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Shanker Blows Up the World | The Nation

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Shanker Blows Up the World

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It was a '70s cliché that a conservative was a liberal who had been mugged by reality. To a great extent, Shanker--like many white liberal men of his generation--was mugged by the '60s. To overcome the trauma, he lashed out at dissenters of all varieties. While Ocean Hill-Brownsville was smoldering, Shanker denounced the antiwar movement as soft on communism. By the '70s he had joined the hyperbolic outcry against "limousine liberals" who supposedly allied with minorities against the white working class. In the process, he lost sight of those limousine-riding conservatives whose promarket and antiunion politics were far more damaging to the working class and public education. At the same time, he forged alliances with conservative Democrats like Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (who voted with Republicans on many foreign policy issues) and began seriously flirting with the right.

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Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

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Shanker never veered as far rightward as did many of his allies, like Sidney Hook, Midge Decter, Elliot Abrams and Linda Chavez, all of whom sprinted into the ranks of the neocons. He was more of an egalitarian than they were--and remained a staunch and committed unionist while they cast their lot with corporate America and the antilabor Republican Party. But Shanker remained a socialist in name only. In 1983 he invited President Reagan to address the American Federation of Teachers, despite Reagan's staunch antiunionism. And in 1984 Shanker warmly welcomed culture warrior William Bennett, then head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to headline the AFT annual convention. Shanker joined Bennett in his crusade for "traditional values" and against the scourge of "moral relativism." Not surprisingly, Reagan (engaging in his own unacknowledged act of affirmative action) tapped Chavez for his Cabinet. Over the course of the 1980s, Shanker also supported Reagan's massive defense buildup and praised the Nicaraguan contras, even if he distanced himself from such Reagan allies as South Africa's apartheid regime and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Shanker's march rightward was echoed in his shift in educational priorities. He railed against affirmative action (or what Kahlenberg shrilly and inaccurately brands as "quotas"). By the 1990s, Shanker's egalitarianism was so narrow that, like his neoliberal and neoconservative fellow travelers, his civil rights politics rested on the dubious distinction between equality of opportunity (which he supported) and equality of results (which he believed was a matter of individual initiative, merit and skill, ignoring the fact that so many people get jobs on the basis of their networks, not solely or even primarily their skills). He also staunchly opposed bilingual education, in large part because of his belief in inculcating students in a single national cultural tradition. And while he sensibly held out against curriculums that had as their primary goal enhancing the "self-esteem" of students (the best research shows that self-esteem and academic success are not correlated), he also led an increasingly influential band of school reformers who fetishized standardized testing as the solution to academic woes. Shanker became a vocal advocate of charter schools as well--succumbing to the folly that administrative reorganization would serve as a panacea for educational inequality. Kahlenberg points out that Shanker did not approve of the 1990s free-market variants on charter schools: he opposed the privatization of a public good. But by then, Shanker's longtime socialism was so thin that he could not see that proposals to bring competitiveness to public education would inevitably open the door to profit-seeking educational firms.

More than a half-century after Albert Shanker's public career began, our public education system is still riddled with inequalities. Our schools are reverting to a pre-Brown v. Board of Education racial order, separate and unequal, but only a remnant band of civil rights activists even cares. Mainstream Democrats--eager to win over long-lost Republicans--have spent most of the past fifteen years shoring up the market revolution and slouching rightward on matters of culture and values. And the Bush Administration's neoconservatives have embarked on a foreign policy to "democratize" the Middle East in ways that resonate with Shanker's own zealous foreign policy. Even though Shanker continued to cling to an increasingly unfashionable trade unionism, we live under a regime that his "tough liberalism" helped more than hindered.

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