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Glenn Rikowski Responds to Bill Ayers
|Posted By: Peter McLaren on June 15, 2007|
Ayers Rocked In His Own Universe
Glenn Rikowski, London, 15th June 2007
A review of Peter McLaren’s Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire (2005) by William Ayers (2006) in Teachers College Record has sparked off a wide-ranging debate concerning the role of education in struggles for progressive social transformation. Following this by Ayers, McLaren responded (McLaren, 2007a), drawing a counter-response from Ayers (Ayers, 2007) which was then followed by a further reply from McLaren (2007b). So: what has this to do with me? Well, I was one of the contributors to McLaren’s Capitalists and Conquerors (Allman, McLaren and Rikowski, 2005) who was ignored in Ayers’s original review (along with Paula Allman, Donna Houston, Gregory Martin, Nathalia Jaramillo, and Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Anibale) . Thus, I feel more than entitled to respond to Ayers’s original review and his reply to Peter McLaren.
The first point that should be noted is that Ayers’s ‘review’ was no such thing. He did not inform the reader regarding the overall contents, topics and themes of the book. Ayers is a poor book reviewer on this performance.
Secondly, a book reviewer needs to ensure that they don’t wilfully mislead readers. Examining examples of McLaren’s language that he objects to, Ayers argues that in the examples he gives readers find McLaren “citing mostly himself”. Perhaps there are a few passages where McLaren cites mainly himself; this would be the case for many authors, as the readers might be interested in the development of their work. But someone reading this might conclude that McLaren is a self-obsessed peacock who mostly only quotes himself throughout. If the book in question (McLaren, 2005) is examined it is clear that this is not so. In only a single chapter (the first) does McLaren have more than ten references to himself in the end-text references. He has 15, in fact; including those where he figures in edited collections. This should be set against the fact that in this chapter there are 133 references in total. McLaren’s references take up only 11% of the references in that chapter. I leave it to Ayers to calculate the percentage of chapter 1 taken up by the actual text that those 15 references cover!
Thirdly, Ayers complains of McLaren’s “domineering” language. This feeble response to the language of the “Poet Laureate of the Educational Left”, as McLaren’s writing style has been described by Joe Kinchloe (in McLaren, 2000), belies his past as a left dissident of national significance .
Without going into more micro-detail, it is clear that Ayers pursues McLaren throughout his ‘review’ as basically someone who should really write and research just like he. Ayers looks for the ethnographer in Peter McLaren; the radical ethnographer who wrote Life in Schools. However, people sometimes develop, move on and do different things. Ayers presumes that McLaren should remain cast in theoretical and research stone that he approves of, and can readily relate to.
Rocked in his Own Universe
As a review, Ayers effort is hardly worth bothering with. However, whilst reading it I was amazed to discover certain perspectives of his (Ayers) that fit snugly with the rampant individualism and Utopianism of neoliberal educational thought. Furthermore, it seems Ayers was not conversant with some of the basics of Marxism. He appears to be a fully paid up member of the conventional, academic liberal left in some respects.
First of all, Ayers argues that: “Capitalist schooling submerges human development in its single-minded drive for profit” and “profit is at the center of economic, political, and social life”. But it is value, and specifically surplus-value (of which profit is an element) that is the substance of capital’s social universe (see Rikowski, 2005). Ayers seems oblivious to the significance of value, and to the value/profit distinction.
However, it is his “classrooms and schools for democracy” I am most concerned about from the perspective of human progress and development. Ayers argues that:
“Classrooms and schools for democracy and freedom recognize each student as an entire universe, each capable of becoming an author, and activist in his or her own life – teachers in these classrooms assume that every student is an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery and surprise” (My emphasis).
Ayers advocates that students are, and should be treated like, Leibniz’s monads; unique and self-sufficient, inhabiting a universe of their very own. Yet his students inhabit a particular social universe; the social universe of capital. In order to appreciate this point, Ayers would have had to delve beneath the phenomenon of profit into the very heart of this social universe: the creation of value and surplus-value in the capitalist labour process. The fact that we all inhabit capital’s social universe gives us common bonds, and a common form of life, which limits us regarding what we can become – individually, and collectively as humanity.
Ayers nurturing of students as inhabitants of their own universes, creates individualistic illusions amongst them insofar as it actually works. This individualism gels with methodological individualism, rational choice theory and the self-serving model of the person served up by mainstream economics. This primeval individualism can also be related to solipsism and nihilism without too much effort.
Yet a little further on Ayers talks about teachers having solidarity with students! Who would want solidarity with the ego-centric, hyper-individualistic students that Ayers conjures up? And how would this be possible? Could teachers have any kind of solidarity with persons who inhabit a universe of their very own? Ironically, teachers are charged with helping to generate those universes for their hapless students!
Ayers seems utterly confused regarding his pedagogical aims and social ontology. He can’t be expected to understand McLaren’s work if this is his stance on social life and the relations between individuals and capitalist society. He argues that McLaren should “start to think and write more clearly and with much more urgency.” However, the confusion within Ayers’s thinking and his bizarre pedagogical commitments puts the onus on him to rethink and refocus. At least McLaren speaks to those living within the same universe!
 In his reply to McLaren’s response (Ayers, 2007), he admitted that: “I did indeed fail to mention the co-authors who worked on various chapters with McLaren. My mistake. On the other hand, the cover of the book, the title page, the listing in the library male the same omission, so perhaps that criticism should more productively be taken up with the publisher”. Yet a competent reviewer should surely have noted these omissions in their review – which leads me to believe that Ayers was not rally interested in writing an actual review of the book: he was more concerned with painting a skewed picture of Peter McLaren as a writer, educational theorist and researcher and education activist. Personally, I always knew my name was not to be on the front of the book, and I had seen the cover in advance. I was happy with that, as Peter McLaren did the lion’s share of the work and writing. In blaming the publishers, Ayers deflects attention from the nature of his ‘review’.
 See his ‘Biography/History’ on his blog for more on this, at: http://billayers.blogspot
Allman, P., McLaren, P. & Rikowski, G. (2005) After the Box People: The Labor-Capital Relation as Class Constitution and its Consequences for Marxist Educational Theory and Human Resistance, in: P. McLaren, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ayers, W. (2006) Essay Review: Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being (I Think). A review of ‘Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire’ by William Ayers, Teachers College Record, December 12, online a: http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=12888
Ayers, W. (2007) Continuing the Conversation: Ayers Replies, Teachers College Record, February 6th, online at: http://www.tcrecord.org/discussion.asp?i=3&aid=2&rid=12888&dtid=0&vdpid=2695
McLaren, P. (2000) Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, Lanham Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
McLaren, P. (2005) Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
McLaren, P. (2007a) Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity, Teachers College Record, January 22nd, online at: http://tcrecord.org/Discussion.asp?i=3&vdpid=2695&aid=2&rid=12888&dtid=0
McLaren, P. (2007b) Performing Bill Ayers: Criticism as a Disappearing Act or Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Me a Book Review? A Response by Peter McLaren. Personal correspondence sent by email, February 7th.
Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx’s Social Universe, Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, 14th February: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation
Tags: Glenn Rikowski, Peter McLaren, William Ayers