Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice
reviewed by Elizabeth M. Hodge - 2004
Title: Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice
Author(s): William Ayers
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744603, Pages: 160, Year: 2004
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In the 1960s, the people proclaimed that the “Personal is Political” as a mantra against oppressive government actions that denied the individual a voice in ensuing personal actions – being sent to war, control over a woman’s choice, domestic violence, etc. Typically those who used these words were perceived as “hippies” or “freaks” rather than activists for justice. Specifically, those who worked to make the personal political were, in fact, striving for justice in a democracy that seemed off kilter. But that was the 1960s.
In the 1970s the personal was anything but political in the sense that the personal was indeed that, all about the self, the actions done in private as part of a sexual revolution. The 1980s fared even more stridently against the personal as political for the person was part of a capitalist machine that made money – the goal of a generation. The 1990s became a bellwether of fundamentalism where the personal is political became an anthem for religious conformity and commitment to Christianity.
In each of the aforementioned decades the personal was often about personal development (e.g. What Color is My Parachute?, How to Make Friends and Influence and Influence People, and finally and most recently, Oprah and Dr. Phil). Not that personal development is a negative thing, but the political attribute of the 1960s anthem seems all but deceased.
That’s why Ayer’s text seems a bit anachronistic. In his folksy prose Ayers elucidates many snippets of life as an instructor for pre-school kids to middle school learners. While these vignettes share a host of personal information, the presentation comes across as a bit strong-handed in its attempt to demonstrate why teachers should think in a particular manner. Additionally, when he is not rendering a discussion about his own classroom, Ayers tends to lean heavily on other writers in a manner that is both distracting and superficial. Specifically, he assumes that the writers quoted are inevitably correct as he rarely, if ever, critiques, comments, or extends their positions.
What is disappointing is that the first couple of chapters mislead the reader into believing that this is a prosaic work that includes discussions of radical social justice activists (e.g. Freire, Horton, Baldwin and the like). It is in this vein that the reader builds up hope for a more formidable discussion of actually teaching the personal and the political. What the reader gets in actuality are essays about personal experiences and the hope that these experiences will inferentially assist the novice teacher to persevere despite the difficulties of the profession. While that may occur, the text still does not seem to fulfill its promise.