In Woody Allen's 1973 film, Sleeper, a character wakes
up in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when "a
man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."
Shanker was condemned by many when he shut down the New York City
school system in the bitter strikes of 1967 and 1968, and he was
denounced for stirring up animosity between black parents and
Jewish teachers. Later, however, he built alliances with blacks,
and at the time of his death in 1997, such figures as Bill Clinton
celebrated Shanker for being an educational reformer, a champion of
equality, and a promoter of democracy abroad.
Shanker lived the lives of several men bound into one. In his
early years, he was the "George Washington of the teaching
profession," helping to found modern teacher unionism. During the
1980s, as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he became
the nation's leading education reformer. Shanker supported
initiatives for high education standards and accountability,
teacher-led charter schools, and a system of "peer review" to weed
out inadequate teachers. Throughout his life, Shanker also fought
for "tough liberalism," an ideology favoring public education and
trade unions but also colorblind policies and a robust
anticommunism-all of which, Shanker believed, were vital to a
commitment to democracy.
Although he had a coherent worldview, Shanker was a complex
individual. He began his career as a pacifist but evolved into a
leading defense and foreign policy hawk. He was an intellectual and
a populist; a gifted speaker who failed at small talk; a liberal
whose biggest enemies were often on the left; a talented writer who
had to pay to have his ideas published; and a gruff unionist who
enjoyed shopping and detested sports. Richard D. Kahlenberg's
biography is the first to offer a complete narrative of one of the
most important voices in public education and American politics in
the last half century. At a time when liberals are accused of not
knowing what they stand for, Tough Liberal illuminates an
engaging figure who suggested an alternative liberal path.
Subjects: History, Education
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