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Teachers are now 'glorified clerks' imparting predigested wisdom

Education professor Bill Ayers is best known as Barack Obama's 'terrorist pal', a dig at the academic's radical past in the Weather Underground. Here, in a TES exclusive, he calls for an education system worthy of a democracy. Below, he reflects on a historic political victory

The controlling metaphor that has shaped our discourse on schools for years imagines education as a commodity - a car, a box of bolts, a toilet. It posits schools as little factories cranking out products. This 19th-century image for 21st-century schools is a dismal failure in its own terms - and, worse, it betrays the demands of democracy.

The metaphor of schools as businesses, teachers as workers and pupils as commodities has taken hold in the United States. It has led to people imagining that school closures and privatisations are natural and that relentless standardised testing is sensible; in fact, this is what the true believers call "reform". Those true believers seem to exist in Britain as well as the United States.

State schools in many cities here have a chief executive officer (it's a business, remember). Michelle Rhee, CEO for schools in the US capital, warranted a Time cover story last December entitled: "How to fix America's schools." The pivotal paragraph praised her for making more changes in a year and a half on the job than other school leaders - "even reform-minded ones" - make in five: closing 21 schools (15 per cent of the total) and firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are supposed to stand for improvement.

Not one word on children's learning or engagement with school, not even a nod at evidence that might connect these moves with pupils' progress. Not a mention of getting greater resources into this starving system, nor parent involvement. But, of course, evidence is always the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

Education in a democracy - at least theoretically - is distinct from education under an authoritarian regime. This is because in a democracy life is geared toward and powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique force.

All schools serve the societies in which they are embedded - an ancient agrarian community apprentices the young for participation in that world; apartheid schools mirror an apartheid society; and so on. In fact, an outsider can learn a lot about any society by simply peeking into its classrooms: the old South Africa had beautiful palaces of learning and small state-of-the-art classes for the white students, and overcrowded, dilapidated and ill-equipped classes for the African children. It makes perfect and perverse sense.

Conversely, our outside observer could deduce what classrooms must look like if she could take an accurate measure of the larger community: knowing what apartheid means and does, she could have guessed that the schools looked as they did.

Schools serve society, and society is reflected in its schools. And in the modern world we see some differences as well as interesting similarities and noteworthy, overlapping goals across systems. School leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa, for example, all agreed that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, and master the subject matters, so these things do not differentiate a democratic education from any other. We all want the children to do well, and practically all schools want their students to study hard and do their homework.

Furthermore, schools in the old Soviet Union and fascist Germany produced some excellent scientists, athletes, musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse nationalism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces.

In a democracy, one would expect something different - which takes us back to first principles: democracy is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being. Whatever the wisest and most privileged want for their child, that is exactly what the community wants for all its children.

This core value and first principle has obvious implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. There is simply no justification in a democracy for the existence of one school for wealthy, white children funded to the tune of Pounds 15,000 per student per year, and another school for poor immigrant children or the descendants of formerly enslaved people with access to Pounds 3,500 per student per year.

That reality offends the very idea that each person is equal in value and regard, and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and more valuable than others. It also expresses the simple but crude and cruel message that we send to children today concerning social policy towards them: choose the right parents! If you choose those with money, access, social connection and privilege, then your choices and your chances will expand. If not, sorry - you're on your own.

The democratic injunction has major implications for both the curriculum and teaching - for what is taught and how. We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and 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 we want them to pursue the answers, wherever these might take them.

We should refuse to teach obedience and conformity in favour of teaching courage, initiative, imagination, creativity, and more. These qualities cannot be delivered in top-down ways, but must be modelled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Characteristically, such education is eye-popping and mind-blowing - always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world.

Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. 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 is little space for scepticism, irreverence, questioning or doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom, predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster.

Education is always an arena of struggle as well as hope: struggle because it stirs in us the need to look at the world anew, question what we have created, wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and experience; and hope because we gesture toward the future, the impending, the coming of the new. Education is contested space, a natural site of conflict - sometimes restrained, other times in full eruption - over questions of justice.

Teachers, students, and citizens should press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardised tests that act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving schools of resources, then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes; and an end to the militarisation of schools, "zero tolerance" policies, and gender identity discrimination.

All young people in a democracy - regardless of economic circumstance - deserve full access to richly resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully qualified and generously compensated teachers.

We should press ourselves to reignite our democratic dreams and mobilise to change what is clearly in our hands to change. We are not allowed to sit quietly in a democracy awaiting salvation from above. We are equal, and we all need to speak up and speak out.

Bill Ayers is professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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