Teaching for Social Justice, or Passing the Gift Along
Bill Ayers, in all of his life’s work, within and outside of the field of education—for he is active much more broadly—has embraced what Maxine Greene describes as the “difficult matter of moral choice.” Bill includes this quote in one of his finest books—To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher—a teaching memoir and guide, which is widely used in teacher education courses and certification programs, including my own at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In it, Bill writes that students must be fully seen by their teachers, of the power of observation, of teachers as detectives. He speaks of teaching as being fundamentally about love.
Lewis Hyde, the author of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, too, speaks of love, or more precisely, of eros, and its relation to gifts and to art. Gift exchange is, he says, an erotic commerce. Eros is the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together, while logos, reason and logic, and differentiation, is exemplified by the market economy. And he claims that, in his words, “a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies”, a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.” And to that I’ll add this spin—it is the quality of gift that makes the teacher.
This is, I think, what Bill Ayers offers the field, and the world, a committed, activist, love-infused and hopeful vision of teaching, that is grounded, against the grain of governmental push and current trend, not-at-all in the interests of the market, but rather, in the specific lives of particular children, and is all about, as he has written, teaching in “the hope of making the world a better place.” These considerations are evident in all his writings, which emphasize the importance of listening to those who have witnessed and experienced—hence his interest in autobiography and children’s voices, and work on student lore and teacher lore, projects developed with another wonderful Bill, William Schubert.
Here, I’m following Bill’s lead once again, by turning to an autobiographical reflection on access and “moral choice.” My real educational journey began in libraries and bookstores—places that were simply open, and let me wander through, grazing the fantasy shelf in the children’s room, as well as cruising the adult stacks. I foundered in school; junior high was difficult and high school was even worse, especially after I “came out” as a lesbian. But a high school history teacher’s kind decision to count as a class project an extracurricular poetry reading I participated in allowed me to graduate. He made what must have been a complicated decision—a moral choice of the sort Bill Ayers describes, and commends.
Graduation allowed me to continue. And I eventually enrolled in a city college where I began to study art. I still loved libraries (I scoured them for queer authors, looking for family; I found Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, and Sappho) but was critical of and estranged from formal education and its narrow priorities (I primarily used school as a way to survive—financial aid and work study jobs).
Eventually I completed an AA degree. Because I was living in California I was then able to enter a state university without passing through the grinder of SATS. I finally completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at age 29 or 30, and started working in museums with so many other artists. It was during that time that I met Bill Ayers, when I was invited, with a selection of other city-and-culture engaged folks, to speak to one of his classes of pre-service teachers. I urged them to use and also to critique museums; Bill urged me to come back to school for a Ph.D. The idea surprised me into seeing myself differently, and a decade later, in 2001, I completed that degree.
I gave a talk recently that I titled, “Growing Marigolds by Moonlight, or, Why Aren’t Museums Libraries?” That wasn’t what I titled my dissertation, but that’s basically what it considers—why museums aren’t accessible and how they could open up. Growing Marigolds By Moonlight is the title of a book written by an old woman in San Francisco that was accessioned into a very public library in that city, one dreamed up and described by writer Richard Brautigan in his novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966. The library welcomed books written by everyone—any person could leave their stories on its shelves. Any people could read them. It was a library even better than the ones that supported my curiosities as a child and helped me survive as a gay teen. That’s the kind of museum-as-library I imagine these days, an institution fractured open. Even an old woman living in a small apartment in the Tenderloin, or Uptown, should be able to display her insights there, for us all to appreciate. That’s my specific vision, shaped by my experiences and abiding passions. But its undergirding, its girdle, I want to say, what surrounds it and supports it, in a kind of firmly erotic way, is the gift passed to me by Bill. Enter the conversation, he said, just enter. And I did.
Ayers, W. (1993). To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
Brautigan, R. (1971). The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hyde, L. (1983, 1980, 1979). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books.
Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P. & Taubman, P. (1995). Understanding Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.