Ayers on Teaching for Democracy

Stokely Carmichael taught classes in a Freedom School organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi in the early 1960s. Freedom Schools grew out of the civil rights struggle as a vehicle for community education and involvement, and Stokely was famous as a Freedom School teacher in Mississippi long before he was nationally known as the leader who embodied the shift toward Black Power and greater militancy within the movement. Stokely’s classes always began with some acknowledgment of what the students themselves knew, then traveled over new, often surprising terrain as students discovered, constructed, and connected with things not-yet-known. It was exciting to be in Stokely’s classes—challenging, funny, sometimes troubling, always lively. One class began with Stokely writing several sentences opposite one another on the chalkboard:

I digs wine I enjoy drinking cocktails
The peoples want freedom The people want freedom
I wants to reddish to vote I want to register to vote

Students laughed and teased as they watched him write. Stokely asked them what they thought of the two sets of sentences. One student said “peoples” didn’t sound right. Stokely asked if they knew what “peoples” meant, if they knew anyone who said “peoples.” Several students replied that everyone knew what it meant and that they knew many people, including themselves, who said “peoples” and often spoke sentences like those in the left column. But, added one, it isn’t “correct English.” Stokely then asked them who decides questions of correct and incorrect, and this exchange followed:

Stokely. You all say some people speak like on the left side of the board. Could they go anywhere and speak that way? Could they go to Harvard?

Class: Yes… No.

Stokely: Does Mr. Turnbow speak like on the left side?

Class: Yes.

Stokely: Could Mr. Turnbow go to Harvard and speak like that? “I wants to reddish to vote.”

Class: Yes.

Stokely: Would he be embarrassed?

Class: Yes … No!

Zelma: He wouldn’t be, but I would. It doesn’t sound right.

Stokely: Suppose someone from Harvard came to Holmes County and said, “I want to register to vote?” Would they be embarrassed?

Zelma: No.

Stokely: Is it embarrassing at Harvard but not in Holmes county? The way you speak?

The class stopped soon after for lunch, but not before Stokely asked the students to think about what constitutes a society and who makes the rules for society. Students noted that although most people spoke some form of “incorrect English,” the “correct English” minority had a monopoly on jobs, money, and prestige. They left wrestling with important questions about language, culture, control, politics, and power. In this brief time in this class, these students were exposed to education at its best: Their teacher treated them with respect and valued their knowledge, insight, and know-how as a starting place for a dialogue of learning; the students’ knowledge was extended, connected, and compared as a framework for further discovering and knowing; and the students went away more thoughtful and more powerful than when they arrived. …

Frederick Douglass tells a remarkable story of learning to read as a subversive activity. As a slave, Douglass had no rights and meager opportunities. Reading among slaves was strictly forbidden, for it could open worlds and create unimaginable mischief. Besides, according to their overlords, slaves had no need of reading. They could be trained in the necessary menial and backbreaking work, and that was all. Yet his master’s wife, believing him to be an intelligent youngster, undertook to teach Douglass how to read the Bible in hopes that he would come closer to God. When the master discovered the crime, he exploded: “It will unfit him to be a slave!”

Education will unfit anyone to be a slave. That is because education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating—in other words, education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is too often no more than training. We so busy operating schools that we have lost sight of learning. We participate then, in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master a few basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole affair. Sometimes these places are merely mindless, sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

A hundred years ago, this country developed a system of schools out of the Interior Department called Indian Boarding Schools, a few which survive to this day. The premise of these schools is that Native American children can be educated if they are stripped of everything Indian and taught to be like whites. Taken from their homes, these youngsters were punished severely for speaking their own languages, practicing their own religions, or attempting to contact their families. Everything Native had to erased as a first step toward official learning. Some students, of course, went along, but many rebelled, refused to learn, and were labeled intractable.

The cost of education at an Indian Boarding School was great—dignity, individuality, humanity, maybe even sanity. The payoff was rather small: a menial job, a marginal place in the social order. Students had to submit to humiliation, degradation, and mutilation simply to learn how to function at the lowest levels of society. No wonder most refused: The price was high, the benefit meager.

It is not much different in many schools today. We claim to be giving students key skills and knowledge, and yet we deny them the one thing that is essential to their survival: something to live for. All the units in drug awareness, gang prevention, and mental health together are not worth that single hopeful thing.

When we as teachers recognize that we are partners with our students in life’s long and complex journey, when we begin to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve for simply being, then we are on the road to becoming worthy teachers. It is just that simple—and just that difficult,

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, once asked, “How shall we respond to the dreams of youth?” It’s a dazzling and elegant question, a question that demands an answer—a range of answers, really, spiraling outward in widening circles. It is a teacher’s kind of question. It is a question to take with us as we plunge into teaching, full of dread and hope, alive to both, living a teacher’s life, singular and mysterious, helping to create a generation unfit for slavery. …

An engaged teacher begins with a belief that each student is unique, each worthy of a certain reverence. Regard extends, importantly, to an insistence that students have access to the tools with which to negotiate and perhaps even to transform the world. Love for students just as they are—without any drive or advance toward a future—is false love, enervating and disabling. The teacher must try, in good faith, to do no harm, and convince students to reach out, to reinvent, to seize an education fit for the fullest lives they might hope for. Further, if we are to discover and develop our own relationship to the good and the just, we must understand our lives and our work as a journey or a quest. If we are to become more than clerks or robots or functionaries, we must be reaching for the good, trying to repair the harm. We must imagine ourselves, then, as seekers, students, aspirants.

We teachers, then, need to be in transition, in motion, works-in-progress. We become students of our students, in part to understand them, in part to know ourselves. A powerful reason to teach has always been to become learners ourselves. Paulo Freire … describes this beautifully: “Through dialogue the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student and students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow”. Becoming students of our students, we expand and enlarge ourselves, growing bit by bit into new women and new men. …

The drama of education is always a narrative of transformation: Act I is life as we find it—the given, the known or the received, the settled or the agreed-upon orthodoxy, or the status quo. Act II is all the fireworks, the moments of upheaval and dissonance, the experiences of discovery and surprise, the energy of remodeling and refashioning. Act III is the achievement of new ways of knowing and behaving, expanded horizons and fresh possibilities. Act III of course will necessarily be recast in some future educational encounter as a new Act I if we stay awake and alive to a world in constant motion, for the drama is never really done: There is always more to do, more to learn and know, more to experience and accomplished. The drama of education is the constant and persistent drama of possibility and transformation.

The large themes that constitute the best traditions in education are sites for investigation rather than settled dogma, a series of challenges to engage. For example, the challenge of democracy itself: What is democracy? What does schooling in a democracy look like? How might we build democratic communities in our classrooms? There is an obvious mismatch between increased standardization and the tightening of bureaucratic control over schools at a time such as this—a moment of unprecedented immigration, movement, and dislocation, a time when the need to model living democratically is at its zenith. There is a palpable contradiction between a nation founded on the principle of equality that, nonetheless relentlessly pursues a policy of identifying and quantifying a widening array of inequalities. The great American poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, wrote that democracy “is a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted”.

If democracy is a special social arrangement, how would we describe its specific character? If education in a democracy requires something different from the requirements of education in, say, a totalitarian or royal society, then what is the different something?

The short answer is obvious: Totalitarianism demands obedience and conformity, hierarchy, command and control. Royalty requires allegiance. Democracy, by contrast, requires free people coming together voluntarily who are capable of both self-realization and, at the same time, full participation in a shared political and economic life. Democracy is a form ‘ associative living in which people must assume and fight to achieve political and social equality; acknowledge a common spark of humanity each soul; and embrace a level of uncertainty, incompleteness, and the inevitability of change.


Ayers, William. 2010. To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press, pp.119-121, 150-151, 157, 5-6. || Amazon || WorldCat


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