Controversial Social Activist Urges Reform of Education System

Bill Ayers in 182 Lillis Hall on Thursday, April 26.

Every student should be educated the way President Barack Obama’s children are, according to a controversial education theorist and social justice activist who spoke in 182 Lillis Hall Thursday night.

Bill Ayers has been active in the sphere of social justice for more than 45 years and has written more than 20 books during that time. He is known to many as co-founder of the Weather Underground, a radical group that forcefully opposed the Vietnam War. To others he is the man whose friendship with President Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential election drew criticism against the Democratic candidate due to Ayers’ far-reaching activism.

These days, Ayers is setting his sights on education policy in a democratic society. His speech Thursday, to a room of more than 280 people, focused on this topic.

“The people who create the education system would never send their own kids to these schools,” he said.

Ayers believes that the root of democracy is in education and that learning should be a process, not be something that is just for the youth.

“You are a work in progress,” he said. “You don’t need anyone’s permission to interrogate the world.” Ayers spoke against the idea that schools are just for jamming information into children’s brains. He said school should be an environment of inquiry rather than of obedience and conformity.

Althea Seloover, a middle school and high school debate coach, attended the event and agreed inquiry should be a bigger part of education.

“As kids, as growing people who are constantly being bombarded by … supposedly factual information, asking them to ask ‘why’ — encouraging them to annoy us with the ‘why’s and the ‘how’s — leads them to critical thinking which ultimately leads them to greater discovery and interaction with the world,” she said.

Ayers said he has fought the fact that as schools in poorer areas lose money, the first thing to go is the art program. He believes that the way the richest families educate their children is the way every person should be educated.

“Education is a human right,” he said.

Three important points should guide the way citizens live, Ayers said. First, society needs to pay attention, second they need to be astonished and last they need to tell about it.

“It’s a matter of asking questions of the world again and again,” Ayers said. “You can then see the possibility emerge for being a free person.”

However, social justice cannot come just out of asking questions, it’s only the first step, Ayers said.

“It’s not enough to have good ideas then sit on your couch and have a joint,” he said.

The pride Ayers has in his activism can be easily spotted by the buttons he wears on his hat and trademark vest. During Thursday’s speech he pointed specifically to his buttons supporting the groups Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street.

But Ayers often receives criticism for being drastic in his approach to reform. Jerry Rosiek, an associate professor in the educations studies department, didn’t agree with those who pin Ayers as an extremist.

“I think people come in expecting Bill Ayers to be a light-the-house-on-fire kind of radical. He has a radical imagination but his message wasn’t that radical,” he said.

Bill Ayers responds to a question an audience member had about the hypocrisy of the education system.

The speech was sponsored in part by the University of Oregon Ethnic Studies department, Cultural Forum, Multicultural Center and Lane Community College. Laurie Kahn, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, organized the event.

“I think that Bill is an inspiring educator and activist who has the gift of being able to picture a more balanced, just, and peaceful world,” Kahn said. “He has dedicated his life to bringing that world closer and closer to reality. We organized the event to engage our community in that dialogue.”

At the end of his speech, Ayers urged everyone to find some way to contribute actively to making society a better place.

“In a world as unbalanced as this world, every one of you can find something to do.”

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