Richard D. Kahlenberg: A surprise that his book on Albert Shanker was published by Columbia U Press

Historians in the News

In the cartoons, an astonished character will at times need to grab his eyeballs as they come flying out of his head. Something like that happened to me a few months ago while going through the fall catalog of Columbia University Press. Buried deep in its pages – well behind all the exciting, glamorous titles at the bleeding edge of scholarship – was the listing for Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg. (It has just appeared in hardback.)

This was a title one might reasonably expect to see issued by a commercial publisher: Shanker, who died in 1997, was for many years the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which he helped build into one of the strongest unions in the AFL-CIO. It now has more than a million members, including about 160,000 who work in higher education; even if only one in a hundred were interested in the union’s history, that is quite a potential audience.

At the same time, it was a surprise to find the book published by a press better known for titles in cultural theory: works embodying a certain abstract radicalism, several miles in stratosphere above the labor movement. And Shanker, besides being a union bureaucrat, was something of a hardboiled ideologue – a fierce Cold Warrior, but no less ardent a Culture Warrior, denouncing both affirmative action and multiculturalism in tones that were, let’s say, emphatic.

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