Every Person Is a Philosopher

Lessons in Educational Emancipation from the Radical Teaching Life of Hal Adams

by Bill Ayers (Volume editor) Caroline Heller (Volume editor) Janise Hurtig (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VI, 152 Pages
Series: Teaching Contemporary Scholars, Volume 10


Hal Adams was a legendary radical educator who organized writing workshops with people who had been written off during much of their lives, marginalized for reasons of race, gender, class, and caste. Hal detested the carelessness and neglect his students endured and set about building spaces of respect and reparation. Fostering communities of local writers and publishing their work in journals of «ordinary thought,» the work brought pride and dignity to the authors, carrying the wisdom of their narratives into and beyond their communities. In the traditions of Paulo Freire, Antonio Gramsci, and C.L.R. James, Hal based his approach on the conviction that every person is a philosopher, artist, and storyteller, and that only the insights and imaginings of the oppressed can sow seeds of authentic social change. Every Person Is a Philosopher gathers essays by classroom and community educators deeply influenced by Hal’s educational work and vision, and several essays by Hal Adams. They explore diverse ways this humanizing pedagogy can be applied in a wide range of contexts, and consider its potential to transform students and teachers alike. This is an ideal text for courses in educational foundations, multicultural education, urban studies, sociology of education, English education, social justice education, literacy education, socio-cultural contexts of teaching, adult education, cultural studies, schools and communities, and popular education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Praise for Every Person is a Philosopher
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Hal Adams’ pedagogy of ordinary thought: Planting the seeds of change
  • Hal Adams: A Brief Biographical Sketch
  • Chapter One: A grassroots think-tank: Linking writing and community-building (reprinted from Democracy and Education)
  • Chapter Two: Ordinary thoughts, whispers of revolutionary thinking
  • Chapter Three: The praxis of sharing and the dialectics of small group writing
  • Chapter Four: Showing up: Writing, reading and cross-cultural awareness in community literacy work
  • Chapter Five: Evidence of things unseen
  • Chapter Six: Itinerary with Hal
  • Chapter Seven: Philosophers in La Casita: Hal Adams’ politics in theory and practice
  • Chapter Eight: Listen to me, listen to us: lives made better
  • Chapter Nine: Making the ordinary extraordinary: Youth writing, publishing and performing poetry
  • Chapter Ten: Goldfish in the river: Stories capturing moments in time
  • Chapter Eleven: Writing and changing together: Reflections on writing workshops in Chicago neighborhoods
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index


← vi | vii →Acknowledgements

Thanks to Hal’s many colleagues, collaborators, and comrades along the way for their insights, generosity, and support; and especially to the community writers who inspire us every day with their stories, wisdom, courage, and illuminating humanity. Thanks also to Sarah Hoskins and Janeen Porter for their photographs of JOT writing groups, to Martin Hurtig for his cover design, and to Jason Pickleman at JNL Graphic Design, Chicago for his design of Christine ­Tarkowski’s chapter.← vii | viii →


We believe that every person is a thinker and an artist, that the stories people tell about their lives contain important insights for themselves and their neighbors, and that the seeds for change can be found in the artistic and intellectual renderings of ordinary people. —Mission Statement, Community Writing Project (founded by Hal Adams, 1999)

Hal Adams (1939–2011) was a modest man who taught writing workshops—mostly to adults—in the unruly cracks of our fractured and far-flung society. His search for an effective and humanizing pedagogy that would allow participants in his workshops to become more purposeful and more powerful in their projects and pursuits—a practice that would invite them to become conscious authors of their own stories and deliberate artists of their own lives—has had a lasting impact on educators. He has influenced teachers from the elementary grades through graduate school and from preschool through community and adult education. Hal Adams was a consistent moral guide and mentor to students, colleagues, and friends—including each of us.

One of Hal’s students described him as soft-spoken and attentive. That depiction points to a central element of his teaching: he was an active and conscientious listener, drawing out rather than forcing in, more eager to learn than to instruct. Hal had the wisdom to understand that the central challenge of great teaching is the ability to let-learn. He thought of his classes as spaces where the wisdom in the room—the understandings and experiences, hopes and needs of each individual—could be unleashed and then collectively enrich the whole community. As an ← 1 | 2 →educator, Hal was inquisitive and non-directive, his interventions always judicious. He was never showy or didactic, because he considered didacticism arrogant, ungenerous, and intellectually stultifying. Instead, he taught from the sidelines, placing the writers’ knowledge and desires center stage, creating the space for them to listen to and learn from each other as he listened to and learned from them.

Workshop participants were for the most part people who had been systematically marginalized by the powerful forces of conventional society for all the traditional reasons: race, gender, class, caste. Some were descendents of formerly enslaved people, others recent immigrants. They were people who survived by selling their labor power and, even then, frequently in the informal economy. Many had attended schools of poverty. Some had left and run away from those schools; others were forced to leave school to fend for themselves and their families. Some had struggled with drugs, some were homeless, some were in and out of jail or prison, and some were raising children or grandchildren amid those tribulations. It’s fair to say that people who participated in Hal’s writing workshops suffered the indignities of institutions—schools, police and courts and prisons, hospitals, La Migra, social security—that routinely disregarded their personhood.

Hal detested the carelessness and casual neglect his students endured. He considered it a first-order moral error and set about building spaces of repair, respect, recognition, and reparation. In his classrooms all could express their insights and intelligence, their requirements and desires, and in conversation discover even deeper needs and hopes. Here—and for many, for the first time—they could co-construct a school experience that lived up to their best senses of themselves, indeed, to their full humanity.

Hal refused the reductive, deficit-oriented conception of writing workshops as “literacy classes.” Rather, he approached the workshops as spaces of creative and critical process—places for participants to discover and develop the craft of writing and in particular of storytelling. Recognizing that it was important for the writers, the workshop participants, to have a way to share their cultural work more widely, he founded a magazine called the Journal of Ordinary Thought as a public vehicle for their stories. Copies of the journal were distributed at no cost within and beyond the writers’ communities with the thought that their insights and analysis could seep slowly but meaningfully into the cultural and political fabric of everyday life. The journal included five words in small discreet print in the front of each issue: “Every Person Is a Philosopher.” The intention of that signature line, Hal explained to anyone who asked, was for readers who picked up the magazine to grasp the idea that the people who wrote for the journal were wise in countless ways and could be considered organic intellectuals or philosophers.

As Hal described in an early essay about his work (“A Grassroots Think-tank,” included as Chapter 1 in this anthology), he borrowed that expression from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who emphasized that the class that ← 2 | 3 →dominated society did so by maintaining ideological control as much as by deploying brute force. The jack boot, the club, and the jail cell may at times be the preferred mechanisms of power, but never underestimate the domineering and deadening impact of bread and circuses, diversions and easy pleasures, and the insistent pull of everyday life with its implicit mantra: there is no alternative. To be ruled is to be in the thrall of power, to be kept an eye on, regulated, indoctrinated, corrected, and ordered about. To be liberated is to see or imagine alternatives and to resist—to overcome the belief that it’s a natural state of affairs for a ruling class to rule and the subjugated classes to be ruled; and to overcome, as well, the idea that the road to fulfillment or happiness is to become a wealthy and successful member of the stratified society which is held out as natural, just, and permanent. People would have to exercise their imaginations, to see in their minds and their collective consciousness that the world we have—the world as such—stands directly next to the world not only as it could be but, more urgently, as it should be.

For Hal Adams “every person is a philosopher” meant that ordinary people—not those celebrated in the media or the arcane journals of academic thought but those who struggle within and against their own subjugation—are the ones best able to understand the real conditions of society and to bring forth fundamental change. In the words of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who also inspired Hal’s educative practice, “only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both [the oppressor and the oppressed].” That work of fighting for justice and changing the world, as Hal saw it, was not a heroic, masculine endeavor to be carried forth by a vanguard of revolutionaries leading the charge with the mesmerized masses trailing behind. Instead, Hal insisted that authentic change—and the work of writing as a vehicle for change—was never grandiose and rarely solitary; rather, it was humble, critical, creative, and collective.


VI, 152
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
education classroom educators writing workshop race urban studies english education social justice education: humanizing pedagogy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 152 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Bill Ayers (Volume editor) Caroline Heller (Volume editor) Janise Hurtig (Volume editor)

William Ayers is former Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of several books including Teaching Toward Freedom and Public Enemy. Caroline Heller is a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she also directs the PhD Program in Educational Studies (Individually Designed Specialization). She is the author of Until We Are Strong Together and Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts. Janise Hurtig is co-director of the PRAIRIE Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the Community Writing Project. She is the author of Coming of Age in Times of Crisis: Youth, Schooling, and Patriarchy in a Venezuelan Town and co-editor of Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America.


Title: Every Person Is a Philosopher
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166 pages