Arch Puddington: Albert Shanker stood for good old-fashioned liberal ideals

[Mr. Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and author of "Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor."]

It is odd and perhaps unfortunate that Albert Shanker (1928-97) may be remembered principally as the man who in 1968, as head of the New York City teachers union, shut down the city's schools with a series of strikes. It was all in a good cause, to be sure, but the controversy of that episode, over the years, has stolen drama from much else of note in Shanker's long and admirable life.

As Richard Kahlenberg reminds us in "Tough Liberal," a thoroughly researched and engaging biography, Shanker was a charismatic labor leader at a time of union decline, a powerful voice for educational reform at a time of bureaucratic complacency, and--not least--an eloquent advocate of an aggressive, pro-democratic American foreign policy at a time of defeatism and retreat.

Shanker's convictions derived from his early experiences as the child of poor, hard-working Jewish immigrants in New York. His father labored long hours delivering newspapers, his mother worked knitting garments, and young Al, a frequent target of anti-Semitic assaults, found solace in schoolwork and in his role as an avid, and skillful, high-school debater. He went on to get an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Illinois and, in the early 1950s, pursued a doctorate at Columbia. It was not long after that he began teaching in New York's schools--and organizing teachers into a single, powerful union.

For Shanker, the promise of American democracy meant public schools, trade unions, the aspirations of the New Deal and the tenets of Cold War liberalism--an outlook that was, in Mr. Kahlenberg's words, "tough-minded about human nature, the way the world works, and the reality of evil." He functioned throughout his life in a decidedly liberal environment. But he was often at odds with American liberalism, especially as it evolved in the late 1960s and 1970s. He came to oppose multiculturalism, bilingual education, racial preferences and post-Vietnam doubts about America's positive role in the world....

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