Commentary Magazine

Missing Albert Shanker

At a recent memorial meeting for Albert Shanker, who died this past February at the age of sixty-eight, speaker after speaker referred to the vacuum he left behind in American education. Indeed, Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), did leave a vacuum, but not merely in education. His death, rather, can be said to mark the end of a chapter in American life, and in particular of the brand of liberalism which Shanker represented and fought for to his last day. Shanker’s was an acerbic personality, but the enmity which many on the Left came to display toward him was a function not of that personality but rather of his ideas and political values. His entire career suggests a road that liberalism might have taken but did not.



Shanker’s views on the great passions of his public life—and especially on education and trade unions—were shaped by his childhood as the son of East European Jewish immigrants. His early years were spent on New York’s Lower East Side. His father eked out a living delivering newspapers; his mother knitted in a sweatshop and was a member of both major garment-worker unions. When they moved to Long Island City, an Irish- and Italian-Catholic stronghold in Queens, Shanker, whose family spoke Yiddish and kept a kosher home, encountered a belligerent, street-level anti-Semitism. The torments young Shanker endured—he was taunted, beaten, and, in one harrowing incident, threatened with crucifixion—imparted a lifelong awareness of the consequences of bigotry.

School, at which Shanker excelled, was a more heartening story. Graduating near the top of his class at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he was renowned for his debating skills, Shanker went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois. Along the way, he received an introduction to radical left-wing politics as a member of the campus chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist party then led by Norman Thomas. After graduation, Shanker pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia, but, broke and doubtful about the market for specialists in his field—early pragmatism—he abandoned his dissertation to take a job teaching mathematics at a junior-high school in East Harlem.

Shanker soon concluded that he and his colleagues were underpaid and exploited; coming as he did from a union household, he naturally sought to organize to gain redress. There were, of course, teachers’ unions in those days (the mid-50’s), dozens of them in fact, all claiming to speak for a narrow segment of the professional staff. But none had any power to speak of. The Teachers’ Guild, in which Shanker became active, was dominated by a group of veteran radicals skilled at the fine points of ideological disputation and dialectic but thoroughly inept at organizing, administering, or achieving tangible results. It fell to Shanker and other younger teachers to build out of this unpromising material a functioning trade union.

The result of their efforts was the formation, in 1960, of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the largest trade-union local in the United States. Shanker quickly emerged as its dominant personality, serving first as secretary and then, in 1965, winning election as UFT president. From 1974 until his death, he went on to serve as president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national organization of which the UFT was the New York City affiliate.

In physical appearance, Shanker was the antithesis of the charismatic leader—ungainly, myopic, with a platform voice that his friend Midge Decter once described as “neither oratorically moving nor particularly charming.” Nonetheless, he attained a degree of popularity among his membership, both at the UFT and later at the AFT, that was remarkable for the leader of any union, much less an organization of skeptical and often quarrelsome teachers.



The great policy question confronting Shanker’s union as it came into its own in the 1960’s was civil rights, an issue on which he and the UFT had an impeccably progressive record; the union staff included a number of youthful veterans of sitins, freedom marches, and desegregation protests, and a good portion of its rank-and-file had participated in various civil-rights campaigns. Nevertheless, it was on the question of race that the union and the civil-rights coalition began to split apart.

To Shanker, the challenge facing New York was to foster integration and improve minority education while, at the same time, retaining the support of the white middle class. Unfortunately, New York’s political elite—principally Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mayor John V. Lindsay, and Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy—had other ideas. They opted for “community control,” a strategy for minority neighborhoods which would give power over the schools to local residents. Their claim was that by combining local control with innovative teaching techniques, they would enable black children in inner-city neighborhoods to perform as well as children in wealthy white neighborhoods.

Signs of trouble were visible from the start. The city had already had a taste of minority “empowerment” through the community councils established as part of the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty program, and the resulting corruption and turf warfare were tearing New York apart. Nevertheless, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, three experimental school districts were set up, one of them in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district of Brooklyn, a black neighborhood with a history of poorly functioning schools. Almost immediately, Ocean Hill-Brownsville became a testing ground for the black-power movement then getting into full swing. No sooner was the local community “empowered” than the board insisted on hiring and firing whomever it wanted. It singled out Jewish teachers for its particular ire.

By the fall of 1968, the protections afforded teachers under their union-negotiated contract with the city were being routinely violated, and anti-Semitic incidents were becoming ever more frequent. The inevitable collision took place. Shanker called a strike, and teachers across the city walked off the job and stayed off for the next 55 days. On the picket lines, they were promptly taunted and assaulted by organized rabble-rousers—to the cheers of many on the Left.

Indeed, it was noteworthy how much appeal black-power advocates held in those days for left-leaning journalists and intellectuals, many of whom made pilgrimages to the demonstration district and returned as flushed with enthusiasm for the educational experiment being conducted there as student radicals back from cutting sugar cane in revolutionary Cuba. I.F. Stone described his tour as “therapeutic”; to Alfred Kazin, “the intentness all over the place audibly vibrated in my ears.” Needless to say, none of these people would be heard from when, within a matter of years, the project was revealed to have been an educational disaster.

Though the strike itself ended in something of a stalemate, the issues it raised went straight to the heart of how the American political system intended to deal with black power and racial separatism. It came at the end of a turbulent year in which both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, urban riots had erupted across the country, and dozens of campuses were shut down by student radicals. The liberals who ran the cities, the universities, and the schools were eager to end each crisis by issuing concessions, by appointing special commissions, by engaging in dialogue. Shanker, by contrast, though he had years of experience in the art of negotiation and compromise, would not consider giving an inch on what he held to be fundamental issues: contracts already negotiated and agreed upon; racial integration; civic tolerance. For this defense of principles he was vilified.

Shanker was attacked not because he was wrong, or because he exaggerated the degree of anti-Semitism. Everyone involved in the crisis understood that anti-Semitism was a calculated tactic of the community-control militants. Rather, he was hated for having exposed the hypocrisy of liberals ready to set aside their declared principles as the price of “social change.”



In one form or another, Shanker was destined to conduct this same battle for the rest of his career. Many of the skirmishes were over educational policy; others extended into the broader political and intellectual arena. In the paid weekly column he wrote in the Sunday New York Times right up to his death, Shanker took on one faddish clone after another: “black English” in the 80’s, ebonies in 1996; “self-concept change” in 1979, self-esteem in 1997; racial quotas and discipline in 1980, “discipline by the numbers” in 1994. With patient logic, Shanker would dissect each new version of the old argument, explaining why there were no shortcuts to learning, why demands for race-based standards would actually prevent black children from attaining educational parity, and why such policies were bad not only for students but also ultimately for the United States.

If Shanker remained committed to his old-fashioned, pragmatic liberalism, it was his misfortune to be deeply associated with two institutions which were steadily shifting away from that outlook: organized labor and the Democratic party. Under Shanker’s leadership, the AFT recorded a growth in membership over the past two decades, but it was outstripped by its rival, the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA had veered sharply to the Left during the 1970’s and soon became known for its support of quotas (which it employs even in the selection of its own leadership), its opposition to educational standards, and its advocacy of a raft of trendy nostrums and theories. For Shanker, the problem posed by the NEA was not simply that its policies were contributing to the decline of American education. By wielding its impressive political power, the NEA was leading the public to question teacher unionism altogether.

The NEA was hardly the only thorn in Shanker’s side. Toward the end of his life he envisioned serious trouble ahead as labor, under the leadership of the AFL-CIO’s new president, John Sweeney, adopted an increasingly leftist program and opened the door to the advocates of identity politics. The rise and spread of doctrines like multiculturalism led Shanker to conclude (in a speech delivered in Prague in 1995) that while democracy was gaining strength around the world, it was exhibiting a remarkable degree of decay in the United States.

As a fervent believer in democratic principles (and an ardent anti-Communist), Shanker was confounded by his party’s embrace of racial preferences at home and its isolationist turn abroad. Although he never wavered in his faith in the public sector, he was appalled by liberalism’s increasing disdain for the national interest. But unlike many neoconservatives who drifted into the Republican party, he never looked for a new political home. Instead, remaining who he was, he was inexorably pushed to the margins of political influence. Such was the fate of this indispensable last voice of a liberalism now gone.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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