(This is the first of two posts on Joel Klein’s essay, The Failure of American Schools, in the June issue of Atlantic Monthly.)
Last September, when Joel Klein was still at the helm of the New York City Department of Education, he delivered a luncheon talk for a business roundtable, the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). I attended on behalf of the UFT. In his spoken presentation, Klein attributed to the late UFT and AFT President Al Shanker the following phrase:
When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.
Long before Joel Klein worked this line into his stump speech, I had come across it on the far right precincts of the web, where it is a staple of feverish discussions of the ‘malevolence’ of teacher unions.* Given the lack of source citation and the way in which the words rung so hollow as something Shanker would say, I was more than a tad bit suspicious about its authenticity.† Over the course of time, I asked a number of people — some who had worked with Shanker for many years and others who had studied his life and career as scholars — if they knew of any instance when he had spoken or written these words. Without exception, every person consulted had no knowledge of such a statement.
So when I heard Klein attribute those words to Al Shanker last September at the ABNY luncheon, I publicly challenged him, calling the quote apocryphal.
Writing with the knowledge that his attribution of those words to Shanker had been challenged, Joel Klein reasserted this claim last week in an Atlantic Magazine manifesto entitled The Failure of American Schools. He offered no supporting evidence for his claim.
Klein’s attribution piqued the interest of two smart young researchers at the Shanker Institute, Matt DiCarlo and Esther Quintero, and they did some digging in the Library of Congress. They found that in the rare instances when the purported Shanker quote is actually sourced, the claim was that the quote came from the August 1985 Congressional Record or the August 13, 1985 edition of a small Mississippi newspaper, the Meridian Star. Writing on the Shanker Institute blog, DiCarlo and Quintero reported there was simply nothing in the August 1985 Congressional Record on this subject, and that the Meridian Star offered nothing more than the alleged quote, without any notation of when it was said or where it was written.
In the comments section of the Shanker Institute blog, Joel Klein left the following apology for his claim.
Did Shanker ever deny saying it? Not that I’ve discovered. It would be surprising that he didn’t deny it loudly and repeatedly if he didn’t say it. In addition, your interpretation of the words in the congressional record is ludicrous. True, student and teacher self-interest are often aligned. But not always. A terrible teacher wants to protect her job, even though that’s bad for kids. In that circumstance, the union will – has to, as a matter of fiduciary duty – protect the teacher. That’s what Shaker said, and, more importantly, that’s what happens every day in American education.
Let’s examine this passage. Klein is a lawyer by profession, trained at no less an institution than Harvard Law School. He knows well what it means to make a logical argument, supported by evidence, and what it means to have a burden of proof. He understands that in the court of public opinion, just as in a court of law, it is the obligation of those who make an allegation to support it with evidence, as it is often impossible for the target of the allegation to prove a negative. Yet he offers a defense of his attribution of the quote to Shanker which ignores these basic rules, and he has yet to provide a single piece of actual source evidence that would link Shanker to the quote.
There is an obvious answer to the question Klein poses about whether Shanker repudiated these words. Since Shanker died in 1997, he did not live to see the explosion in the attribution of this quote to him that has taken place in the last five years with the growing attacks on teacher unions from the right and corporate power. While he was alive, he would have to make the same sort of calculation about whether or not to respond to the allegation that Obama had to make about those who questioned the existence of his birth certificate. It isn’t hard to imagine the questions both men asked themselves: What is the likelihood that I am going to change the minds of political ideologues who have fabricated a case against me out of thin air, and arrived at their absolute convictions absent any evidence? Are we in the realm of logical argument or the realm of irrational passion and conspiracy theory, where a disavowal will be spun as an attempt to cover up? So long as the claim is limited to the far political margins, why not leave it alone? If I explicitly respond to this claim, does that lend it a credibility that it would not otherwise have, giving these arguments more currency? And why dignify such a claim with a response, at the price of my own personal dignity? Much as Obama was eventually forced to publish his long form birth certificate, in the current political context Shanker might well have found himself forced to issue an explicit renunciation of this quote, if he were still alive. But Joel Klein has chosen to be the Donald Trump of this question, bringing the claim from the political netherworld of the far right to mainstream publications like Atlantic, at a time when a deceased Shanker is unable to defend himself and his union in the way that Klein demands. And Klein knows that.
What is remarkable about Klein’s comment is the willful misreading of the plain language of the Shanker Institute blog. DiCarlo and Quintero report that there is nothing in the August 1985 Congressional Record that addresses the attribution of this quote to Shanker, and Klein replies that “your interpretation of the words in the congressional record is ludicrous.” What words? If Klein believes that DiCarlo and Quintero are wrong, and that the August 1985 Congressional Record does include source evidence linking Shanker to the quote, isn’t it incumbent upon him to bring it forward?
As a lawyer, Klein also knows full well that the UFT’s moral and legal responsibility is not to “protect” teacher jobs, regardless of whether a teacher is effective or ineffective, any more than it is a defense attorney’s responsibility to get a client off, regardless of his innocence or guilt. Rather, it is the responsibility of the UFT to ensure that a teacher receives a fair and impartial hearing, in which evidence must be provided by management that the teacher is ineffective and the teacher has an opportunity to present evidence that he is effective. When the decision about a teacher’s future is made in a fair and impartial way, using actual evidence of his effectiveness or ineffectiveness, students benefit: ineffective teachers are discontinued and effective teachers remain in the classroom.
When all is said and done, what one finds in Klein’s attribution of these words to Al Shanker is a classic bad faith argument, in which one asserts a proposition, without evidence or proof that it is correct, because it fits with one’s ideological predispositions and makes a political point one wants to make. Unfortunately, the misuse of Al Shanker is only one of a number of instances in the Atlantic Monthly article where Joel Klein makes bad faith arguments. In a second post, I will examine other instances of bad faith argument.
* For a taste of the far right circles in which the quote regularly circulates, see the Freepers at the Free Republic, Lew Rockwell.COM, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government, the Educational Action Group’s AFTExposed and a whole host of Tea Party sites (for example, here and here).
† Shanker loved a good debate, and would often play the role of ‘devil’s advocate.’ But he was also a man of core principles, and he dedicated the last 15 years of his life to the quest for excellence in public education, from the founding of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards to the standards movement. The idea that he would discount the importance of the education of children in the way framed in this quote requires an extraordinary leap of logic.