Book Reviews

Teaching Toughness

Al Shanker was more than just a punchline. He embodied a noble strain of liberalism that deserves a second look.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged Al ShankerEducation

Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy  By Richard Kahlenberg • Columbia University Press • 2007 • 552
pages • $29.95

Albert Shanker, the combative leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) during the 1970s and 1980s, should rank with Horace Mann and John Dewey as a great champion of American public schooling. The first strong leader of New York’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in 1964 and, from 1974, leader of the million-member AFT for 23 years, he fought tirelessly for both public schools and teachers’ unions (upon whose electoral clout schools’ funding and regulation depend). He fought against ideologues left and right, adversaries high and low, anddangerous social undertows. More than a power broker, he was at times a visionary reformer of trade unionism itself and of the nation’s understanding of what’s at stake in its public schools.

Yet these days Shanker, who died in 1997, is little remembered,
owing as much to what has become of education as to what became of him
in the school wars of his time. In his new biography, Richard
Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, works
impressively, if also a bit hagiographically, to repair Shanker’s
reputation and shore up his “tough liberal” faith, which for 20 years
has been sitting, punch-drunk, at the edge of a ring taken over by
meaner ideological combatants, particularly on the right. It’s a
daunting challenge, but Kahlenberg’s efforts to vindicate that faith
can only strengthen current attempts to plumb liberalism’s prospects.

Shanker wanted schools to advance the democratic vision of American
citizenship exalted in Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and Mary
Antin’s book The Promised Land. Antin’s testament, misremembered now by
some as a tract for assimilation and flag-waving nationalism, glanced
back sadly at the parochialism and poverty of her early Russian
childhood and chronicled her epiphanic encounters with America in its
public school system–that mighty and, for her, sacred crucible of
civic-republican liberalism that turned refugees from old blood feuds
and superstitions into citizens of the United States–and, through it,
the world.

Becoming an American in this way meant standing up against bonds of
“blood and soil” that narrow other people’s horizons and also sometimes
against a narrow individualism that undermines trans-racial, republican
justice and comity. Neither capitalism nor socialism alone would free
the huddled masses from penury and hatred without guidance from a
distinctively American civic liberalism. Trained in its arts and
graces, an American citizen would stride on a left foot of social
provision and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and

Shanker was a believer. “Our public schools have played a major part
in the building of our nation,” he wrote in 1980 in one of his “Where
We Stand” Sunday New York Times columns, underwritten by the
AFT. “They brought together countless children from different
cultures–to share a common experience, to develop understanding and
tolerance of differences. The public schools ‘Americanized’; they
taught our language and our history,” disposing young citizens to bond
democratically, across lines of class and color. He toughened this
vision with admonitions from Dewey, Mann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George
Orwell and made it the AFT’s guiding philosophy. Wielding teacher-union
power in 1978 to defeat a conservative push for private-tuition tax
credits that would have drained public schools, Shanker also
spearheaded reforms in faculty lounges and union halls. Against the
bigger, more genteel National Education Association, he made
trade-unionism a precondition of teachers’ professionalism, through
better pay and protections against arbitrary management. But he also
challenged teachers to conduct peer reviews to reward those who truly
broadened students’ skills and horizons. As a result of his pugnacity,
he won enough tactical gains and internal reforms to help public
schools survive the assaults from which his broader civic liberalism
hasn’t fully recovered.

Shanker’s liberalism rested on three pillars: confident, intensive
citizenship training (like Antin’s) that elevates working people’s
aspirations as well as wages, thus deepening their support for schools;
colorblind racial integration as a precondition of a common civic faith
and its coalitional power; and an aggressive foreign policy to advance
democracy and workers’ rights against communism. This three-pillared
liberalism might have prevailed, Kahlenberg believes, had not myopic
leftists and some self-indulgent liberals abandoned trade unions for
chimeras of revolutionary solidarity and self-marketing; sidelined
racial integration for identity politics; and flirted with a vapid
one-worldism or isolationism. But Kahlenberg downplays the ways even
mainstream liberals, including some of Shanker’s close associates,
found his tough urban liberalism wanting.

Today’s liberalism is a far cry from Shanker’s, but there is much
that liberals can learn from him about what values to hold, what fights
to engage, and what mistakes to avoid. Now that another decade of
electoral, legislative, and judicial setbacks to labor and public
schools have highlighted the importance of unions and a common civic
faith, a harder look at why Shanker’s liberalism waned is even more

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Kahlenberg’s Shanker is that
he was both apostle and statesman of his faith. “The marriage of ideas
and power, idealism and pragmatism, was perhaps his greatest strength,”
Kahlenberg writes. “Not many union leaders are ABD [all but
dissertation] in philosophy at Columbia. And not many intellectuals
command a union membership of one million.” But Shanker had other, less
admirable contradictions. Ungainly in appearance, mercurial and
obdurate in private life and in politics, he was immortalized in Woody
Allen’s futurist film Sleeper as the man who had ended
civilization by getting a hold of a nuclear warhead. But mainly he was
blindsided by strong social tides, betrayed by opportunists who feigned
accommodation, and let down by associates whose civic visions and
interests led elsewhere. By the end of the 1970s, Shanker faced a
society far less responsive to liberal hopes than its immigrant Jewish
enthusiasts had imagined, and in some respects he was unprepared and
perhaps unwilling to keep up.

To be sure, Shanker often fought admirably, going to jail for
leading strikes when bad labor laws foreclosed other ways of defending
teachers’ rights. He worked to toughen the “left foot” of social
provision, insisting that government enable social mobility through,
for example, the GI Bill and New York’s City University and public
healthcare systems. He fought for legislation to enable the labor
organizing essential to creating such institutions through hard
bargaining in legislatures, not just workplaces. A republic, he
understood, needs unions not as revolutionary forces but as
countervailing and intermediating powers that wrest respect for
ordinary people from employers and officials. It requires convincing
other groups to support one’s agendas for reasons of their own, making
everyone say things that don’t always mean what they seem.

But it was not easy. Shanker had to fight alongside some unions that
were racist, sexist, and corrupt. He had to deal with black leaders who
drained interracial coalitions’ power with a politics of racial
paroxysm that often recapitulated elements of racist segregation. He
had to fight off leftists who made race a vessel of thwarted
revolutionary desires. He had to indulge liberals who were too
comfortable with “the system” to seriously challenge its deepening
inequities, yet who were too uncomfortable to defend it wholeheartedly
and therefore resorted to moral posturing that spared their
prerogatives and moral self-regard. Some of these, he believed, were
elite liberals like New York Mayor John Lindsay, the Ford Foundation’s
McGeorge Bundy (who funded poorly planned experiments in black
community control), and Dwight Macdonald (who defended those
experiments). These men had integrity and moral intelligence, but,
ignorant and guilt-ridden about poverty, they could not see the flaws
in the solutions they were commending to the less fortunate. From the
other side, Shanker had to hold off conservative champions of parochial
education while dancing with conservatives who sang Edmund Burke’s
“great melody” of traditional social cohesion, even as they ravaged
workers’ material and cultural well-being.

Shanker thought civic faith a more reliable mainstay of that
well-being than religious faith in the public arena. But something
remained unresolved that haunts his legatees. It is fashionable now for
self-described “fighting liberals” (such as Peter Beinart, whom
Kahlenberg cites approvingly) to invoke Reinhold Niebuhr’s chastening
Christian realism, as Shanker himself sometimes did. But it’s not clear
how many besides Shanker, along with such battle-toughened comrades as
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, have really shared Niebuhr’s dark
intimations of an America too steeped in original sin to be redeemed
without a deeper, bolder faith. Early civil rights activists were
willing personally to provoke dangerous responses–not violently, as
“fighting liberals” like Beinart are eager for other Americans to do
abroad, but nonviolently at home, after the example of Randolph,
Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Eastern Europe’s
true leaders of 1990. To this list we should add Albert Shanker, but
not all who claim his legacy.

With so many poseurs chasing chimeras of liberation across the
political spectrum–in black Brooklyn, on Wall Street, or in
Saigon–Shanker often found himself defending a civic center that would
not hold. Fighting Shanker in 1966 over race-based hiring, the black
militant Stokely Carmichael rejected nonviolence and integration in the
name of a black power that was mostly racial theater. The most
explosive and defining of Shanker’s struggles–with black militants
demanding race-based “community control” of some Brooklyn schools in
1967–coincided with the Six Day War, which some black and white
leftists considered a racist, imperialist victory by Israel and
neo-colonialist powers. Neoconservatism was born in reaction in the
years following, as friends of Shanker who had usually backed unions
and integration–Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, Carl
Gershman, Ronald Radosh, Linda Chavez, and Jeane Kirkpatrick–recoiled
from “black power” and joined people who had real power, better
rhetoric, and apparent moral clarity about threats abroad, but also an
active hostility to unions and even public schooling. That November,
largely in response to the Los Angeles Watts riots 15 months earlier,
former Democrat and actors’ union president Ronald Reagan won
California’s governorship and Republicans picked up 47 seats in
Congress. This confirmed Shanker in his belief that race-based
“community control” heralded not black empowerment but black impotence.

For similar reasons, he would later fight “community control” by
whites in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood who were trying to keep out
black students assigned to their local junior high school. He also
helped block some New York private employers’ offers, supposedly in the
spirit of “civil rights,” to accelerate black promotions by dismantling
seniority protections that were benefiting whites. Shanker realized
that those jobs would no longer be secure for workers of all colors.
But it was almost impossible to persuade blacks, who’d have been
promoted quickly, to support his longer-term, hard-headed view of the

Shanker became Woody Allen’s target because he could be hot-headed
as well as hard-headed: He played into the hands of black purveyors of
anti-Semitic rhetoric who knew that Jews were white folks whose skin
they could get under. Coming barely 20 years after the Holocaust, their
rhetoric was shockingly and painfully dismissive of Jews who held
Lazarus’ and Antin’s high civic hopes. But Shanker saw that such
attacks were also naïve. If blacks were spouting anti-Semitism, the
message would have less appeal to white ethnics. Knowing this, he made
and distributed thousands of copies of a few hateful leaflets that had
been left in some Jewish teachers’ mailboxes. But his convictions had
gotten the better of his political acumen: His leaflets fanned Jewish
fears of poor blacks and others’ contempt for them, reaping a whirlwind
of liberal moral censure.

The Jewish dimension of Shanker’s career is worth examining more
closely than Kahlenberg does, deferring, as Shanker usually did, to
unspoken rules of a “tough liberal” public discourse that emphasized
universal aspirations over parochial loyalties. While Kahlenberg
discredits the most facile and fanatical reasons some people gave for
abandoning tough liberalism, he might have focused less on elite
moralism and black political infantilism and more on the
lower-middle-class Jewish liberalism of Shanker’s own teachers. Long
denied the dubious comforts of “blood and soil” ties to ancestral
homelands and unable to rely on the strength in numbers in America that
enabled others to convert ethnic loyalty to raw electoral power, Jewish
Americans had learned to use other, more liberal strategies–to convince
others into accepting configurations of power that raised the state and
meritocracies above tribal loyalties. (No wonder so many Jewish
Americans became teachers, journalists, and civic poets like Antin and

In New York, Jews did have some strength in numbers found in unions
like Shanker’s, and, before then, in garment unions; for a while those
numbers provided Shanker with moderate, mass support. But Jews weren’t
long in leaving union solidarity for sole proprietorship or
professionalism. “What’s the difference between the International
Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the American Psychiatric
Association? One generation,” an old joke has it. In many occupations,
Jews in New York even had replaced WASPs and the Irish in the city
bureaucracy. Thus, to the 900,000 African Americans and Puerto Ricans
who had arrived between 1950 and 1960, as 800,000 whites had left for
the suburbs, everyone in authority seemed Jewish. At the same time,
many Jewish Americans were daunted by blacks’ needs and alarmed by
demands for their hard-won municipal jobs and neighborhood turf. The
irony was that blacks, like Jews, had the highest stakes in the
country’s fulfilling its egalitarian promises, and they had produced
exponents of those promises even more eloquent than Antin or Lazarus.

But that didn’t guarantee the cohesion of the labor/civil-rights
coalition. While inner-city teachers in New York were
disproportionately Jewish, female, and liberal, most craft and
industrial unions were white-ethnic, father-son organizations–sexist
and racist almost by definition. Blacks and Jews had to embarrass
AFL-CIO President George Meany into trying to get his old New York
plumbers’ union local to take on black members (Meany failed to budge
his erstwhile allies). Liberal Jews understood rightly, and earlier
than most, that a larger American civic culture urgently needed to be
enriched and vindicated. But perhaps that realization came too early;
by the late 1960s, many liberal Jews were becoming disenchanted with
the Shankerian liberal project. The future neoconservative intellectual
Irving Kristol, who had assured New York Times Magazine
readers of the mid-1960s that blacks then arriving from the South would
advance like the immigrants of yesteryear, would later declare that “a
neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality”–an
apothegm whose racial implications even some politically liberal Jewish
Americans had begun to accept.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Shanker himself followed
his former like-minded liberals toward the right. The displacement of
neoconservatives’ hopes from his liberalism into a Vulcan foreign
policy was endorsed, in large part, by Shanker himself. “You won’t have
very much education if you don’t have a free country,” he explained
lamely in 1982, even claiming that South Vietnam’s fledgling labor
unions (whatever they were) had justified America’s intervention. In
the 1980s, Shanker backed aid to Nicaraguan contras because, Kahlenberg
says, Sandinistas reminded him of the vicious Stalinist left in
Orwell’s Catalonia (though Orwell had never backed fascist insurgents
against the Spanish republic).

It was one thing for Shanker’s friends in the Coalition for a
Democratic Majority (CDM) of the 1970s–an early neoconservative
advocacy organization, whose supporters included his AFT protégé Sandra
Feldman, Decter, Kristol, Gershman, Ben Wattenberg, and Penn Kemble–to
try to “save” the Democratic Party from George McGovern’s color-coded,
appeasement-oriented “New Politics.” It was another thing for many of
them to leave the party to join with people who really hated unions,
public education, and integration. Kahlenberg doesn’t explain why they
left, nor does he satisfactorily explain why Shanker danced in and out
of their cheering lines, endorsing Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter in
the 1980 primaries but simultaneously moving with his old colleagues
toward an increasingly aggressive, right-wing foreign policy.

By the late 1980s, neoconservativism, at least in its first
iteration, was discredited by Central American death squads and
peaceful, labor-led anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe. But
Shanker and the AFT had gotten too close to people demanding open war
against communism while peddling a militarized “democratic capitalism”
to regimes that crushed unions. To find historical lessons for a robust
domestic liberalism today, we must better understand why Shanker’s
efforts turned out as they did. In part he shared neoconservatives’
vengeful anger at leftists and liberals who’d been pathetically naïve
about the dangers to democracy of black demagoguery and communist
totalitarianism. But partly, too, Shanker was wishful, confusing his
support for Polish Solidarity’s pro-union, anti-communist struggle with
support for more spurious, supposedly anti-communist adventures abroad
that were themselves pathetically naïve.

Shanker “bridge[d] the worlds of power and ideas, of liberals and
conservatives, of education and business, and of unionists and
education reformers,” as Kahlenberg puts it. But he also misjudged
history’s tides, sometimes desperately. He brought Reagan to address
the AFT in 1983, two years after the president had fired unionized
air-traffic controllers for striking, as Shanker had, in defiance of
laws against public-union walkouts. A year before his death, Shanker
had to watch as Bob Dole recommended a book by Shanker’s old friend
Ronald Radosh–mangling his name as “Ronald Kardosh”–about the follies
of Democrats who had abandoned tough liberal agendas for special
interest groups like labor unions. Months earlier, in his
nomination-acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National
Convention, Dole had made the denunciation of teachers’ unions a
critical theme of his campaign.

At least Dole lost to Bill Clinton, whom Shanker and the AFT had endorsed. But
something else seemed to have been lost: the “tough liberal”
contribution to Mary Antin’s promised land. Too many of its claimants
have forgotten–or, having made Faustian political bargains, can’t
acknowledge–the ways in which American corporate capitalism, for all
its liberating wonders, is dissolving the civic-republican freedoms
they think they’re advancing abroad and at home. Now that organized
labor has dropped from 36 percent of the workforce when Shanker entered
it to 10 percent, and now that integration is being displaced in some
quarters by a dubiously faith-based, race-based “community control” or
by simple malign, unapologetic neglect, even those who have found
justified fault with tough liberalism can see the electoral,
civic-republican, and economic costs of having been too sweeping and
imprecise about those faults and too slow to stand up for the strengths.

Read more about Al ShankerEducation

Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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