Author, Teacher, Activist, Professor
“We’re living in a swirling history”
Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), founder of the Center for Youth and Society and co-founder, with Bruce McPherson, of the Small Schools Workshop. He has written numerous books on education, as well as two memoirs: Fugitive Days about his years on the run during the Vietnam War as a member of the Weather Underground, and Public Enemy about parenting, taching, and activism over the last four decades. Always looking to try something new, he re-released To Teach: The Journey of Teacher as a graphic book, To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, with Ryan Alexander-Tanner.
During the 2008 US presidential campaign, controversy arose over his relationship with candidate Barack Obama. Though he received death threats and was the butt of vitriolic rhetoric from the right wing, he says, “I choose not to take it seriously. They’re talking about a cartoon version of me. Sometimes I feel like there’s a great contradiction inside me that I’m so personally happy in a world that I think is so deeply out of balance.
“Part of that is just that I feel so, so lucky to be alive today, to be doing the things I’m doing, to care about the things I care about, to have three brilliant young men I raised and three dazzling grandchildren. Everything feels so good to me on that level. And what it does is it sharpens my anger about a world at war and the unnecessary suffering all around us. I want to fight harder to prevent our world going down the sewer.”
The following is a distillation of three separate interviews in which Bill talks about his view of the current state of education and how educators can navigate this contentious moment in our history.
Right now I am absolutely disgusted with the way the entire majority culture talks about teachers. You can’t open the paper without teachers being bashed. Every city in the country. They fire the entire staff of a high school in Rhode Island, the President of the United States and his Secretary of Education stand up and cheer. They don’t know anything more about those teachers than you or I know. So why didn’t they fire the Board of Education or the state legislature or the federal government? Would they have cheered then? No. It’s because the teachers are always the problem, but that can’t hold as an explanation. Look what they avoid. The newspapers, every month for the last two years, have had editorials hating teachers. They never mention poverty. They never mention the bigger issues that contribute to school failure.
But I’m confident that when I describe that situation, standing right next to it is the possibility of an argument that not only supports teachers but offers a transformed vision of what teaching could be and should be. That’s what I spend most of my breath arguing for these days.
There are two things I’m trying to do with my educational activism today. One is to break the monopoly of the conversation that you’re either for the status quo or you’re a free market radical. I think that’s a deadly, deadly duality. I don’t think the status quo is defensible. At the same time, I think the idea that the way out is incentives and standardized tests linked to punishment and firing all the teachers is a catastrophe. So I spend a lot on time with that.
My brother Rick and I wrote a book called Teaching the Taboo. The taboo is anything outside the conventional. The pressure is to teach the conventional, to transmit the accepted wisdom of the dominant culture. We think of teaching the taboo as the upending of all that. The interesting thing is to ask questions and the important thing is to teach a curriculum of questioning. Teach students to develop an imagination, questions, curiosity, creativity, initiative, and courage.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Boy Breaking Glass” says, in the voice of the bad boy, “I shall create, if not a note, then a hole. If not an overture, then a desecration, but I shall create.” That’s the essential human cry and that’s the adolescent exclamation: I shall create. Not, I shall get a good test score. I shall be CEO of BP. Those actually aren’t people’s goals. People want to do other things. They want to leave a mark, and they want to make the world better.
But the other part, besides shifting the frame, is making the links. The fact that they’re going to lay off 300,000 teachers and we’re spending a trillion dollars on defense is just insane. The percentage we spent on incarceration and criminal justice outstrips education in all the major states in the country. I feel like we’re living in this hollowed out moment where we’re missing the main things going on completely.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Charlie Cobb initiated the Freedom Schools. His killer statement was that the black children of Mississippi have been denied many things: decent facilities, forward-looking curriculum, fully trained teachers, but that the fundamental injury was that they were denied the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives and how they might be different. That was revolutionary when he said it then, and it’s still revolutionary today.
Now take that statement and fast forward to today: The children on the west side of Chicago have been denied many things, but the fundamental injury is that they’ve been denied the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives and how they might be otherwise.
But this is where I think the Civil Rights Movement won, even though they didn’t win justice. (White supremacy still holds on, and we still have second class schools and black people lost the vote in the South, again. How did they lose it? Mass incarceration. Felony convictions, felony disenfranchisement laws. That’s all race based.) So we didn’t win the tactical things we set out to win, and we didn’t win the broad things that we wanted, which were justice and an end to white supremacy. (And as long as we were at it, King added global peace and the end to poverty.) Okay, but what we did win — and you can see it in people– was that people stopped believing that they deserved second class treatment. That was a huge victory. That’s what I think of now.
Take the urban schools, today, for one example. The language that we use to talk about city kids is eerily familiar, if you knew how people in the South were talked about. “They’re lazy, their parents don’t care, they don’t have any drive or ambition, they think that education is acting white.” But the fact is that it’s that structural inequality leading to a kind of internal self-doubt and self-loathing. That’s what has to be challenged. The only way the urban schools are going to improve is when the kids and the families and the teachers themselves say, You know what? Enough. This is bullshit.
The choice is like this, and I do think, Mark, that it is a choice: you see an injustice and it enrages you. You have to work on it. To just let it consume you is both to be ineffective and to disconnect from the world. And what you want to do is connect to the world, and the way to do that is to work on the issue. I don’t want to be Cassandra. I don’t want to tell what I think is the truth and not be heard, and I also don’t want to be unpleasant. Cassandra was unpleasant, besides not being heard. She was annoying. I want to be heard, and I want to be fair to people. I don’t want to be smug and superior.
The critical thing is getting the tone right, and it’s the hardest thing. The reason is, you want to communicate. You don’t want to rant. You want actually to talk to somebody, and if you’re going to talk to somebody, you have to be both sharp and focused, and also be willing to hear a response to it. A tone that obliterates any answer is not the tone I want.
My mother always felt that you could be a whiner or you could do something. So I took that from my upbringing. My mother was an optimist; I’m not an optimist. An optimist or a pessimist is somebody who really thinks they’re prescient and they know how things are going to turn out. But in reality, if you just take one step back, you realize that whatever is the case today won’t be the case twenty years from now. If you think about it at all, you realize that we’re living in a swirling history. Everything is forward charging. And today’s common sense will be tomorrow’s dogmatic suspicious silliness. What we take for granted is not the way it’s always going to be. Partly that depends on us being smart enough, and the dissidents and the rebels among us being brave enough to shake us loose of that common sense.
When I’ve signed books for people who are becoming teachers, I sometimes say, “I hope you find in teaching a bottomless well of challenge as well as joy.” Because that’s how I see it. Until you’re dead, you’re trying to become a better teacher. You’re trying to get to the bottom of it, and you know you can’t. Teaching os a human relationship, and human relationships have no end. The world is charging forward.
The only way to live happily in the world, I think, is to live with one foot firmly planted in the mud and muck of where you are. You have to live in the world as it is. But one foot has to be stepping forward to something that could be. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not actually living in the dynamic or entering into the contradiction, and it’s entering into the contradiction where you can feel fully alive. I get the world as it is. But I don’t want to dwell there forever. I don’t want my grandchildren to inherit that world. I want them to make a new world, and I want to be a part of that, too. I want to live the two-eyed approach. This is what is; this is what could be. I would call it grounded idealism. I want to live understanding that, but also resisting where I have to, positing something new where I have to, building something new where I can.
You can’t be a good citizen or a moral person or a thinking being if you’re not always trying to open your eyes to the new. Since you are a finite being in an infinite, expanding universe, you can never stop at a fraction. The trick is to keep saying, Okay, I see this fraction; there’s more, there’s more.