Public Intellectual: The Legacy Of Al Shanker

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.

Precisely because he was a man of the democratic left, Shanker was a life-long opponent of communism and its perversion of the bedrock principles of the left – liberty, equality and solidarity. One of his signal accomplishments was the support he marshaled for the independent Polish trade union Solidarność, support which proved critical to its success in bringing about the end of Poland’s Stalinist regime. The emergence of free trade unions in Poland was pivotal to the fall of communism across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, just as the rise of free trade unions in South Africa and Chile (which Shanker also supported) brought down the authoritarian governments of the right in those two nations.

For most of his life, Shanker accepted the argument of the philosopher Sidney Hook that, because communist parties were totalitarian organizations that demanded unthinking obedience to and promotion of party lines, membership in such parties was inconsistent with the responsibilities of teaching in a democratic society. The vocation of an educator – Hook and Shanker believed – demanded that one teach students how to think, not what to think. Communist teachers were thus incapable of fulfilling that vocation.

In 1995, I attended a conference on the history of New York City teacher unionism in which Shanker followed Hook in defending the firing of communist teachers in the early 1950s. Communist teachers were “not independent minds,” he told the assembly. In the question period, I challenged Shanker: What was wrong with a civil libertarian position, in which a teacher would be judged not on the basis of her associations, but on the basis of her classroom performance? If a teacher was using her position to propagandize, that – and that alone – would be an appropriate basis for discipline and dismissal. His answer was unconvincing: evaluations would be impractical in establishing whether a classroom was being used to propagandize.

But not even two years later, at the end of his life, Shanker told New York Teacher reporter Jack Schierenbeck that he was rethinking this stance. Communist teachers are not the only teachers who provide “blind obedience to authority.” Why should they alone be the subject of discipline? Shanker was not abandoning principle: he still believed that educators should teach students how to think, not what to think. But he no longer saw the singling out of communist teachers as a necessary means to achieve that end. In his very last days, Shanker was reconsidering positions he had held closely for decades.

As with many historical figures of note, Shanker’s authority is frequently claimed: Shanker supported the stance I am taking on this issue, we often hear. A number of these claims come from those who are ideologically opposed to public education and unions, and yet seek to buttress their position with the claim that even the legendary union leader Al Shanker endorsed their stance. In this vein, Shanker’s 1988 argument for charter schools – schools that would operate as teacher-run, community-based public institutions that could function as laboratories of educational experimentation – is commonly misconstrued as support for the current incarnation of charter schools, thirty years later, when only a small minority of these schools hew to that original vision. Others implausibly suggest that Shanker would have opposed the defense of public schools mounted by teachers unions, and would have supported privatization.

The problem with these arguments goes much deeper than the particular claims they make. Whether it came from political friend or foe, the argument from authority is not one Shanker himself would have used or embraced. A Columbia doctoral student in philosophy before he became a middle school math teacher, Shanker would surely have approved of Thomas Aquinas’ maxim that the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments. For a conclusion to be correct, it must be based on a logical argument and supported with compelling evidence. He so loved free and open debate because he saw it as the crucible in which the quality of an argument and its supporting evidence were tested.

When I hear the questions “What would Al think?” and “What would Al do?,” as if it were possible to know exactly how his thinking would have evolved over the twenty years since his death, I respond that the only thing we can know for sure is that Shanker’s thinking would have changed. It was the openness of mind, the inquisitive spirit, that defined him as a public intellectual. Those who would reify his intellect, who would fix it in time, fundamentally misunderstand it.

What remained constant for Shanker were the underlying principles: Shanker was a life-long advocate of public education, unions and democracy because he believed in their emancipatory power. The intellectual freedom he so cherished would not long survive, he believed, without a solid foundation in public education, unions and democracy.

And in an era where public education, unions and democracy itself now hang in the balance, it is well worth reminding ourselves what is at stake: freedom itself.