The Magazine

'Why Can't a Girl Have a Penis?'

and other major issues in educational research.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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San Diego

There he was, Bill Ayers himself, sitting in a Marriott conference room waiting to partake in a session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The former Weatherman, "unapologetic" (his own word) fugitive from justice, and hot potato of the far left whose acquaintance with Barack Obama in Chicago during the 1990s and unrepentant boasting about Weatherman bombings at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol in the 1970s, prompted the Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to accuse Obama of "palling around with terrorists"--and the University of Nebraska to cancel a planned speech by Ayers last October.

No matter: Plenty of other colleges have been happy to have Ayers at their podia in light of his Obama connection and the attention-getting frisson of notoriety that he brings with him wherever he goes. Ayers is now a "distinguished" professor in the education school at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of numerous manifestoes and memoirs (his most recent, coauthored with his equally radical wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a law professor at Northwestern University, is Race Course: Against White Supremacy), and he is something of an AERA celebrity these days, having been elected vice president of its curriculum-studies division--which specializes in research on what teachers teach, both at the ed-school level and in the K-12 classrooms where most ed-school graduates find employment. He participated in no fewer than seven panels and events at this year's convention. AERA, by the way, with 25,000 members, is the leading scholarly organization for professors at U.S. education schools--the people who teach the teachers who teach your children. Its annual meeting drew nearly 14,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center in April.

Even at 64, and getting long in the revolutionary tooth, Ayers didn't look too different from the way he looked nearly 40 years ago in his "Wanted" poster (for involvement in bombings, although the charges were eventually dropped on grounds of improper FBI surveillance)--as long as you mentally corrected for his over-the-dome-receded hair, which is still youthfully unkempt. His AERA ensemble consisted of a rumpled black jacket and hipster T-shirt, Sixties-tastic bell-bottom jeans, a silver ring circling the lobe of each ear, elaborately quilted Mos Def party-ready high-top sneakers, and, most significantly, a rainbow armband (in Ayers's case dangling out of a pocket) that signaled solidarity with the gay and lesbian activists who opposed the passage in November of Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. At this particular session, titled "Public Pedagogy and Social Action: Examinations and Portraits," Ayers was chairman of the panel.

If Ayers's appearance said, "I've still got radical street cred," so did his words. While waiting for the session to start, he commiserated with a colleague over Arizona State University's decision not to award an honorary doctorate to President Obama when he speaks at commencement this month, citing lack of lifelong achievements. "They're doing the same thing to him at Notre Dame," said Ayers in an apparent reference to the controversy surrounding the president's invitation to speak at a Catholic college's commencement after mandating federal subsidies for abortion a few days into his term. Ayers wasn't mincing words when it came to real or imagined slights to his fellow Chicagoan. "I think it's very interesting, this demonization of him," he told his friend.

In possible recognition of Ayers's revived celebrity, the meeting room was packed: more than 50 people, many of them sporting the same gay-solidarity rainbow armband that Ayers wore. (Fifty was an unusually large audience for a session at this AERA meeting, probably because panelists had trouble competing with the allure of sunny seaside San Diego; at some sessions panelists outnumbered their listeners.) The room quieted when William Schubert, a black-clad, armband-wearing fellow education professor at Illinois-Chicago, introduced the social-action theme of the session by declaring, "The project of education is the project of composing a life."

After a few dismissive words apparently aimed at the practice of requiring education majors to obtain a basic arts-and-sciences grounding alongside their pedagogic fare, Schubert introduced the first panelist, Jennifer April Sandlin of Arizona State. Her research had consisted of email interviews with Reverend Billy, an Elvis-haired anti-Wal-Mart street preacher who is currently running as Green party candidate for mayor of New York and whom Sandlin presented as an example of public pedagogy.