Bill Ayers Speaks on Social Justice and Education Reform

Bill Ayers spoke his thoughts on social justice and education reform to a full house of over 200 people on Thursday night on campus in Lillis 182. The former activist, author of over 20 books, and retired educator at the University of Illinois at Chicago encouraged an open dialogue with his audience as part of his philosophy that education is about asking questions. “Nothing is off limits,” he said. “Education is always about opening doors and minds.”

Ayers began by discussing his belief that especially in a democratic society such as ours, education is a fundamental human right and that everyone is worth a decent one. “Democracy is striving for freedom, emancipation, and justice,” he said. “Every human being is of incalculable value.”

Instead of traditionally structured formal education that teaches obedience and conformity, we should be teaching students to ask questions and to realize that they are all works in progress. “We want to each that we are a part of a vibrant, changing history that is not finished,” he said. “…We should be teaching initiative, courage, and making up your own mind. We should teach imagination.”

Ayers also touched on how many people, not just students, often willingly blindfold themselves from the bad in the world, keeping them from learning and evolving as people. He gave an example of this by telling an anecdote about a time when his mother asked him about what global warming was and why it was such a big deal. He attempted to provide the clearest, simplest explanation that he could, and once he finished she responded with “I’m sorry I asked.” She lived in a more affluent area, with well-watered green lawns and plenty of resources. For her, it was easier to block out what Ayers told her by simply brushing it off like she’d never heard it. But this is exactly what Ayers is pushing to change in our society and educational system. Looking beyond yourself and what you have in front of you is essential to learning and changing the world for the better. “Nothing is subtle, nothing is given,” he said to his audience. “But you are entitled to question why the world is otherwise.”

Along with the event being sponsored by the university’s Department of Education, Humanities Department, Ethnic Studies Department, Multicultural Center, The Office of Equity and Inclusion, and Lane Community College, Doctoral Candidate Laurie Gutmann-Kahn was the head coordinator of the event.

“I serendipitously bumped into him at a conference,” she said. “I told him that I had missed his keynote address and his response was ‘bring me to Oregon.’ “

After posing the idea to the Department of Education and a little fundraising, Gutmann-Kahn managed to get Ayers on a plane a few months later to visit Eugene.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Brandon Packman. “I mean it’s great to see someone in person that you’ve heard so much about. There’s that power to see someone in front of you unfiltered.”

When asked what he thought was the most valuable thing he’d walk away with that night, Packman said how Ayers said it was important to not be dogmatic in your thinking. “Once you have your own opinion you should still be self-questioning,” Packman reiterated. “Otherwise you’re trapped in a box and only have one good idea.”

Ayers concluded the event by emphasizing that everyone has their own role in the world, even if they don’t know what it is yet. We should be changing our educational system to a place where question-asking and wondering are encouraged and a staple in classroom discussion. Everyone should be out doing something while keeping their eyes and minds open to change. “In a world as out of balance as this one,” he concluded, “all of us can find something to do.”

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