn’t the School of Education changing the location to Pucillo Gym as we did with former Lockey Lecturer Jonathan Kozol in order to encourage every future and present teacher to attend?

The answer is prudence – and that scares me.  This “teachable moment” is passing us by. 

Perhaps you aren’t familiar with the concept “teachable moment.”  It refers to the instant when the stars align and the light is concentrated just where you need it to be in a classroom.   Something happens and all of a sudden everybody’s paying attention.  And they’re paying attention because what they have taken for granted has been challenged.  And that, my friends, is the description of openness, of optimum conditions for learning.

I know.  Teachable moments are painful – even dangerous -- moments.  They are; there’s no way around it.  And often we’d just as soon avoid the teachable moments and go on pretending that this is a temporary problem and not a persistent opening to growth and wisdom.  But we can’t. Once the door is open, students are learning.

So what are they learning from us now that Bill Ayers’ coming opened the door?

They are learning that we as a community will stand up for academic freedom and freedom of speech – and that’s a wonderful thing.  But they also know that we have chosen prudence over growth – and that’s less wonderful.

I suppose it isn’t prudent of me to write this essay.  But no matter.  It is my way of seizing the opportunity that the Ayers’ appearance offers.  I don’t know if Ayers is worth the hubbub.  But we are.  We are worth the hassle of protests.  We are worth the struggle to communicate and to understand even where we can’t agree.  That is why we are here.


Richard said...

Thanks for the post. I agree with you on most points, though I would hate for "prudence" to be the defining characteristic of higher education policy. Prudence has often been used as a modifier, like civility, to undermine real dialogue and debate. I understand you are calling for the opposite, but prudence is a great deterrent to taking a stand.

On the larger issue of academic freedom, I am often appalled by liberals/progressives who decry these attempts at "censorship" while they simultaneously try to stop conservative figures from speaking on campuses. David Horowitz is an obvious example, as was the president of Iran. If we want real academic freedom, we have to support those who disagree with our perspectives and even those we hate.

Isn't that what free speech is for? To only allow those we agree with to talk, is to miss the point of the first amendment. We need to give a microphone to those we or the larger society abhor as well. Otherwise, what's the point?

Anyway, hope the talk is illuminating.

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Anonymous said...

Ayers lucked out first by not getting blown up by the clowns he recruited to make bombs and later when the government dropped its case against him. The only teachable moment is why anyone could believe he has anything to say about public education.

sarah stitzlein said...

Barb--Much the same thing happened in January at my university (The University of New Hampshire) when Angela Davis was invited to give the major Martin Luther King celebration address. Unfortunately, the teachable moment passed many by at UNH. I appreciate your efforts to speak up before it passed at Millersville as well.