ALBERT SHANKER, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers who died of cancer last week at 68, was an amazing bundle of contradictions.
Shanker was a labor union philosopher who was always a thought or two ahead of his rivals. He could deliver a firebrand speech one day and be a quiet listener at a seminar the next. Traveling between engagements, he'd read Montaigne's essays in coach.
While other union leaders defended the status quo, Shanker led a national effort to impose rigorous academic and conduct standards on students, daring to criticize the public schools (and, by extension, his own union members) in the process.
Shanker's stature as an education leader gave him a pulpit within earshot of presidents and education secretaries, who had less cachet than the 22-year AFT president.
At Shanker's death, the nation was well along on the journey to education reform, in no small part because of his efforts.
"I believe that standards are the lever for turning around the mediocre performance of our education system," Shanker declared.
Shanker had another pulpit: his 26-year column in the Sunday think section of the New York Times, which continued until the weekend of his death. Shanker enjoyed his status as the nation's longest-running education columnist, but he was always quick to point out that the AFT purchased the weekly space in the Times at a cost of millions of dollars over the years.
"My opinions are ads," he would chuckle.
"He was both a pragmatist and an idealist," said a longtime admirer, Christopher T. Cross, president of the Maryland State Board of Education.
"He had a sense of what he could accomplish -- and what he couldn't -- but he always put the needs of children first.
"He changed the union movement in education more than anyone else," Cross added. "But he was big enough that he could admit there were poor teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom. He once told me he was frustrated because he couldn't get his own members to pay attention to the issues."
In the mode of Eric Hoffer, the late longshoreman philosopher (another study in contradiction), Shanker could be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, but he was not a man who drifted.
He made up his mind and stuck with it.
In language typically free of gobbledygook, Shanker two years ago assailed the proposed national standards for teaching history. He said the standards pushed "leftist point-of-view history" in which everything that "has to do with white people is evil and oppressive, while Genghis Khan is a nice, sweet guy just bringing his culture to other places."
Conservatives such as Cross, who is also president of the Council for Basic Education, could admire this son of Russian immigrants for his call to higher standards.
Liberals could point to his leading the United Federation of Teachers in New York City in a series of 1960s strikes that established the parent AFT as a legitimate union with a union's agenda.
But Shanker could be just as straightforward in opposing school vouchers, a favorite of many conservatives, and most forms of school privatization, including the failed Education Alternatives Inc. experiment in Baltimore.
Shanker was kept in power by the AFT's refusal to place term limits on its officers. The rival and larger (and more cumbersome) National Education Association goes through elaborately democratic elections producing new presidents periodically, each with a new agenda to garner national attention.
Not the AFT, which made Shanker effectively president for life, often re-electing him by acclamation.
In his last Baltimore appearance before an appreciative Baltimore Teachers Union 16 months ago, Shanker was typically spellbinding, although the disease that would kill him was evident in his haggard look.
He delivered a simple message: Good education is impossible without safe schools and high standards.
Few remember that in 1974, Shanker gave new life to the flagging city teachers' strike. He paid a visit to the strikers in the walkout's early days and urged them to hold fast. (Ironically, the strike was not the AFT's; it was called by the Baltimore affiliate of the NEA, the organization with which Shanker had offered to make peace in his last years.)
When he wasn't on the road, Shanker split his time between Washington and New York.
"He was a hi-fi addict," said Cross. "He had a great sound system with speakers as tall as he was, but he refused to use CDs and solid-state equipment. Records were just fine with Al."
The final words on Al Shanker are from Loretta Johnson, president of the BTU paraprofessional chapter, member of the AFT executive committee and 27-year friend of Shanker's:
"He sent me to Paris one time, and nobody could speak English. But if you said Al Shanker's name, they knew him. He was born to lead. He brought us along kicking and screaming sometimes, but he always brought us along."
Pub Date: 2/26/97