"Where We Stand," a weekly paid column, began running in December 1970, in the Sunday New York Times' Week in Review section. Its impact was monumental.
In the late 1960s, Shanker had grown frustrated that his attempts to be published in various magazines and newspapers had been rebuffed. One day, while he was having lunch with Arnold Beichman, an academic and former unionist with the electrical workers, Beichman suggested that Shanker buy an advertisement in the Times. "Just buy the space like General Motors buys space," Beichman said.
While paid columns are today quite common, "Where We Stand" appears to have been the first paid column of its type in the Times.1 The placement was ideal, because Shanker felt he was not getting fair coverage in the newspaper. Initially, Beichman says, Abe Rosenthal, managing editor of the Times, refused to sell space to Shanker, but Shanker appealed to the publisher, Punch Sulzberger, who overrode Rosenthal.2
"In 1968," Shanker recalled, "I became convinced that I had been dead wrong in believing that the public's opinion of me didn't matter. Public schools depend on public support. And the public was not likely to support the schools for long if they thought the teachers were led by a madman."3 Shanker explained, "I decided to devote some time and energy to letting people know that the union's president was someone who read books and had ideals and ideas about how to fix schools."4 The UFT agreed to sponsor the space for 13 weeks, with the option to extend for a year. The annual cost was $100,000.5 Shanker's ability to get the union to spend an extraordinary sum for something so unfamiliar to unions was a sign of his clout within the organization.6
The column lasted more than 13 weeks—indeed, it lasted many more than 13 years. It always appeared with his picture. For more than a quarter of a century, Shanker's face—adorned with "black horn-rimmed glasses and a mournful cast, like Eyeore in ‘Winnie the Pooh,'" said the Times—appeared at the head of more than 1,300 eight-hundred-word columns.7 If his columns were compiled in average-size books of 150,000 words each, the columns would fill seven volumes.
The gambit worked because Shanker was a font of ideas, and he was a font of ideas because he was forever reading. Shanker's childhood love of books never left him, and he was constantly reading, even though he was practically blind in one eye.8 He loved history, philosophy, and politics, and his favorite authors included George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Arthur Koestler, Bernard Malamud, and Ignazio Silone.9 He also loved to read magazines like the New Republic, Dissent, Commentary, Encounter, the Public Interest, the Economist, Politics, Foreign Affairs, Scientific American, the Paris Review, and the Partisan Review, and he would save all the back issues.10
His library was tremendously broad, from philosophy to religion, from education to politics, from Aquinas and Aristotle to Zinsser and Zimoviev. In his 4,000-book collection, he had several books on Orwell, 14 books by Dewey, 22 books by or about Sidney Hook, and books by George Counts and Lawrence Cremin. His office, says writer Ronald Radosh, "wasn't like what you expect your regular union leader's office to be," he said. "It was like an academic's office: papers, books, every kind of book."11
Shanker also encouraged his staff and union officials to read. Union official Velma Hill recalls that she would come into the office to talk about a particular issue and Shanker would say, "Velma, did you read this article? Well, what did you think of this article?" Staffers felt pressure to keep up on their reading.12 Lorretta Johnson remembers the AFT vice presidents receiving loads of reading materials from Shanker, which would take a whole week to read. He "wanted his vice presidents to read and to understand."13
The column provided a discipline that helped Shanker think through issues, forcing him to arrive at positions.14 The topics ranged widely, from education reform to human rights to labor unions to civil rights. What tied together the various columns, one colleague says, were "the requirements of a democratic society."15
Many of the columns sought to make readers understand what it is like to be a teacher.16 And he would return time and time again to outline a "liberal" opposition to school vouchers and a "conservative" concern about school discipline.17 He sometimes had guest columns from a variety of authors—from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Bayard Rustin to Diane Ravitch. But most columns he wrote himself, with the help of a succession of writers.
The column was famous for taking complicated scholarly ideas and presenting them in readable form.18 Like George Orwell, Shanker avoided the intellectual's fondness for abstraction and instead paid attention to concrete realities.19 The columns also took definite positions, reflecting Shanker's character, taking "stands" as the column's title suggested.
The column became a phenomenon in education circles. It made Shanker, said the Washington Post, "the best-read educator in America."20 His column was, says education professor Maurice Berube, "the only column on national education dealing with national issues that was read by everybody."21
Richard D. Kahlenberg is senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of numerous articles and books, including All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice. This article is excerpted from Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, © 2007 Richard D. Kahlenberg. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press, N.Y. All rights reserved.
1. Berube interview, pp. 17–18; "Where We Stand," 12/13/70; Berube, American School Reform, p. 80.
2. Arnold Beichman interview, pp. 2–3; Spatz interview, pp. 1–2. See also American Teacher, 4/97, p. 18.
3. "Where We Stand," 12/16/90.
4. "Where We Stand," 12/16/90.
5. New York Times, 12/12/70, p. 35.
6. Urbanski interview, pp. 16–17.
7. American Educator, "The Power of Ideas," Spring/Summer 1997, p. 1 (on the number of columns); Hill, Education Week, 2/21/96 (12/13/70 as starting date); New York Times, 2/23/97.
8. Eadie Shanker interview, 10/18/02, p. 23.
9. Eadie Shanker interview, 2/27/04, pp. 4, 9; Eadie Shanker memo, 3/3/06.
10. Eadie Shanker interview, 3/22/04, p. 3. See also New York Times Magazine, 9/3/67, p. 5.
11. Radosh interview, p. 44; Eadie Shanker memo, 3/3/06.
12. Velma Hill interview, p. 22.
13. Johnson interview, p. 30.
14. Reecer interview, p. 22; "Where We Stand," 12/16/90.
15. Reecer interview, p. 14.
16. See e.g., "Where We Stand," 9/10/72.
17. "Where We Stand," 12/20/70; "Where We Stand," 12/27/70.
18. Sandra Feldman, New York Teacher, 3/10/97.
19. Trilling, introduction to Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, pp. xxi, xix, and xxii.
20. Washington Post, 1/28/93, p. A3.
21. Maurice Berube interview, p. 22.
The Agenda That Saved Public Education
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
"Where We Stand"