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Al Shanker Remembers

In September and October 1996, when Al Shanker was dying of cancer, he gave a series of taped interviews to Jack Schierenbeck, a staff writer at the New York Teacher/City Edition. In the interviews, Al talked about the ideas and experiences that had shaped his life, ranging widely over subjects like education, politics, and trade unionism, the Cold [War, and the Boy Scouts. The excerpts from the interviews that follow. will give people who never knew Al a taste of his characteristic turn of mind—and those who did a chance to hear his voice once again. They also give us reason to look forward to the oral history that Schierenbeck is now preparing. The history will make extensive use of interviews and speeches, as well as recollections from people who knew Al.

–EDITOR

His assessment of himself as a student

I didn't work very hard in school because my sister, who's a year and a half younger, was the perfect stu­dent in a rapid-advanced class, and I didn't want to compete with her. I was afraid of losing the competition. So I protected myself by not competing. Basically, I liked school but there were a lot of things in school I was bored with and if I was bored with something' I didn't do it and would get into trouble, like grammar. So I went from the 1-class to the 3-class in the tracking system they had. That teacher kept me in school every day until I became a crackerjack at grammar. I loved history, social studies, and geography. I found mathe­matics very easy and I enjoyed it. I had some very good teachers who were into various mathematical recreations such as puzzles.

Later in high school, I took Spanish but didn't do very well. It was a lot of memorization, and I don't like sitting down and memorizing. With history it's differ­ent because it tells a story of how things fit into place—but not memorizing verbs. It was foolish because it turned out I have a natural bent for languages. If I'm in another country, I can pick up things rather quickly. If I'd just have put in a little effort....

On competition and learning

I passed the exams to both Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. I went to Stuyvesant and it was a very compet­itive, intensely competitive, school. By this time I took to [the competition] pretty well. A lot of peo­ple can't take it,. and it's not good for everybody. I think a certain amount of competition is good but if carried to an extreme it can make a lot of people crazy. You do, though, have to have a certain amount of stress. I think that what we've done in American education is to largely get rid of the stress at a cost of losing a lot of the energy that goes with trying to succeed.

A different kind of merit badge

I had these dreams of becoming a Boy Scout. So when I was 12, I went to the local church [in Long Island City, Queens] but they said the troop was only open to Catholics. About a year later, a troop started in this low-income housing project. The scoutmaster was a local fireman. Besides helping us pass the various tests for advancement, he has us marching and doing drill. So I went down to Boy Scout headquarters and got a copy of the scoutmaster's handbook. It said you really weren't supposed to do military drill but more outdoor stuff. So I drew up a petition to the scoutmaster saying we ought to have less drill and march and more camping and hiking. I got a number of my friends to sign and we sent it to the scoutmaster. I was really scared that something was going to happen to me. But he called us together and said he agreed. But since he was a fireman he didn't really have time to do all of this and that if we wanted to take responsibility for doing some of these things, such as hikes, we could. So that was sort of my first successful politically rebel­lious experience.

Not long after, just after Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the scoutmaster was drafted. So he asked me to be the acting scoutmaster. Here I was at 14 or so pass­ing kids on their tests. It also gave me my first organiz­ing experience because the troop grew from 17 kids to about 85 plus a Cub Scout pack by the time I was finished. Later, I engaged in a big political struggle on the scout committee when the men discharged from the army—maybe because they had been forced to do a lot of marching and drilling, they now wanted to be the guys who forced others to do the same. So I devel­oped a newsletter, and so forth. So actually I got my first caucus-like political fighting in the Boy Scouts.

The seductiveness of socialism

It's true I named my oldest son after [Karl] Marx—not with a "K' By the way, his middle name is Eugene after [Socialist Party radical] Eugene Debs. I was a socialist and very militant anti-Stalinist since high school. I joined the Socialist Party when I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois, where I later became head of the campus socialist studies club. I read a lot of Marx.

The guy I really admired for a long time—and I guess you could say he was an anarchist—was Dwight MacDonald and his Politics magazine. Then there was Jerry Glicksman, a Polish socialist, who wrote the first book on the Soviet Gulag where he'd been a prisoner. I still have an autographed copy. I liked George Orwell, was an early reader of Arthur Koestler, and the most powerful, Ignazio Silone, an Italian communist and brilliant novelist. These were very powerful influ­ences on me, and basically they all involve a type of moral thinking.

Reading these people and others made me realize that you had to take seriously the warnings of the Founding Fathers about government. That if govern­ment had such powers you couldn't restrict it to just things that were good. You had to have a system of real checks and balances on state power. As for capital-ism: I embraced it slowly—I didn't embrace it on one day in 1949— but grew to accept the idea as necessary for political freedom as well as economic prosperity. Still the idea of socialism is very seductive. As a kid growing up, I had spent lots of time thinking about in-justice. And socialism basically provides a theory that explains why all this is happening. It's a good catch-all. That's why it had such appeal to so many people because, gee whiz, you put on that set of glasses and all sorts of things fall into place. But it's all wrong.

Winning the Cold War?

Do I feel exonerated that what I said all those years about the communist threat has proven true? Well, yes. But even now with all the stuff being translated out of the KGB archives and the Venona files [Soviet messages concerning Cold War espionage against the U.S.].... Look, we have the stuff on Alger Hiss [State Department official in the Truman administration] now that proves he was a Soviet agent. There's no question about it. But among the liberals, 97 out of 100 will still say that he was innocent.

Multinational corporations and the nation state

As a result of the development of world corporate power, there will be some good things happening. It may make more high-quality things available at cheaper prices, whatever. But there are things about it which are very bad, namely the undermining of the nation state. Whether we're in control of our own destiny. The whole question of whether the nation state means very much anymore. When you start tracing these compa­nies, you ultimately don't know who the hell owns them or if they have any loyalty to any nation. These things have to be dealt with by means of fresh ideas, which nobody has come up with.

Tough kids

When it came to classroom management, I couldn't take the really tough kids. I wasn't teaching those kids anything. I'm not talking about your average kids; I did fine with them. Even kids who were slow but were very well-meaning and who wanted to learn. But when it came to violent kids or the kids who were emotion-ally disturbed, I just had no way of getting through to them. There are some teachers who could—I never fig­ured out how they were able to do it, and they learned it on their own because nobody ever taught that in any ed course. Or it may have been personality traits of a certain sort which are not transferable—certain ways of demonstrating strength of will to these kids that you're not going to get away with this. I tried to find the right balance, but I was not successful.

John Dewey and his followers

I had taken three education courses in school that weren't particularly helpful. They had nothing to do with how to teach kids. I still find fault with much of what's taught in education schools. I think it suffers from what it has always suffered from. It has a certain ideological conception of what good teaching is and what learning is—which is a distortion of John Dewey. Dewey had reacted against the old-time education which thought that you just take a kid and just stuff his brain. He understood that the only way you learn is if you're interested and that the learner couldn't just be a recipient but had to be active. On the other hand, he believed that what the youngster had to learn was not to be determined by whatever that youngster hap­pened to be interested in. That there was a world of disciplines out there and that these disciplines were powerful ways of organizing knowledge.

And that you're not going to be part of the world or effective if you weren't educated in the disciplines. Now what a lot of Dewey's followers did was that they just took the child-centered approach and said that whatever the child is interested is what he's going to learn and whenever he is ready. That it doesn't make any difference what he learns. It's all of equal value. Dewey himself was shocked when he went into some of these progressive schools and saw what was going on in his name. But essentially, we have that now. That has won the day. Basically it is the orthodoxy. It's the politically correct. What you have in education schools is very little emphasis on the disciplines and subject matter. So essentially what you end up with is an anti-intellectual philosophy. It's pretty awful.

At the negotiating table

As a negotiator, you have to know what are the inter­ests of the other side: what are the absolute no-no's, the things they're not going to do to create impossible situations for themselves. This was a trait I had even as a kid. I'd started role-playing, trying to see things from the other guy's point of view. What is it that they're able to do or not able to do. If you haven't thought of that in advance you're really playing Russian roulette.

Ideas are 'not a game'

Most people in the union who wanted to go places felt, like everybody else, I was looking for a yes-per­son. There were a number of yes-people. But Sandy Feldman was certainly no yes-person, and she ended up president of the organization [United Federation of Teachers]. Look, I like a good argument or a debate. Anything worth having a debate or an argument about I'm intense about it. But I've always been approachable in all areas. I do listen to what other people say. I do change my views. I recognize the validity of others. I can dump mine. But I'm not going to treat it as a game. It's not a game. It's often very important, sometimes life or death. And I treat it that way and I expect people to treat their own ideas that way.