The political activism of America’s two major teachers’ unions is well known. The National Education Association (NEA), with 1.6 million members, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), now numbering 600,000, are among the largest, best organized, and most energetic interest groups in the United States. As campaign consultant Matt Reese once observed, “Teachers are the ideal political organization. They’re in every precinct.” Moreover, they are generally well-educated, likely to vote, mindful of public affairs, articulate, and possessed of ample spare time. All that this long-slumbering political giant needed was to be awakened, a process that commenced within the AFT during the 1960’s and within the NEA in the early 70’s.
Teacher-backed candidates sometimes lose. The most celebrated defeat, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s political erasure by Ronald Reagan despite fierce NEA support of and moderate AFT enthusiasm for Carter. But the teachers’ choices more often win. Even after discounting for such canny tactics as betting on a number of candidates who are sure to triumph, and claiming credit for some victories in which teacher support actually made little or no difference, the electoral influence of the AFT and the NEA remains a force to conjure with, if not so strong a force as they would have us think.
NEA and AFT support and endorsements nearly always go to the Democratic candidate in a general election. The same cannot be said for the votes of individual teachers. A quarter of all public-school teachers—and nearly two-fifths of those with any party affiliation—describe themselves as Republicans, and exit polls in 1980 showed that more teachers voted for Reagan-Bush than for Carter-Mondale. But while rank-and-file members display political attitudes and voting behaviors that resemble those of their neighbors, the national unions and most of their state affiliates are firmly in the Democratic camp, except when an occasional Republican “friend of education” gains their support for his incumbency, as Senators Stafford and Weicker did from the NEA (but not the AFT) in 1982. Of course this means that victorious Republicans rarely owe any debts or favors to the teachers’ unions, and that Republican platforms and legislative programs now pay little heed to teacher interests. Insofar as those interests are thought by candidates and officials to be identical with the well-being of American education, we will tend to see education labeled as a “Democratic concern” rather than as an integral part of the culture and the society, which in turn will foster the further politicization along partisan lines of major educational policy decisions at the state and national level.
The teachers’ unions, however, do not confine themselves to education issues. In fact, the successful schooling of children has steadily receded in the universe of NEA concerns. While it shines far brighter in the AFT cosmos, it would be as inaccurate to describe the politics and policies of either union primarily in educational terms as to characterize either one as a “professional organization of teachers”—something that the AFT never called itself, but that the NEA used for many years to veil its transformation into a militant public-employees’ union.
In view of the breadth and diversity of the issues, domestic and international, educational and noneducational, that now suffuse both groups, one can reasonably ask what they stand for, how they define the culture, perceive the society, and view the nation’s role in the world. This would be a significant question even if the only power of the teachers’ unions were electoral. It becomes infinitely more consequential when we consider that their members also wield what is left of the moral power and intellectual authority that virtually all the world’s civilizations have ceded to those in whose trust they place the education of the young. When that implicit moral power of the teacher is joined to the explicit political force of a major national organization, it is important to understand the ideological foundations. And these, one quickly learns, differ markedly between the two major teachers’ unions, notwithstanding their outward similarities. Both the NEA and the AFT are ambitious, aggressive, and fiercely competitive unions with all the trappings, admirable and otherwise, of such organizations. But there the likenesses cease and the differences begin, both in their pronouncements and actions on national affairs and in the curricular and pedagogical guidance that they give teachers.
At a time when many Americans are understandably alarmed by the slipshod quality of their children’s education, we might fairly expect the major teachers’ organizations to respond, perhaps even to take the lead in raising school standards, stiffening the curriculum, and insisting on stronger student achievement. Self-interest alone should dictate this, as it is clear that taxpayers will not spend more for unsatisfactory schools, nor will parents who can find alternatives willingly leave their children in them. With enrollments shrinking as a result of demographic changes, teaching jobs in most fields are already scarce, and any large-scale exodus to private schools (which are rarely unionized) or to home instruction would palpably worsen the situation. With teacher salaries much the largest item in school budgets, and exquisitely sensitive to voter action on bond issues, levies, and tax-limitation initiatives, concern for the “bread-and-butter” issues that have been the real strength of the teachers’ unions would also seem to dictate close attention to educational quality, if only to persuade the voting public that schools offer value for money.
At one time, the National Education Association conscientiously assumed such responsibilities. When it invited Charles W. Eliot and Nicholas Murray Butler to convene the Committee on Secondary School Studies in 1892, it was responding to the wholesale confusion, curricular disarray, and variegated standards that marked American high-school education at the time. And the result, after barely a year of intensive work by dozens of the nation’s most distinguished educators, was a report on curriculum and teacher preparation that for a quarter-century served as the premier national standard by which schools and school systems evaluated their own policies. It was a high, even unbending, standard that was as firm toward teachers and the institutions that prepare them as toward the curricula and students in their schools.
In recent years, however, the National Education Association and its subdivisions have taken almost precisely the opposite approach to matters of educational quality. Their response has been, first, to discredit the evidence of qualitative deterioration and the means of acquiring such evidence; second, to savage the critics of school quality; third, to mount elaborate campaigns to persuade the public that American education is basically fine, and that any minor problems would be solved by the application of more money; fourth, steadfastly to refuse to let teachers be rewarded (or penalized) on the basis of their own, their pupils’, or their schools’ performance; fifth, to seek control of the agencies and processes by which standards are set for students and teachers alike; and, sixth, skillfully to employ the rhetoric of educational quality and excellence in advocating policies that would bring about nothing of the sort.
For all their shortcomings, tests and test results are the surest and most objective indicators of whether youngsters are learning what they should. And most of the results of most of the tests given to American students over the past decade and a half show with painful clarity that overall pupil performance is inadequate and worsening. The long decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores is merely the best known. After an extensive review for the Public Interest of virtually all the available evidence on educational attainment, Barbara Lerner accurately concluded that, while youngsters in the first four grades have held their own, the achievement decline in grades five through twelve is large and irrefutable. Moreover, when American students were compared with their counterparts in other lands on 19 different tests, Lerner found, “[W]e were never ranked first or second; we came in last three times and, if comparisons are limited to other developed nations only, the U.S. ranked at the bottom seven times. . . .”
The evidence, in sum, is conclusive. But of course it bears attention only if one accepts the validity of tests and testing. The National Education Association, in the main, does not. In the late 1970’s, it declared war on standardized testing—the only kind that permits comparisons to be made among children, schools, states, generations of pupils, or nations. Terry Herndon, who is about to step down after ten eventful years as executive director of the NEA, compared the Educational Testing Service (which administers the SAT and other college and graduate-school entrance examinations) to “armament manufacturers,” and—perhaps mirroring the close collaboration on this issue between his organization and Ralph Nader—informed the 1979 NEA convention that “Standardized tests maim in equally harsh ways more people than do Detroit cars.”
The NEA’s anti-testing campaign continues to-day in the media, in the corridors of Congress and state legislatures (which can discourage and discredit testing, while escalating its cost, through so-called “truth in testing” statutes), and in gatherings of educators.
The association’s speeches, testimony, and advertisements are often ingenious, replete with photographs of tearful six-year-olds—allegedly branded “below average” by their first standardized tests—and bright-eyed high-school students whose college and career prospects are being blighted by examinations. They are aimed primarily at parents, who naturally seek to maximize their children’s opportunities, and at minority groups and others apt to resonate to the suggestion that tests foster inequality. “Intelligence, aptitude, and achievement tests,” states an NEA resolution, “have historically been used to differentiate rather than to measure performance and have, therefore, prevented equal educational opportunities for all students, particularly minorities, lower socioeconomic groups, and women.” Hence tests should not be administered when they are “biased,” which word is left entirely undefined, or when they are “potentially damaging to a student’s self-concept,” which potential naturally dwells in every imaginable test, achievement measure, or assessment. The NEA also rejects the use of any test to “compare individual schools or teachers,” or as “a basis for monetary remuneration or promotions.” Though teachers are encouraged to devise quizzes and tests for use with their own students, no one outside the individual classroom should be permitted to impose such measures, or to do anything with—or about—their results.
The AFT thinks otherwise. Indeed, his union “strongly supports testing,” wrote AFT president Albert Shanker in the Washington Post in 1980. “We believe that tests tell us things that are important for students, parents, teachers, colleges, government, and the society at large to know. We also believe the public unquestionably has a right to know what we are doing in the schools—how well or how badly.”
Available evidence suggests that a majority of individual teachers share Shanker’s view. The NEA’s own poll in 1980 showed that half or more of all teachers deemed standardized achievement tests to be appropriate for evaluating school effectiveness, as the “primary measure of student learning,” and for determining pupil promotion, while three quarters would also use such tests to help evaluate curriculum and to track or group students.
The NEA’s assault on the legitimacy of tests and the utility of testing naturally extends to examinations devised to appraise teacher qualifications, too. Eighteen states now administer, or are preparing, systematic assessments of individual competence prior to awarding teaching certificates. Some use the National Teachers Examination, developed by the Educational Testing Service. Others have devised their own measures, as have a few large city school systems. This widening movement contrasts sharply with the historic pattern of licensing anyone who graduates from an “approved” teacher-education program or who can display a prescribed list of courses on his college transcript. The change results partly from the slackening demand for new teachers, which permits greater selectivity than was possible when pupil enrollments were soaring, but even more from mounting national alarm about the deteriorating intellectual caliber of such teachers, now drawn increasingly from the bottom quarter of college classes that may be no great shakes even in their higher elevations.
Although a legitimate debate persists about the utility of paper-and-pencil tests as a means of gauging the skills that teachers use in the classroom, there is no doubt that such examinations can assess the breadth of a teacher’s general education and the depth of his knowledge of the particular subjects he will teach. But here, too, the NEA has elected to stonewall, while the AFT has solidly endorsed the concept of testing new teachers before putting them in front of students. A resolution adopted at the NEA convention states that “[E]xaminations such as the National Teachers Examination must not be used as a condition of employment, evaluation, [or as a] criterion for certification, placement, or promotion of teachers.” But the AFT, Shanker says, “would like to see the testing of all new teachers before they are hired, a far from universal practice at present. . . . Why not begin now to insure at least minimal qualifications . . . through universal entry tests?”
The NEA is not so naive as to suppose that public concern with teacher quality can be entirely shrugged off. And so, after several years of effort and internal dissension, it came forth in late 1982 with a 64-page “action plan” to promote “excellence in our schools” through teacher education, primarily by spelling out dozens of criteria for college programs in teacher preparation. This is a useful document, as far as it goes, but that is not very far. As noted by Virginia Robinson, the editor of a respected newsletter called Education Times: “Missing from the NEA position paper . . . is any attempt to assess existing teacher-education programs. . . . [It] does not address one of the most troublesome problems currently plaguing teacher education—the evidently poor academic qualifications of teacher candidates. . . . There is no mention of test scores—on which current teacher candidates apparently rank well below entrants to most other professional preparations. . . .”
Tucked away in the recommendations, however, is another cardinal tenet of the NEA, namely, that it should control all teacher training and employment via the establishment within each state of an “autonomous agency” that would be “governed by a majority of teachers who are members of the majority national teachers’ organization, to approve teacher-preparation programs and certificate prospective teachers.” This derives from the NEA’s long-standing assertion that “the profession must govern itself” and is of course consistent with the approach of doctors and lawyers to their own professions. In righteously advancing such policies, the NEA benefits enormously from its prior status as a professional association rather than a labor union (as it is now officially designated by both the Labor Department and the Internal Revenue Service). But it is questionable how far society should go in permitting a public-employees’ union, which has won exclusive bargaining rights and compulsory dues in many jurisdictions, which insists on (and not infrequently practices) the right to strike, and which demands permanent tenure for any teacher with more than three years’ experience, also to control the terms and procedures by which the state determines individual qualifications to enter the classroom in the first place, particularly at a time when student achievement and teacher quality are both declining and when the NEA denies the legitimacy of the primary indicators of those declines.
Tests are not the only villains in the NEA’s account of what is right and what is wrong with American education. The standards that underlie “standardized” tests are themselves held to be invalid. Because every child (and every teacher) is unique, the reasoning goes, it is unfair to force him into any kind of mold. Because educational aspirations and career plans differ, it is wrong to make everyone leap the same hurdles. Because minority groups may be disadvantaged by standards devised by the “majority,” all such standards are immoral, illegal, and probably unconstitutional. And because fulfilling any set of “minimum standards” will tend to become the foremost objective of schooling, the minimum may become a ceiling, thereby blocking the achievement of true excellence.
Each of these assertions has a long and sometimes honorable tradition that dates back to the earliest days of formal education. Each is capable of evoking nods of agreement from parents and murmurs of approval from teachers. But when applied to schools and children, at least in the forms in which these principles have been most widely practiced in the past two decades, each is also a warrant for educational mediocrity. Of the many critics and commentators who have pointed this out, few are more perceptive than the AFT’s Shanker, whose weekly New York Times column (run as a paid advertisement) is regularly used for thoughtful exhortations to higher school standards and for summaries of research findings on school effectiveness, and whose union resolutions and publications bespeak seriousness of purpose about the development of student skills and character, curriculum content, and measurable achievement. Whether one views Shanker as an educational statesman or as the crafty guardian-nurturer of a goose that lays golden eggs, a public school run according to his lights would probably be a better school than most children attend today.1
The NEA, however, is reasonably satisfied with the educational system the way it is, save perhaps for insufficient funding. That, at least, is what it would have us believe. To encourage such thinking, the association has engaged the services of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and embarked on a major national public-relations campaign on behalf of “American education.” This has included full-page ads in general-circulation magazines such as Newsweek, and extended commercials on network television. Furthermore, when skeptical journalists inquire about educational problems, the NEA tends to deny that they are serious. The Washington Post recently ran a thoughtful, three-part series on illiteracy by Joanne Omang. “Prominent among the nonbelievers,” she reported, “is the National Education Association. . . . ‘The problem is not nearly as great as some people claim,’ said Don Cameron, NEA’s assistant executive director. ‘[T]he tendency is to stress the 15 percent of students who do poorly over the 85 percent who do well.’”
Even while denying the existence of significant shortcomings, discrediting educational standards, and disavowing the surest means of enforcing them, the NEA leadership is much too adroit not to recognize the need for a more satisfying explanation to the public and, especially, to its own members, of why so many people are disgruntled about the quality of American education. And the chosen explanation is shrewd indeed. Evil people, one learns, are saying bad things about schools and teachers in order to further their own unsavory ends: the destruction of public education; the oppression of minorities, the poor, and the dispossessed; the transfer of resources into less worthy purposes (including, especially, the arms race); and the victory of reactionary social policies and political objectives over progressive goals.
The Reagan administration and its budget priorities have become the chief scapegoats, but assuredly not the only ones. “In recent months,” NEA president Willard H. McGuire proclaimed in his opening address to the 1982 convention in Los Angeles, “the education profession has seen an unprecedented attack on public education. The attackers assault our schools, burn our books, deny funding and even loans to our students, defame our system, and attack educators directly.” In case the martial imagery were not clear enough to the 7,000 delegates, McGuire returned to it later in the proceedings: “It’s been said of America that every generation must fight a war to preserve its freedom. I submit that we are in a war today,” he said. “It is not a war on foreign soil, but a war that is taking place in every schoolroom and in every state capital and in every congressional district. It is a war for the survival of public education.”
This was strong talk for a convention dominated by disarmament resolutions, anti-war rallies, and anti-nuclear addresses, but the contemporary NEA leadership seems less diffident about targeting enemies when they are Americans. “When school opens this fall,” McGuire explained, “many of our colleagues won’t be there because of the Reagan budget cuts. Many of our children will come to school hungry because of the Reagan budget cuts. . . . There are citizens and special-interest groups who would destroy our public schools, and in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, they have found an agent. . . .”
The NEA’s attack on these “groups” and their “agent” is shrill, well-coordinated, and sustained, notwithstanding McGuire’s bland assertion that “[w]e refuse to emulate our critics. We will continue to appeal to the more charitable and more sensible instincts of the American public.”
There is little charity to be found in a 292-page “workshop-resource book” published by the NEA in 1981 to assist teachers with “survival-skills training . . . in countering the attacks on public education by the conglomerates of the radical Right.” But there are long lists of individuals, groups, and organizations said to be devoted to “the goal of putting into place their own economic and political agenda for the nation—an agenda that would escalate military expenditures and erase most of the social and educational advances of the past generation.” With a fine lack of concern for ideological nuance and policy focus, the lists run from tax-limitation groups to gun-owners’ associations, from the Moral Majority to the Council for a Union-free Environment, from the Heritage Foundation to the Coalition for Peace through Strength, from the Eagle Forum to the Hoover Institution, from the International Center for Economic Policy Studies to the John Birch Society.
The single most striking characteristic of the lists is how little most of the named organizations have to do with elementary and secondary education. For in reality, apart from a handful of education specialists at such places as the National Right to Work Committee and the Heritage Foundation, the Right pays much less attention to the NEA than Herndon and his associates would have the rank-and-file believe. Far more biting criticism has come in recent months from such inconvenient quarters as the Reader’s Digest, the New Republic, and the Washington Monthly. Even mainstream educators such as the respected dean of the Stanford School of Education, J. Myron Atkin, and Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have begun to voice their displeasure. “The NEA,” writes Thomson in the widely-read educators’ journal Phi Delta Kappan, for example, “no longer contributes significantly to the improvement of teaching and learning for students. It looks after the narrow interests of its members rather than after the broader interests of its constituency.”
Faced with such open peer criticism, the NEA naturally needs a larger cause around which to rally its members, each of whom pays several hundred dollars a year to belong to the national, state, and local associations (for which one receives few direct benefits other than group-liability insurance), and it needs a convincing rationale to elicit from teachers the additional millions in Political Action Committee contributions that form the fiscal foundation of its political edifice. Ronald Reagan’s “war” on federal school aid and the New Right’s alleged assault on education itself meet these needs quite satisfactorily.
Though the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education is marginal, having furnished only eight cents of the school dollar even at its peak, Washington has been the NEA’s political and policy focus since the mid-60’s. And there has not been a single significant national candidate, issue, or congressional vote bearing on education on which the NEA has taken the side of caution, decentralization, diversity, or deregulation. Rather, it has systematically sought to extend the reach and augment the power of all three branches of the federal government. The NEA favors compulsory busing, the vigorous enforcement of affirmative-action quotas, bilingual education that “uses a student’s primary language as the principal medium of instruction in a bicultural setting,” and exacting federal requirements for the education of handicapped youngsters. It has endorsed virtually every one of the dozens of “categorical” programs—from metric education to women’s education to small-business-management education to career education—that have cluttered up the federal statute books, bureaucratized the nation’s school systems, and homogenized the curriculum in recent years, and it has bitterly opposed “block grants,” program consolidations, and any restoration of authority to state and local governments.
The NEA’s two great—and interwoven—goals have been the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Education and the boosting of federal spending on education to one-third of the nation’s total public-school budget. The first of these was achieved in 1979, when the Carter administration dutifully kept the promise that the President had made to the NEA in return for its 1976 election endorsement and pushed through Congress the legislation establishing the Cabinet agency, despite the misgivings of some of his own advisers and the opposition of many other education groups, including the American Federation of Teachers. The second goal, which would add about $25 billion to the federal budget, is far from realization, and likely to stay that way for some time to come. Indeed, few people outside NEA Washington headquarters even take it seriously. But the preservation of existing federal funds and programs from attack is a satisfactory replacement on the NEA’s political agenda. And the maladroit education policies of the Reagan administration have helped the NEA to reshape its image from promoter of big government and federal intervention to a defender of the public schools themselves.
During the Carter years, the NEA tended to isolate itself from the school-board associations, the principals’ associations, and other moderate education groups, from most of the rest of organized labor, and from such exponents of liberal opinion as the editorial page of the Washington Post. It was too greedy, its federal-policy agenda too interventionist, and its quest for political power too brazen. The Reagan administration has almost singlehandedly ended that isolation through its lack of evident interest in public education, the sharp reductions it has sought in existing school-aid programs, its parallel willingness to succor private schools, its uneven handling of civil-rights policy,2 and its support for several New Right educational causes, particularly classroom prayer. It has thereby unified the education community more solidly than anything since Richard Nixon’s vetoes of congressional school-aid appropriations, has strengthened the links among education, labor, and civil-rights organizations, and has enormously improved relations between that coalition and many journalists, academics, and Democratic politicians. Even the AFT has buried the hatchet with the NEA for purposes of salvaging federal school-aid programs, combating tuition tax credits and—remarkably—preserving the Department of Education. The enemy of his enemy, Shanker recognizes, must be his ally, at least in the battles over federal education policy being fought on Capitol Hill.
Such alliances of convenience do not, however, represent a significant narrowing of the ideological chasm between the NEA and the AFT or, for that matter, between the NEA and the political culture of most Americans.
A reasonable facsimile of any organization’s political ethos can usually be glimpsed in the rules and procedures by which it governs itself. The National Education Association proudly and openly organizes its own governing bodies and staffing patterns around racial and ethnic quotas. The bylaws state: “It is the policy of the association to achieve ethnic-minority delegate representation at least equal to the proportion of identified ethnic-minority populations within the state.” Any affiliate that fails to gain executive approval of its plan “to achieve a total state and local delegation . . . which reflects these ethnic-minority proportions” risks being denied the right to participate in the annual convention (except to vote for national officers and dues increases!).
Color-consciousness also governs election of directors and top association leadership. The NEA constitution stipulates that “members from ethnic minorities shall comprise at least 20 percent of the board,” a quota that must be met even if it is necessary for the annual convention to elect additional directors “to assure such ethnic-minority representation.” Each state delegation on the national board must likewise meet a quota; if the first three directors from a particular state “do not include at least one ethnic-minority person,” a fourth shall be elected “who is from an ethnic-minority group.”
For uninhibited attentiveness to race, however, it is difficult to improve upon the practice of the NEA, at its annual presentation of “human and civil-rights awards,” of identifying recipients by their color in the printed program of the ceremony itself.
Not surprisingly, the NEA envisions a society in which other institutions are organized along similar lines. This is manifest in its policy resolutions and other public statements, which exhibit none of the usual confusion about goals and quotas, or any misgivings about reverse discrimination. “It may be necessary,” resolution E-13 states bluntly, for employers “to give preference in the recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion policies to certain racial groups or women or men to overcome past discrimination.” Nor are race, color, religion, and gender the only characteristics that warrant protection. The current list also includes “residence, physical disability, political activities, professional-association activity, age, marital status, family relationship, sex and sexual orientation.” And the personnel decisions that must be protected from all such discrimination include those under which a person is “employed, retained, paid, dismissed, suspended, demoted, transferred, or retired.” In fact, the only quotas explicitly frowned upon in NEA resolutions are “tenure quotas.”
Because declining school enrollments and budget constraints are shrinking the nation’s overall teaching force, the NEA has sought to give special protection to minority-group members when layoffs and reductions-in-force are carried out by school systems. The contract it negotiated in South Bend, Indiana, for example, states baldly that “No minority bargaining unit employee shall be laid off.”
Such practices clash sharply with the time-honored union doctrine of seniority, and have produced a particularly vigorous dispute between the NEA and the AFT, which adheres to that doctrine in particular, and has opposed race-based employment practices and quotas in general.
Whatever one may think of teacher seniority as an educational policy, it is preferable to racialism as a social policy. In this, as in its overall view of the proper ordering of the democracy, the American Federation of Teachers resists the classification of individuals according to outward characteristics and group identities, both in its own actions and in the actions of others. The AFT’s commitment to nondiscrimination is long-standing, firm, and sincere—it abolished “dual” (black and white) affiliates at the state and local level well before the NEA, and 7 of its 34 current executive-council members are black, while 11 are women—but it is a commitment to individual opportunity, not to group quotas and reverse discrimination. The pertinent AFT resolution “reject[s] quota policies which violate the very meaning of ‘equal protection’ by prescribing remedies for discrimination that are themselves discriminatory.” The same view animates Shanker’s frequent columns and forceful speeches on federal affirmative-action mandates, Office for Civil Rights regulations, and Supreme Court decisions. And it permeates the AFT’s view of what children should be taught in school, the language in which they should be taught, and the values that should undergird their education.
The NEA, by contrast, would fragment schooling itself along racial and ethnic lines. Bilingual education is only the beginning. Almost every imaginable minority group is the subject of an NEA resolution calling for special attention to its “heritage and culture” in the curriculum, for various forms of “self-determination” in educational policy-making (and often in general governance) for the affected group, for community or parental control of its children’s schools, and for classroom instruction by teachers of similar backgrounds.
What is missing, of course, is any clear recognition of a common American culture, nationhood, or polity. This lack of an anchor not infrequently causes the NEA to get caught in some treacherous currents when it seeks to give specific guidance to classroom teachers. One example may be seen in a 1977 volume entitled Cross-Cultural Education which the NEA still distributes as part of its extensive curriculum library. Here, and in similar publications, one encounters a far clearer and more purposeful ideology than the bland “pluralism” that pervades the association’s public statements and resolutions. One encounters the unmistakable hint that American social, political, and economic values are, in a word, evil.
How else is one to view the statement in this volume that “Americans have allowed a national climate of prejudice, hate, racism, and sexism to grow”?
How else is one to interpret a suggested interdisciplinary unit on “the recent oil embargo in West Asia and its international sociopolitical consequences” in which these topics for discussions are proposed to the teaching team?:
The economics class might address the nomenclature of the international economic system, exploring how it is possible that a few Western nations control the flow of goods and services around the world. A mode of inquiry might center around the statement that three million whites in Africa enjoy a very high standard of living, while fifteen million blacks on the same continent exist essentially in economic slavery. The language-arts class might explore the reasons why English is the international language or examine the influence of English in promulgating European values and attitudes among non-European nations. . . . The political-science class might explore the sociopolitical impact of the oil embargo on American multinational corporations operating in newly decolonized countries such as Angola and Mozambique.
Lest any teacher be troubled by the discrepancy between the implicit world view encountered here and the ideas that he may have come upon elsewhere, Cross-Cultural Education offers reassurance. A chapter entitled “So-Called Liberals and So-Called Intellectuals” explains who is and is not to be trusted: “Organizational efforts to address manifestations of dehumanization have been effectively resisted, and in too many instances, completely stifled—not by the so-called racists, but by the so-called liberals and the so-called intellectuals. . . . [B]oth types have special destructive potentials for negating polycultural efforts.” The worrisome potential of the “so-called liberals” is their propensity to engage in “complex behaviors” that have, at their roots, the “psychology of racism.” Such behaviors include a tendency to defer action on one problem until an antecedent condition is alleviated, and to engage in “the well-known liberal ploy, divide-and-conquer,” which amounts to fostering “certain conditions that set one oppressed ethnocultural group against another.”
As for the “so-called intellectuals,” their cardinal sin is to “obscure major issues affecting the progress of oppressed ethnocultural groups” and thereby “to prolong any decision-making process that could facilitate the achievement of humanistic equity.” The solitary example given is the practice of using data attesting to increased minority enrollment in college “to support the distorted contention of some liberals and intellectuals that competence via educational preparation assures equitable upward mobility.” A remarkable statement in any situation, but truly striking when published under the imprimatur of the National Education Association, even when accompanied by the standard disclaimer of responsibility for the contents. The man who wrote Cross-Cultural Education, it may be noted, was identified as Associate Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
One wants to avoid recklessness in attributing motives and affixing political labels, but in reflecting upon the many societies that at one time or another have encouraged their teachers and students to view the world through lenses such as these, it is difficult to identify a single one that could accurately be termed democratic. Certainly this interpretation of the role of ideas and intellectuals within a political culture ill-becomes an organization whose principal criticism of its own perceived antagonists is the threat they purportedly pose to academic freedom.
The steadiest flow of such material into the NEA circulation system comes from an organization called the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC), which is not part of the NEA but which has co-sponsored several individual projects with it, which received an NEA “Human and Civil-Rights Special Award” in 1982, and which is listed in the NEA “yellow pages” of useful resources for teachers.
One such venture was the preparation by CIBC, in conjunction with the National and Connecticut Education Associations, of a kit of teacher materials about the Ku Klux Klan. The purpose was certainly laudable, and many of the materials are informative and useful, but the interpretation leaves something to be desired. “[I]t is important to remember,” the authors caution, “that the Klan is only the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and obvious manifestation of the entrenched racism in our society.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) termed this approach “disturbing and troublesome,” and pointed out that “racist ideas, contrary to the NEA’s basic theme, are antithetical to most Americans today. The nation’s thrust is to achieve racial equality, undo past wrongs, and insure the growth of freedom.”
The AFT’s Shanker echoed the ADL’s concern in his column. “Why aren’t all the facts given to the students so that they can arrive at conclusions for themselves?” he asked. “Should students leave the classroom filled with shame about what America once was—and without any sense of pride in what it is now and is trying to be?”
But the NEA is undaunted. It continues to distribute Violence, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Struggle for Equality through its “professional library” for $4.95 a copy, and its December 1982 newsletter announced that sales had topped 13,000 copies, indicating “that teachers nationwide are using this curriculum resource.”
The joint ventures of the NEA and the Council on Interracial Books for Children are not confined to the Klan, or indeed to the detection and elimination of racism. Another combined project was a 1981 report on romantic novels aimed at the preteen and teen-age markets. That many such books are dreadful scarcely bears repeating. What is noteworthy, however, are the assumptions underlying the criticisms proffered by the NEA and the CIBC. The stated objective of the exercise, of course, was to “eliminate bias” from children’s books. But it turns out that among the prominent varieties of bias of which many such books are culpable is a disposition to favor heterosexual love. In one of the briefer articles in the report, a self-described “adult lesbian” observes that “No romance novel ever gave me the slightest hint that girls (and women) could, and did, stay together. . . . Fortunately, I eventually escaped from the entrapment of these novels. I am concerned that the adolescent years of those who may be gay or lesbian and are now reading these ‘happiness package’ novels will be made far more difficult than necessary.”
The other forms of “bias” that the CIBC excoriates in its regular bulletin and miscellaneous publications are numerous, pervasive, and occasionally inventive. Criticisms range from “stereotypes in amusement parks” to an attack on Sesame Street. But some of them are unfunny. In an adulatory review of a new Harper & Row children’s novel about a fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican “street punk” in New York, for example, the youthful protagonist is hailed for being a “hustler with morals” (who “hustles a full meal from a sympathetic waitress but leaves her a large tip, explaining ‘I’m broke for restaurants, not people’”). More remarkable still, we are asked to admire the book’s portrayal of the lad’s father, who “is in Attica for having assaulted a policeman during a Puerto Rico independence day rally” which “suggests that he has a sense of self-respect and self-determination.”
Such materials are a long way from bland convention resolutions in support of federal aid for bilingual education, but they partake of essentially the same view of American society, of the role of education in that society, and of the teacher’s responsibilities. The NEA and the organizations with which it cooperates would have children absorb the same values and beliefs that permeate its own governance system, its public-policy pronouncements, its lobbying efforts, its television and magazine advertisements, and the criteria by which it decides which candidates to support in state and national elections. Running throughout is an unstated but fairly coherent ideology familiar to all who have watched the evolution of radical political movements within the Western democracies during the past two decades. It includes the denial of nationhood; the celebration of individual and, especially, group differences; the substitution of color (and gender, ethnic, linguistic, etc.) consciousness for color-blindness; the delegitimization of all authority save that of the state; the purification and reconstruction of political institutions to make them more “responsive”; the gradual eclipse of liberty by equality; the defaming of economic structures and the ethos that sustains them; the creeping politicization of the culture; the degradation of traditional morality; the idealization of modernism and relativism in values, attitudes, and behavior; and the encouragement of citizens in general and children in particular to despise the rules and customs by which their society orders itself, including those that make it a functional (if imperfect) democracy.
It would be wrong to infer that the NEA harbors such an ideology at the level of organizational consciousness, and certainly it would be inaccurate to impute such views to American classroom teachers, 70 percent of whom describe their political philosophies as “conservative” or “tending” that way, and most of whom share the values and beliefs of their relatives and neighbors in every community in the land. But it is impossible to examine the policies, practices, and publications of the National Education Association without at least concluding that it has lost (or jettisoned) its anchor and is drifting rapidly into some well-charted but exceedingly dangerous waters. And probably carrying more than a few teachers and pupils with it.
The American Federation of Teachers, by contrast, is securely moored. A fair sampling of the educational and political values it seeks to impart can be found in the Winter 1982 issue of its journal, American Educator, which in recent years has emerged as one of the most solid of the innumerable periodicals aimed at schoolteachers. It contains six major articles. In one, the president of St. John’s College urges restoration in the schools of “a traditional liberal-arts education—not just job training—which will provide a solid foundation for youngsters to become imaginative citizens prepared for the world of work and able to enjoy and contribute to society.” Another celebrates the ability of the “great books” to rekindle teachers’ “excitement about learning.” A third, by philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, summarizes the boldest and most imaginative of the many recent commission reports on restructuring the curriculum and strengthening the pedagogy of American schools. The fourth is an essay-review by Judge Robert Bork of a recent history of key Supreme Court decisions and constitutional evolution. The fifth is a selection of material that teachers might use in teaching “honesty,” this being the latest in a superb series on “traditional values” that previously addressed responsibility, courage, and compassion. Finally, there is a critical appraisal by Harold Isaacs of “myths” about the Chinese Cultural Revolution that are fostered by writers who fail to note “how many died, were shot, beaten, tortured, frozen, or starved to death during this ordeal.”
This is not the first time that the American Federation of Teachers has chided those who romanticize the People’s Republic of China. In 1977, Shanker sent an open letter to Dr. Mary Berry, then the Carter administration’s senior education official (and today a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), who had recently returned from Peking and pronounced in a speech that “The whole relationship between the academy and the real world represents an area in which I believe we have much to learn from the Chinese.” Shanker expressed his “shock” that “you have chosen to extol various aspects of Chinese education as models for us to emulate. . . . How . . . can you ignore that they are part of an educational system in which the highest purpose of learning is service to the state—in which the suppression of criticism and the screening for political opinion are major functions of the schools?”
Both national teachers’ unions, it turns out, have what could fairly be termed “foreign policies,” and these are sharply divergent. The AFT’s world view closely resembles that of the AFL-CIO. It was forged in the political tradition of democratic socialism from which some key AFT leaders come, and toughened in the 1940’s and 50’s when the union forcefully (and painfully) expelled several locals with Stalinist leanings.
The AFT is quite active in foreign affairs, both on its own and through the AFL-CIO. Shanker currently serves as president of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions, the major world assembly of non-Communist teacher groups, which provides funds, technical assistance, and moral support to fledgling democratic unions in many countries.3
The AFT has also given vigorous moral and financial support to Poland’s Solidarity union and to Soviet dissidents, many of whom it has publicly honored, invited to speak at its conventions, and publicized in its journals. Recent AFT speakers and human-rights award recipients include Alexander Ginzburg, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov. Shanker helped organize the International Sakharov Hearings, provided office space in New York for a Solidarity spokesman, and frequently devotes his column to such issues as the plight of Cambodian refugees, the imprisonment of Huber Matos in Cuba, and the results of annual human-rights assessments by Freedom House and Amnesty International. American Educator and other AFT publications include critical accounts of human rights in Eastern Europe and Cuba, and of the parlous condition of democracy in Central America. Union policy resolutions are strongly supportive of Israel (and critical of the PLO), skeptical of a wide array of United Nations activities, and impatient with the United States government for its cautious responses to Soviet actions in Afghanistan and Poland. The union’s general position on national defense is consistent with the AFL-CIO view that strength begets security and that domestic and defense spending must not be pitted against one another in budget decisions. As for nuclear weapons, the 1982 AFT convention called for a “mutual and verifiable freeze” but insisted that American arms reductions be “consistent with the maintenance of overall parity with the Soviet Union,” and condemned Moscow for its military build-up.
The NEA’s positions on most foreign-policy and defense issues are different both in detail and in spirit, as suggested by the association’s unsmiling characterization of Shanker as a man “suspected of brushing his teeth with gunpowder.” The arms-freeze position adopted at the 1982 NEA convention warmly endorsed the Kennedy-Hatfield nuclear-freeze proposal and called for a “complete halt in the nuclear-arms race.” Part of the philosophical basis for that position can be seen in a paragraph on “education and national security” contained in the NEA’s current statement of priorities for Congress:
The security and well-being of our nation are enhanced by the pursuit of peace. The most effective guarantees of peace are a solid economy, a well-educated populace, and a stable world community. All efforts which detract from those guarantees shall be actively opposed. The goal of national security through peace can be achieved only by the education of the citizenry to compete and succeed in a complex and interdependent world. Therefore the proposed disproportionate allocation of funds increasing the national defense budget and decreasing federal funding for education must be reversed.
Up to a point, the NEA’s position on national defense reflects the familiar worry of any domestic interest group that each dollar spent by the military will be a dollar subtracted from its pet programs.4 At times, however, one catches a whiff of something else, perhaps just the faintest suggestion that the clash of budget priorities can be turned to tactical advantage in the pursuit of ends that have little directly to do with domestic programs after all. Ronald Reagan has, of course, made such left-wing political craftsmanship more inviting and occasionally more gratifying, and in the hands of a master craftsman the results can be seductive indeed. One need only review Terry Herndon’s remarkable National Press Club address in April 1982 (which Herbert Stein could well have used as the basis for his brilliant essay on “How World War III Was Losf”5):
The President may speak of our social programs as “hungry stray pups” to be spurned, but I speak to him of war machines which he pets and feeds without limit as ravenous lions which must be tamed lest they consume us all. . . . [I]t is increasingly clear that we lack the food to both feed the hungry pup and sate the ravening lion. Yet, both within and beyond our borders, we see hungry children seeking food, destitute families seeking homes, ignorant masses seeking schools . . . while the Congress debates a budget which diminishes or threatens to eliminate nearly all of the relevant relief programs. . . . Is it not time to question “Why?” The answer is inescapable, it is proposed that we spend $1.6 trillion to achieve military superiority in five years. . . . [T]o build redundant weapons with dollars stripped from the millions of children served by Head Start or from the millions served by Title I, to install the MX system with money wrenched from the education of handicapped children and aspiring college students . . . is to sacrifice self-determination to reaction. . . . Our dependence on the implements of war seemingly threatens our will and our capacity to establish justice. . . . In this world the “common defense” is to be found only in the aggressive pursuit of peace. . . . We ring the globe with military installations because of the Soviets. We flood Europe with missiles because of the Soviets. . . . [O]ur government seems more responsive to the Soviet presence than to the needs of its own people or the needs of the desperate peoples of the world. . . . The omnipresent nuclear umbrella has not created jobs, filled bellies, ended oppression, or forestalled Soviet exploitation of human misery in the Third World. Moreover, aggressive arms supply and bellicose diplomacy did not arrest the creep of Marxism into Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Afghanistan. Then why do we rely on these policies for future defense? It seems to me clear that, at home and abroad, we must instead compassionately attend to the promotion of justice and human rights; the encouragement of economic development; the provision of food, medicine, and schools; and the preservation of peace. . . .
Herndon is as energetic as he is loquacious, and in recent months he has pushed the “peace issue” to the top of the NEA’s public-policy agenda (where it took the place of the defunct Equal Rights Amendment) and has assumed a major leadership role in forming new peace coalitions and organizations. He is president of a new umbrella group called Citizens Against Nuclear War, and provides it with office space in the NEA headquarters building in Washington. This coalition of 26 other groups—primarily civil-rights, religious, and environmentalist—has three specific objectives: negotiation of a bilateral nuclear-weapons freeze, cancellation of “irrational civil-defense programs for evacuation of American cities,” and “observance of all previously negotiated international arms agreements,” which is evidently meant to include SALT II.
The salient characteristic of Citizens Against Nuclear War is that, while its laudable objective is “world peace,” its governing principles speak only to American policy and to the responsibility for foreign policy of “the citizens of a democracy.” Thus, “the U.S. must urgently seek international agreements to reduce the risk of war” and “U.S. policy should not be based on an effort to win or survive a nuclear war.”
While the absence of any parallel admonitions to those who might make war on the United States could be mere oversight, and while it is reasonable to suppose that the primary concern of an American group will be the policies of its own government, this inattention to the policies and actions of adversary nations is nonetheless striking. But it is not unprecedented in the foreign-policy pronouncements of the NEA and the organizations with which it is affiliated. Although the resolutions adopted in 1982 include a mild statement of support for Solidarity, as recently as 1981 the reporter covering that year’s NEA convention for the Communist party’s Daily World (himself a New Jersey high-school teacher and convention delegate) could approvingly write that “Nowhere in the basic documents of NEA, in their resolutions or new business items, are there any anti-Soviet or anti-socialist positions.”
Yet NEA convention proceedings and resolutions in both years contained multiple denunciations of various aspects of American foreign and defense policy, and admonitions to the government to change its ways. The current NEA legislative program, for example, calls upon Washington not to give military or economic assistance “to any foreign government which violates or permits the violation of the basic rights of its citizens.” Well and good. But the next sentence states that “For example, NEA shall work for cessation of aid to the current administrations in Guatemala and El Salvador.” No other examples are given. Certainly there is no suggestion that the United States might reconsider the various kinds of preferential treatment and indirect economic assistance that it gives to Warsaw Pact nations or, for that matter, to the Soviet Union itself. The government is similarly advised to refrain from any “overt or covert action that would destabilize Nicaragua,” but no one is admonished to stop using poison gas in Afghanistan and Indochina or to refrain from destabilizing countries in Africa.
The NEA’s generally uncritical stance toward Moscow occasionally yields domestic public-relations problems. This was particularly evident in 1978 when the association officially endorsed and recommended the television series The Unknown War. Much could be said about this twenty-hour cinematic treatment of World War II from the Soviet standpoint.6 Tom Buckley termed it “softcore propaganda.” Shanker’s column described it as a “whitewash of Stalin.” Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander Motyl, writing in Freedom at Issue, called it a “disservice to the millions who suffered the ravages of both Nazism and Stalinism” and a “shameful model for the clichés and falsifications that animate the Soviet version of reality.” The NEA’s tepid response to these criticisms did not address the substance of these concerns at all. Rather, explained the association’s spokesman, “The NEA has acknowledged from the start that there may be distortions of history (distortions from the American and other views) in the series.”
In and of itself, such seeming innocence about the motives of other nations on the part of leaders of our oldest and largest education group is merely astonishing. But when combined with deep-seated mistrust and carefully-elaborated analyses of the motivations of one’s own government and its elected leaders, and when that combination is enveloped in the language of international brotherhood and shared human understanding, the result is truly insidious. The inescapable result of such ratiocination is the conviction that the United States is the main obstacle to worldwide fellowship, to the permanent conversion of swords into plowshares, and to the long overdue elevation of education and other worthy social goods to the priority that they deserve. It is, in short, a recipe for despising the society whose children one is charged with teaching.
Hence the real significance of NEA endorsement of The Unknown War lies not in the domain of foreign policy per se, but rather in the insight it gives into the association’s ideas about what people should learn. In that instance, television was the pedagogical medium. But the same world view often enough enters into school-curriculum and teacher-guidance materials endorsed by the NEA and by organizations that it esteems.
The association itself has published relatively little on international relations and defense policy thus far, perhaps because such subjects do not yet loom large in most elementary and secondary-school curricula, but recently it has been generous in referring teachers to “peace-resource groups.”7 In June 1982, for example, the NEA weekly newsletter identified thirty such, ranging from the Council for a Livable World to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Educators for Social Responsibility, one of the “peacework” organizations listed in the NEA guide, has produced a 209-page “planning and curriculum-resource guide” for “dealing with issues of nuclear war in the classroom.” Some of it, in fact, has little directly to do with the classroom, instead consisting of sample letters that teachers can send to parents, school boards, and newspaper editors to invite their participation in a “day of dialogue.” But much pertains directly to the content of what teachers may wish to impart to their students, the questions they might raise, and the readings they might assign. For instance, high-school teachers are encouraged to use “imaginative literature . . . to acquaint students with the dangers we face in our nuclear world, and the opportunities we have to lessen them.”
How, for example, might teachers employ literature to answer the question, “But who are the Soviets?” Answer: “The short story, ‘the Fate of Man,’ by Mikhail Sholokov, is a good choice. It is the story of a Soviet soldier in World War II; he spends time in Nazi prison camps, and returns home to find his family has been killed in a bombing attack. The World War II setting—when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies fighting a common enemy—may help your students bypass cold-war distortion to reach an understanding of the Soviets as people.” Any teacher uncertain how to obtain this work is referred to Imported Publications, Inc. in Chicago, or Progress Publishers in Moscow. Perhaps it goes without saying that there is no parallel reference to the works of Solzhenitsyn.
A still more creative suggestion is offered in the section explaining how “Inflammatory Words Can Teach You to Hate.” There, teachers and students are encouraged to consult the memoirs of Lt. William Calley to gain a better understanding of how his simplistic grasp of the inflammatory word “Communism” led to his actions at Mylai. “In all my years in the army,” the Calley excerpts explain, “I was never taught the Communists were human beings. We weren’t in Mylai to kill human beings. We were there to kill ideology carried by—I don’t know—pawns, blobs, pieces of flesh. I was there to destroy Communism. We never conceived of old people, men, women, children, babies.”
And that is just about all that the entire curriculum-resource guide has to say to teachers and students on the subject of Communism or, for that matter, on American involvement in Vietnam.
Additional teacher guidance on foreign-policy curriculum issues, textbooks, and supplementary readings is provided by the ever-helpful Council on Interracial Books for Children which has devoted several of its recent bulletins to salient international issues.8 One such volume was given over to a report on the “literacy crusade in Nicaragua.” Another, devoted to Central America as a whole, examined 71 books (texts, encyclopedias, etc.) to determine their suitability for U.S. classrooms. The level of analysis, and the values coloring it, are adequately revealed in this brief excerpt:
Several texts attribute complex events—including revolution—in Central America simply to the proximity of Communism in Cuba. Instead of explaining how internal events in each nation might cause dissatisfaction or revolt, readers are left with the idea that: (1) Cuba is bad because it is Communist; (2) Central American revolutions might be bad because they include ideologies similar to Cuba’s; (3) therefore, the U.S. should not support these revolutions. . . .
But the showpiece of the Council’s recent contributions to our understanding of world affairs is a new Bulletin devoted to “Militarism and Education” (subtitled “Racism, Sexism, and Militarism: The Links”). This has some (unintentionally) amusing articles, such as a brief sidebar on “militarism and handicapism,” both of which turn out to be “elitist, hierarchical ideologies which value strength over human qualities and deny the equal worth of nations and individuals.” But there is little to smile at in the article entitled “But What about the Russians?” by Irving Lerner, which purports to answer seven of “the questions most frequently raised about the arms race.” Two brief examples will suffice:
Q. But aren’t we risking our way of life if we allow the Russians to get ahead?
A. The $1 trillion defense budget that President Reagan seeks for the next four years will do more to undermine our democratic values and standard of living than anything the Russians can do. . . .
Q. But how can we trust the Russians? How can we be sure they won’t cheat?
A. We can trust them as much as they can trust us. . . .
The Council on Interracial Books for Children, it seems fair to say, does not suffer from an inordinate fear of Communism or an overweening passion for democracy. Neither do many of the other organizations now preparing and distributing curriculum materials to the nation’s teachers and students on issues of foreign policy in general and nuclear war in particular. A number of these are recommended by the NEA to its members. Most teachers feel a keen sense of obligation to do right by their students in explaining this and the other great issues facing the nation and the world. The teacher’s instinct is to be accurate, informed, fair, and constructive, which is what practically every parent would want his child’s teacher to be. How often, after all, does that child preface his comments on pressing issues of the day and of the ages with the phrase, “My teacher says . . .” It stands to reason that many conscientious teachers will seek curricular information and pedagogical direction from their local, state, and national organizations, and will carry that guidance into their classrooms, where it will be imparted to their youthful charges.
What guidance, finally, does the National Education Association provide? How does it suggest that the moral authority and intellectual power of the teacher should be deployed? President Willard McGuire addressed the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament on June 25, 1982, offering this helpful advice to mankind on behalf of himself, the NEA, and the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession:
Our students must be taught to love, not hate. To respect others different from themselves, not condemn them for being different. And, the most difficult thing of all, we must teach our students that positions their governments take are not necessarily the right positions. And that they, like their teachers, have not only a right but an obligation to protest when their government’s action, as in the case of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, threaten our very existence.
No doubt McGuire was well-received in Turtle Bay. For what he was there proposing, and what his colleagues have for the past decade been promoting in word and deed, is something that most UN member nations already take for granted but that the democratic societies that are heir to the educational traditions of Western civilization have tended to resist. Namely, the use of the classroom to pursue the agendas of the policy arena, the cession of the teacher’s moral authority to the advancement of particular causes, the displacement of liberal learning and cognitive growth by lessons in political action, and even the corruption of childhood’s simple truths and pleasures by the confusions and anxieties of the adult world.
Totalitarian regimes have long recognized the teacher’s power to mold ideas, influence behavior, and shape belief. That is why their schools are integral parts of the governmental-control apparatus. Radical movements, too, have come to appreciate the potency of the classroom in forming the ideology and attitudes of children, families, and communities. Hence the leader of any nation, party, or movement that wishes the United States no good would instantly see McGuire’s plea to the United Nations, though cast in the language of a higher morality that transcends politics, as the very essence of politics as practiced in most of the world, thus particularly insidious when reflected back into our own schools. For it has been one of the abiding strengths of American education and of the society that nurtured it that we have not politicized the classroom, or turned teachers into propagandists, or willfully instructed our children through curricula that seek to indoctrinate. Politicization and indoctrination are, of course, what the NEA charges the “radical Right” with seeking to infuse into the nation’s educational system, and this concern is legitimate. But it is not clear that an educational system organized around the views of the NEA would be any less politicized, or its curriculum any less doctrinaire, though the doctrines would surely differ.
Nor is it clear that such a system would itself retain popular respect and electoral approval. The long-term strength of public education in a democracy depends on its success in imparting skills, knowledge, and fundamental values to children without intruding politics into the schoolhouse. The parent whose child learns to read, write, and reason for himself, to weigh evidence and evaluate ideas, to respect the central tenets of a free society and to honor the terms that make him a member of it, is a parent who is apt to respect the teacher, esteem the school, and willingly pay taxes for the educational system. The parent whose child is taught that he has an obligation to protest—or, for that matter, to support—particular policies and practices that the teacher, or the teacher’s national union, happens to dispute, is a parent whose lasting faith in public education dare not be taken for granted.
Over time, the signals that the national teachers’ unions send into the educational system itself will have a more profound effect on the nature of American society than their decisions about which candidates to endorse and finance at election time. The implicit politics of the organization, transmitted into the classroom, the curriculum, the teachers’ colleges and journals, the lessons that are taught, the homework that is assigned, the books that are read, the values that are inculcated, and the ways in which teachers represent themselves in the world of ideas and to their counterparts in other lands, will count for more than the organization’s explicit political activities in the governmental domain. Moreover, the implicit politics are less visible, harder for others to appraise, more difficult either to reinforce or to combat, and far more apt to intimidate the average citizen through the aura of superior knowledge, expertise, and moral authority associated with the teacher’s role in society.
In the case of the National Education Association, implicit and explicit politics seem to have converged around a single set of ideas and values. On the whole, these are now the doctrines of the Left. This is not true of the American Federation of Teachers, which is apt to end up supporting most of the same candidates on election day, but which infuses a quite different set of moral, cultural, and political values into the educational system itself, and into the society whose children it teaches. Indeed, the AFT’s value structure seems to have emerged remarkably strong and resilient from a period in which so many of our major social and cultural institutions—and the elected officials who respond to them—have allowed their own to soften and bend. This discrepancy between its inward and outward politics may eventually produce symptoms of organizational schizophrenia in the AFT, but that is less worrisome than the singlemindedness of the NEA. It would, of course, be well if the AFT could bring itself to support more candidates who share its faith in freedom and its pride in liberal democracy. As for the NEA, however, unless the new executive director finds a more reliable compass with which to steer its course away from the ideological shores to which it is drifting, perhaps the most that can be hoped is that both the teachers who belong to it and the candidates who accept its support will take their own navigational bearings from other sources.
1 Unfortunately, his educational vision has a large blind spot when it comes to private schools, which the AFT—here in complete accord with the NEA—regards as a threat and spares no effort to bar from educational legitimacy, social approbation, and governmental funds.
2 See my article, “‘Affirmative Action’ Under Reagan,” COMMENTARY, April 1982.
3 The NEA's international is the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP), and it is largely outside the worldwide network of democratic labor activities and organizations with which most major American unions are affiliated. Although included in the celebrated Ramparts list of onetime CIA conduits, the WCOTP today has no very clear ideology, save a strong yearning for cooperation among all the world's teaching organizations, regardless of their politics or those of the regimes under which they exist. WCOTP does not currently include teacher groups from Warsaw Pact nations, however, though the Yugoslavian teachers are members.
4 This position is sufficiently flexible, however, to permit the association to seek federal education funds in the name of national defense. In an action slightly reminiscent of the man who murdered his parents and then beseeched the judge for mercy on grounds that he was now an orphan, the NEA has endorsed the American Defense Education Act, which would, if enacted, provide funds to public schools for instruction in math, foreign languages, science, and the like. The NEA's statement noted, without intentional irony, that the program would “provide the necessary training programs . . . to answer the nation's needs for the maintenance and operation of weapons systems.”
5 Wall Street Journal, December 3, 1982.
6 See Joshua Rubenstein, “World War II—Soviet Style,” COMMENTARY, May 1979.
7 Such materials are under active development, however. A new curriculum on nuclear weapons and conflict resolution, prepared jointly by the NEA and the Union of Concerned Scientists, was field-tested in 37 states during the autumn of 1982 and is expected to be published by mid-1983.
8 As noted above, the CIBC is not an NEA affiliate and not all of its publications bear explicit NEA endorsement. However, the two organizations frequently collaborate; the NEA uncritically refers teachers to CIBC for “bias-free children's books and learning materials”; and the special “human rights” award that the NEA conferred on the Council in 1982 would seem to suggest general approbation.