Ayers visit not a travesty, but an opportunity

By Chelsea Fiddyment

Ever since the initial mention the DI made back in November about Bill Ayers coming to visit, the campus and the Champaign-Urbana community – and the Chicago Tribune, and a decent-sized chunk of the Internet – have been debating it.

People can protest all they like, of course. None of it kept Mr. Ayers from making his scheduled visit this week.

And why should it? In order for Unit One (Allen Hall’s living-learning community) to offer in-hall classes and events, Allen residents pay an extra yearly fee of $310. They are also encouraged to make suggestions for prospective guests-in-residence, and at the end of every academic year, residents vote on the guests they would like to host. Succinctly put, Allen residents paid for the experience of the guest-in-residence program and chose to invite Bill Ayers. No other students funded his visit, but all were certainly invited to attend, as was the general public.

On its list of guests-in-residence, each year Unit One prints the same declaration of purpose: “The guests of this program live in Allen Hall and, in cooperation with students and staff, attempt to elicit an understanding for the necessity of creative thinking in society.”

This statement creates the best frame for controversial events like Bill Ayers’ brief residency. We imagine that a college education, or rather a bachelor’s degree, is a necessity in our society. What we tend to forget is that a college education by its very nature requires elements of what we now specifically refer to as a “liberal arts education” – not politically liberal experiences, but experiential learning that influences our intellects, our ideas and our opinions in relation to the world we will step into following graduation.

With this in mind, of course Bill Ayers should come to speak on our campus. We would do a tremendous disservice to ourselves and the ongoing education of the community by turning him or controversial figures like him away. By freshman year of college, everyone should know that people exist who have different or contrasting beliefs than their own. And by hosting people like Mr. Ayers, students will hopefully leave this institution with the powerful and invaluable ability to explore every opinion in addition to their own.

Before Ayers’ event on Tuesday night, a few students stood outside protesting his presence. More importantly, a few students came into the event, listened to Ayers’ lecture, and asked questions of him, despite their obvious opposition to what they believe he stands for. Ayers did not trivialize their statements – he answered them fully and well.

Mr. Ayers stressed in response that a person’s attendance at an event that reflects a contrasting perspective from her own doesn’t mean she enables or supports that viewpoint. I agree. It simply creates opportunities for personal and societal growth. How can anyone be sure their opinions reflect their best possible understanding of their world if they never change?

If they even know who he is, many students’ feelings toward Bill Ayers reflect the influence of people in their lives who were around during the Vietnam War era.

In the same way that children’s political ideas primarily mirror those of their parents until after high school, it’s easy to have an opinion handed down to us about a time period and the actions of people in it when we were not even alive.

It is always easy to have opinions about the past during the present. It’s much harder to stay constantly engaged with the present (in which Mr. Ayers is a professor and proponent of educational reform), when our opinions have the potential to shape our world.

So tonight, attend Ayers’ lecture. Give yourself a chance to hold your opinions up to the light, examine them, and compare them with someone else’s.

Bill Ayers’ visit isn’t about terrorism. It’s an invitation to think. That is what a college education is all about.

Chelsea is a senior in English and creative writing and really needs to get a super-efficient robot body.