Much of what we call “education” forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful questioning and free inquiry. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt.

The cancellation in April of my invitation to speak to a legitimate campus group at the University of Wyoming is a case in point. Of course, I would like to come speak, and in fact the only action that would repudiate the wrong decision, and undo the harm, would be for the university president himself, author of that weirdly disingenuous statement (based on a profoundly dishonest narrative), to host me. OK, that’s unlikely, but still…

I’ve said to anyone who’s asked that an invitation should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement, and that inviting someone to campus could be an opportunity to debate, to sharpen arguments, to engage in spirited disagreement. Perhaps that was the case here. I’ve also pointed out that I am in no way the injured party in any of this. I spoke freely a week ago Monday—to myself, my kids, my colleagues and students—and I was fine. The injured party is the group of faculty and students that wanted to engage me—for whatever reasons (and I have only the vaguest sense of who my original host was, or how the talk might have gone). It was their freedom, not mine, that was trampled, out of misplaced fear or petty expediency, or both.

And then one wonders: if my ideas are so toxic, shouldn’t the noisy posse that shouted down the most basic values in a democracy press the university president to scour the library and purge it of all of my books? Perhaps he should head them off by getting there first, burning the books himself.

Who else should be purged, and on what basis? Maybe convicted felons (I’m thinking Martha Stewart, George Ryan, G. Gordon Liddy, and Scooter Libby, but not me since I’ve never been convicted of a felony) should be banned. Or bad role models (all eye-of-the-beholder stuff, for sure, but I’m thinking Elliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods). Or advocates of violence as a proper means of social change (definitely not me, no matter what you hear on the blogasylum, but lots and lots and lots of government officials—from virtually every government in the world). And try to think, then, of what standard exists in the mind of the University of Wyoming president that impels him to ban me, and only me. What if the French Club invites Nicolas Sarkozy, or the China Club Hu Jintao or Ha Jin, or the Literature Club Junot Diaz or James Frey or Arundhati Roy, or the Prison Rights Club Mark Clements or Ronnie Kitchens or Nelson Mandela? Should there be a panel to scrutinize all potential speakers and certify them as….what, exactly?

Anyway, there is something much greater at stake here than some small speech I might have delivered to 75 students. As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims become truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination… freedom itself. When college campuses fall silent, other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in Laramie or Cheyenne, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math teacher in an Oakland middle school. They– and countless others– immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with your head covered. Oh, freedom.

Wyoming is stepping onto a slippery slope, and I think journalists, right next to academics and librarians, ought to dispense with the tired, bloodless “he said,” and then “he said,” and then “he said” form of reporting, and try to explain the serious issues underneath all of this, which have everything to do with whether the public space can be spared for a while longer. Everyone in Wyoming, whatever his or her politics and orientation, has a stake in the outcome.

A delightful video emerged from the recent student-led struggles to resist the grinding and relentless undoing of public higher education at the University of California: a student attends to her daily routine, writing, reading, sitting in a lecture hall, while the camera focuses here and there, and a voice-over intones: “Pen: $1.69. Textbook: $38. Backpack: $69. Dinner (a tiny packet of dry noodles!): $.50…” And at the end of the list: “Education [pause]…Priceless.” The tag-line is perfect: “There are some things that money can’t buy– don’t let education be one of them.”

The crisis in public higher education (mirroring the crisis in K-12 schooling)  is not a joke: tuition and fees are sky-rocketing across the country, and are already out of reach for millions of Americans. Staff cutbacks, lay-offs, and reductions in student services have become commonplace. Massive student loans have replaced grants and scholarships. Class size is increasing while course offerings are decreasing. Hiring freezes and pay-cuts and unpaid mandatory furloughs are on the rise as tenure-track positions are eliminated. These– and other “short-term” strategies for dealing with the financial crisis– are consistent with the overall direction that has characterized public higher education for decades: “restructuring,” as biz-speak for a single-minded focus on the bottom line. And all of this is part of a larger crisis of the state, and larger choices about who pays, and who suffers.

A few snapshots: state support for the University of Illinois system stands at about 16 percent today, down from 48 percent two decades ago. In California, state colleges will turn away 40,000 qualified students this year, while the community colleges, in a cascading effect, will turn away 100,000. And this year a 32 percent fee hike is proposed at the University of California at Berkeley, (a proposal that triggered the current student movement there), while the school pays its football coach $2.8 million a year, and is just completing a controversial $400 million renovation of the football stadium. Edge of  Sports columnist Dave Zirin sums this mess up nicely: “This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.”

These and similar trends are national in scope and impact: the average college graduate owes between $20,000 and $30,000 for student loans (not including credit card and other debt), compared to $9,000 in 1994; Pell Grants now cover less than 32 percent of annual college costs. Fewer than 20 percent of graduate students are unionized, and student labor at below-market wages keeps the whole enterprise afloat. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are disappearing, today holding barely 30 percent of all faculty positions. Enrollment of out-of-state students is increasing in most public schools because these kids pay significantly higher tuitions, and that pattern is turning public colleges and universities into “engines of inequality,” places with both less access and less equity, less social justice and fewer highly qualified students– private schools in fact, pubic in name only.

But even this grim picture can be brought into sharper, and it turns out, more painful focus. California spends more on prisons than on higher education–across the country, spending on corrections is on average six times higher than spending on higher education. From 1985 to 2000, Illinois increased spending on higher education by 30 percent while corrections shot up100 percent. Here we get a clearer insight into the budget crises that are being rationalized and balanced on our heads: a permanent war economy married to a prison society, with the abused and neglected offspring paying for the sins of the parents.

I’ve been reminded again and again in recent years of Don DeLillo’s grimly funny and super-smart novel White Noise, whose narrator Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler Studies” at a small mid-western college, is sleep-walking through his life to the dull background sounds of TV and endless radio, the muzac of consumerism and electronics, unrestrained advertising and constant technological innovation, appliances and microwaves. When an industrial accident creates what is at first described officially as a “feathery plume,” but later becomes a “black billowing cloud,” and finally an “airborne toxic event,” everything comes a bit unhinged. Jack’s response to an order to evacuate is disbelief: “I’m not just a college professor,” he whines. “I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”

Well, not anymore, Jack.

Our own feathery cloud has turned toxic at breath-taking speed, and those folks in the mobile homes might be your natural allies after all. When the administration at Cal closed the libraries and restricted hours of operation to save money, students implemented a 24-hour “Study-In” where they were joined by faculty as well as community members who had never before had access. Folks joined hands and chanted, “Whose university? Our university!” As one grad student said: “When we started we wanted to save the university; today we want to transform it, to decolonize it, to open it up.”

Higher education itself is being radically redefined by the wealthy privateers and the neo-liberals as a product to be bought and sold at the marketplace, a commodity like a car, a box of bolts, or a toilet, rather than either a right (something fought for by generations) or an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual journey (education as enlightenment and liberation). The meteoric rise of for-profit universities (and the mindless trailing along by eager university administrators grasping their freshly-minted MBA’s) is one part of that trend. Another is private universities fighting to secure their advantages at the expense of their publicly funded “competitors” as well as the public: Harvard with its $36 billion endowment, Northwestern with $7 billion. (Northwestern’s new president Morton O. Schapiro offered the silly sentiment that he was hoping to make his university “elite without being elitist.” One wonders exactly what “public” or “common” interest these tax-exempt institutions serve?)

Perhaps it’s time to envision the world we want to inhabit, and then to begin to live it, here and now, on campus and off. Here are a few possible campaigns as starting points to get our creative and activist juices flowing: cancel all outstanding student debt (good enough for the banks, why not us?); equal pay for equal work; truth in language (a “furlough” is not a camping trip, it’s a pay-cut; “selective admissions” is more honestly restrictive admissions); universal, free, open-access to high quality public post-secondary schools (whew!).

The current frontal attack on higher public education is an attack on democracy itself. Education is a perennial battleground, for it’s where we ask ourselves who we are as people, what it means to be human here and now, and what world we hope to inhabit. It’s where we assess our chances and access our choices, and it’s where we take up dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more– to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, a world we are simultaneously destined to change.

In the current fight over higher public education we might re-affirm our commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, the belief that every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. And this means that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

We want our students to be able to participate and engage, to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and rational argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions — Who in the world am I?  How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?– and to pursue the answers wherever they might lead. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.

We might declare that in this corner of this place– in this open space we are constructing — people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators  of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to.

As we wrangle over what to pass on to the next generation, and struggle over what to value and how, students must find vehicles and pathways to question the circumstances of their lives, and wonder about how their lives might be otherwise. Free inquiry, free questioning, dialogue and struggle must take their rightful place– at the heart of things.

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  1. Interesting how an advocate of violence, and one who carried out violent attacks in the same manner as Tim McVeigh would describe anything at UW as toxic. It was shear luck that Ayer’s bombs didn’t kill anyone who’s life had that “infinite value” he mentions. He forgot to say the other half of Malraux’s dictum, “Nothing is worth a life but a life is worth nothing”. Leftist’s always reserve the right to to do themselves just what they protest. The pies thrown in the faces of conservative speakers at Universities are justified by the Left while they praise diversity. Ayer’s want’s to speak at UW because he is confident that his side has control of the bombs. One wonders if the Unibomber would have had something different to say.

  2. As a presenter of events, I was interested in Mr. Ayer’s comment about the group who invited him to speak…Here are his words: “The injured party is the group of faculty and students that wanted to engage me—for whatever reasons (and I have only the vaguest sense of who my original host was, or how the talk might have gone).” So the discussion has shifted and the original invitation has been thrown under the bus. If I were the presenter, I would disinvite Mr. Ayers just for forgetting who invited him or what he was going to talk about…was he just going to stand up and “wing it?”

    This guy is not Nelson Mandela or Nicolas Sarkosy or Tiger Woods. The president of UW has fallen into his trap and now Ayers can prattle on and on about academic freedom for him and how he is a part of a larger argument. But he doesn’t even remember who invited him? This guy is a giant ego trip. What a dipstick!
    I would immediately direct the people who presented him to stand by him after he has publicly “disrespected them.”
    PT Barnum’s famous maxim, “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.” may be what this is all about, really. Ayers wants to use this campus group, whom he only vaguely remembers, to be able to boost the fee he charges for speaking on campuses. It’s a means to a paycheck, and hardly a speech worthy of “Why am I here?” questions. If you go to his lectures, the answer to that question may be that you are there to boost Mr. Ayers’ value to his agent and himself on the academic lecture circuit. Ho-Hum. Yawn and good night.

  3. For Patty and those who “think” like Patty. Where is Bills home territory? How is the education system performing in his stomping grounds?

    Patty, what hard questions would one of my sons ask me? Maybe, “Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? ”

    And I would say, “Well, look around, be inquisitive, be kind to others, love your family and your friends and one day you will have an answer.

    But, son, if anyone who is a professed communist and pro-abortionist says something like this to you, “the belief that every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force.” I would turn an walk away.

  4. for Tony and those who “think” like Tony: Would like to know what you do for a living and what you are involved in out in your community. What are you telling your children….or what will you tell your children when they ask you hard question? I had the privilege of sitting in two audiences with Bill Ayers speaking on education…..brilliant. After 32 years in Chicago I moved to Wyoming. While Wyoming is a great place to live because of it’s mountains, streams, rivers, I find too many shortsighted folks around the state in key positions…. And now we know, UW has a shortsighted narrow minded President…..

  5. I knew Bill Ayers a tiny bit when I was at the University of Michigan 200 years ago and spent most of my time hanging around the Michigan Daily, not doing what I was supposed to do. Luckily for me, I was able to turn that into a livelihood, of sorts. I forget why he was around the Daily. Must have been dating somebody there. I remember him as a funny, smart, even-tempered guy who was active is setting up a wierd experimental type of operation nobody had ever heard of called a DAY care center for little kids. Who knew kids needed care during the DAY? Now I see these DAY care centers all over the place, including corporate headquarters. I wonder if we have weakened out children by caring for them during the DAY instead of just at night? If you have a kid, you could experiment by not caring for him during the DAY and see what happens. Mine is too grown up already. Anyway, I wonder what my point is. Oh, yeah: I suspect Bill Ayers is a much fuller, more complex, humane and interesting guy than the cartoon character invented by the McCainisters. Just a thought. My two bits worth. Go ahead and hate me.

  6. Tom, One would certainly want to do everything in our power to up hold the first amendment. So I’m not sure cancellation was the right thing to do. However, that being said, William Ayers has somehow managed to get away with some awful behavior in the past and is a self proclaimed socialist who has been influencing many young minds in some dubious ways. Being as radical as he is, maybe a debate format with an equally radical person from the opposite perspective might give a more constructive and balance presentation of the information involved. Many people have very little use for William Ayers and his educational agenda. When one is that controversial, more careful structure of the forum is called for.

  7. And people wonder why there is a “brain drain” in Wyoming. Why do the youth leave their home state and never want to return? This is why. We are constantly reminded that we live in a state where any thinking beyond the status quo is looked at with fear and suspicion. Tom Buchanan is a coward.

  8. If the United States Military Academy can have Noam Chomsky as a guest speaker, the University of Wyoming can certainly have William Ayers – what are they afraid of?

  9. Thanks Mr. Ayers and Wyofile for providing this thoughtful commentary–look at the bright side, many of us would never have had the opportunity to hear your thoughts without this case of censorship!

  10. I don’t disagree with the responses to my post. I don’t know what was in Bill Ayers head so many years ago. I really don’t care. But don’t tell me “every human being is of infinite and incalculable value” and show no regret when you took actions in the past, and supported actions in the past, to show otherwise.

    I believe education is mainly a representatiuon of a person’s family and their own personal desire for hard work and commitment. To me, gobbledy-gook, like “We want them to ask fundamental questions — Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? ” is just that, verbal smather and oral foaming. It is a question only asked by man and thinking men for thousands of years, not a recent revelation.

    I could really care less if Bill Ayers has an audience at the University of Wyoming or anywhere else. Let him spill his higher conscious level of understanding to all who care to listen.

  11. I am interested in Tony’s remarks. I personally remember the Weather Underground– a fragmented, perennially splintering, groupuscule of 1960s American student left. I know people– now old, as I am– who were in and around it, or around the more radically activist fringes of the American Catholic left. Very few of those people– and I would include Ayers– did any lasting harm, and quite a few took their youthful passion and applied it to their adult work, where they have done considerable good. Ayers is now a theorist of education. Education is important– why the sarcasm? The subject is deep, indeed. Mystical? I don’t see why a discussion of education would need mysticism, unless one were discussing religious education, a private matter in this country. What on Earth is wrong with free school for everybody? This is something we mock now? Free, public education used to be thought a cornerstone of our democracy.

  12. Dear Tony,

    You need to do some better research. Richard Elrod was a city attorney not a county sheriff and he was badly hurt, not paralyzed (he gets around with crutches) when he hit a concrete wall while trying to tackle a demonstrator at the days of rage that involved only 200 demonstrators and cost the city of Chicago a mere $183, 000. Compare that sum to the cost of wars and other civil disobedience and riots and well, it is pretty minor. Also, sorry you don’t like the quote. Too intelligent, nice, and elitist for you, eh?

  13. “the belief that every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force.”

    Taken from a whole paragraph that is likely ‘copied’ and ‘pasted’ to every current press release and article written recently by Mr. Ayers. It pathetically highlights his own extreme hypocrisy.

    Please take the time to research accurately the history and background of Mr. Ayers and the Weather Underground. He is so proud of the fact that he has never been convicted of a felony. Maybe when he visits you can ask him about the “Days of Rage” and about Cook County Sherriff Richard Elrod, lucky enough to be paralyzed from the neck down.

    I don’t care if he comes and gives a lecture at UW. I just won’t go. But then, I might miss a whole lecture on free school for everyone. How deep and mystical.

  14. His summary of what is at stake gave me the shivers. The value system we have developed is undermining democracy if it does not give our electorate tools for critical thinking. I am embarrassed and ashamed by the actions of UW, but now see the crisis in higher education in a broader perspective. One final thought: I took some comfort from the student body president whose statement seemed to relegate the controversy to a tempest in a teapot and assured everyone that the students could handle an Ayers’ speech with no problem. Unlike the university president who missed a chance to promote and defend free speech, intellectual curiosity, and public debate. Aren’t these the things that a university should be about?

  15. Not only are universities becoming a consumer product, but even the students that attend them hardly know what they are there for! At least this is the case at my university: most of the people that are in my classes are in college either because their parents want them to go (and are paying for their tuition) or so they can make more money when they graduate (so they can consume even more!). They never mention that their reason for going is so they can learn and expand their mind and change the world! It’s as if this idea no longer exists.. This was even the case for me – the reason why I went to college was because it was the “next step.” I was fortunate to have taken one of the few courses that my college offers whose main goal is to analyze how we were taught in grade school, to “unlearn” the brainwash we were fed, and to relearn how to read, write, and think critically and creatively. You are absolutely right – more people need to experience an education that will breed intellect and creativity.

    If you are ever in New Jersey, please stop by and give a talk at my university – the students and teachers here could definitely use it!