Twenty years ago today, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, died. To mark the occasion, we have asked a number of individuals – some who knew and worked with Al and some who have studied his life’s work – to reflect on the continuing relevance of his ideas and his principles. We did so out of a conviction that Shanker’s ideas and principles are not simply matters of historical interest, but of real contemporary value at a time when public education, unionism and American democracy itself are in a state of profound crisis, under attack in unprecedented ways. Beginning today with this post, we will be publishing these reflections (you can find the full series here).
For a half-century, Al Shanker labored as a teacher and educator, as a unionist and as a democrat. In each of these fields, he was a political force to be reckoned with, shaping public policy and thinking in significant ways. Yet unlike most important political actors on the American scene, Shanker was a public intellectual who relished vigorous debate and reveled in the world of ideas. He brought an open mind and a penchant for critical analysis, a fierce commitment to rational discourse and logical argumentation that relied on evidence, to all that he did. His political engagement had a deeply intellectual cast.
As the executive director of the institute established by the AFT to honor Shanker by carrying on his life’s work as an engaged public intellectual, I have often thought about Al’s example. What strikes me most about Shanker the thinker was his refusal to become entrenched in his views or to allow his beliefs to harden into inflexible dogmas. One story in particular comes to mind.