The Magazine

Mugged by Reality

Albert Shanker and the fall of American liberalism.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Tough Liberal

Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

by Richard Kahlenberg

Columbia, 552 pp., $29.95

The life of Al Shanker embodied the 1960s transformation of American liberalism from a creed with broad middle- and working-class support to a doctrine lodged primarily in the precincts of the poor and the professional upper middle classes.

In 1967 Shanker, the pioneer public sector unionist who built his New York City teachers into the largest local in the AFL-CIO, stood at the heart of the labor-liberal-civil rights coalition that was, at long last, bringing an end to racial segregation. Inspired by the civil disobedience of the Freedom Riders, Shanker served jail time for illegally taking his members out on strike. Shanker had marched with Martin Luther King in Birmingham and fought hard to integrate Gotham's increasingly African-American school system.

A year later Shanker was, wrote Midge Decter, the recipient of "the worst press in living memory." Demonized as a "goon," "racist," and "Neanderthal," who was "but an accent away from George Wallace" by radicalized writers Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin, Shanker was reviled by many of his former allies as the incarnation of middle-class bigotry. It was a left-liberal auto da fe that reached its verbal climax in Sleeper when Woody Allen described Shanker as the man who had destroyed the world with an atomic bomb.

What intervened, explains Richard Kahlenberg in his judicious and engaging Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, was the left-liberal swing from Shanker's integrationism toward Black Power symbolized by the bitter struggle, in Brooklyn's Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, to give militant Afrocentrists "community control" over the local schools.

Shanker, a tall, nearsighted, and awkward Bronx Jewish boy born in 1928, had nearly been lynched by neighborhood nasties as a prank. Precociously intellectual, Shanker started reading Partisan Review at 15. He began to come into his own as a Boy Scout and member of his high school debate team. At the University of Illinois, just after World War II, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality and the Young People's Socialist league, and took part in sit-ins to protest segregation.

His interest in philosophy brought him to Columbia's graduate school to study at the home of his intellectual hero, John Dewey. But he lacked the Sitzfleisch to write a dissertation and so took a job as a teacher, where he discovered that, without a union, he and his fellow instructors were at the mercy of the principal's arbitrary authority. A skilled speaker and debater, Shanker, fired up by Sidney Hook's ideas about democracy, set out on a mission to bring workplace democracy to the New York City schools.

Shanker was drawn to the militantly antisegregationist and anti-Communist American Federation of Teachers, whose founding motto was "Education for Democracy." Shanker shared the action-oriented (and initially anti-authoritarian) impulses of the emerging New Left. In 1960, Kahlenberg explains, the older generation of teachers argued that the still-weak union had to grow before it could strike in violation of state law. Shanker, a veteran of the sit-ins, insisted, SDS-like, that "you have to act in order to grow."

When, in 1962, a victorious strike shifted the balance of power from principals to teachers, Shanker exulted--as would the McGovernites a decade later--in what he saw as a triumph over the corrupt old patronage system and the principals/political bosses who ran it. The pol-like principals had largely ignored the breakdown of order in what at times were "blackboard jungles." But Shanker, committed to the substance of education, insisted the teachers use their victory to take the lead in restraining unruly students so as to make it possible for others to learn.

Shanker was in tune with the new spirit of aggressive liberalism Mayor John Lindsay brought to City Hall. During the 1965 mayoral election, Shanker, his power greatly enhanced by the 1962 contract, was one of the few union leaders to support Lindsay. When Lindsay angered the city's outer-borough white ethnics, who felt under siege from rising crime rates, by proposing a Civilian Review Board to crack down on police brutality against minorities, Shanker was the only union leader who backed the mayor, despite the protests of many of his own members. Similarly, Shanker initially supported Lindsay's Ford Foundation-funded plans for "community control" of schools in black neighborhoods.

"As teachers," Shanker explained, "who have only recently struggled for a voice, we support others in this struggle. The right to democratic participation need not and should not be justified on grounds of educational efficiency. It has value in itself."