Attacks on Ayers distort our history
BY ADAM KURANISHI AND DANIEL SCHNEIDER
As former students of William Ayers and University of Illinois alumni, we are appalled by the board of trustees' decision to deny our professor emeritus status.
The board overlooked Ayers' accomplishments and 23 years of service, which rival the academy's most distinguished intellectuals. This decision extends beyond Chairman Chris Kennedy's personal grievances over the scholar's political writings. It is part of a larger project stifling democracy through the protraction of a false historical narrative that has surrounded Ayers since the 2008 presidential election.
During the election, he was involuntarily thrust into a circus. He became a straw man, branded a "1960s-era domestic terrorist" hell-bent on brainwashing students. However, we know him as an enthusiastic and innovative professor of education. In the classroom, he practiced the ideals of democracy and intellectual engagement. He introduced us to the scholarly writings of bell hooks, Jonathan Kozol and even his intellectual critics. He presented various facets of every argument, encouraging us to challenge classroom material and dogmatism.
Our experience with Ayers is a lesson on narratives. We juxtaposed the image of him painted by the media with the teacher we saw in class; and the two could not be more distinct. The Ayers in the media was frozen in time; he never left the 1960s, never aged out of his 20s, and never grew in perspective. As his students, we see through this representation. It was clear that something vicious was at play, capable of co-opting the history of the civil rights and anti-war movements, stripping it of complexity and molding it into a dishonest political weapon.
We were born in the late 1980s and, like most of his students, we have no recollection of the 1960s or the Vietnam War. Our knowledge of the era comes from representations in high school history books, movies and the media. When Ayers was placed into the spotlight, we were introduced to a particularly brutal version of this history. An era of massive social upheaval was boiled down and essentialized; all political dissent was labeled an attack on America. The truth, however, was that the 1960s and '70s movements were responses to mass injustice committed by the government and citizens. Activists challenging Jim Crow were murdered, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Vietnamese were killed, and the FBI unlawfully probed activists fighting peacefully for justice. But the dishonest narrative around Ayers and the 1960s purposefully neglects these aspects because they would illuminate the assault on democracy today.
We were not alive during the decades of COINTELPRO, but in Chicago recently, we witnessed FBI raids targeting local peace activists. We never lived during McCarthyism, but we live in an era where "terrorism" replaced the fear of "communism." We never witnessed the internment of Japanese Americans, but we are observing xenophobic policies demonizing immigrants and the detainment of people without due process in Guantanamo Bay. How can we call ourselves a functioning democracy when our government is attacking critics and the media is legitimizing those actions by rewriting our nation's history-
It is important that we are honest about the past so that we can learn and strive for a more humane future. History is contested ground; a political endeavor with real consequences for the present. Ayers is honest about his past (it is published in his assorted works). As a nation, we are not as honest about history.
Ayers is still committed to movements for peace and justice. His worldview and tactics are evolved and elaborate, thoughtful and wise, making him unrecognizable to the media's caricature. Should we not expect someone to evolve after 40 years- One may disagree with his activism, but it is impossible to ignore his hard work and contributions to urban education, juvenile justice reform, the University of Illinois and Chicago.
We urge other students to speak out against the trustees' decision and to thank Ayers for his service. We call on our generation to question beyond mainstream narratives. Let's be open and honest about history and engage in critical, democratic dialogue, discovering the complexities of the past. Moving forward, we will write our own history, and as Ayers taught us, holding high the principles of democracy, intellectual inquiry and justice.
Adam Kuranishi, B.A., Political Science, African American Studies, 2010, UIC; Daniel Schneider, B.A., Anthropology, 2010, UIC