An Open Letter to Michael Harrington

Dear Mike:

Thanks for asking me, along with Noam Chomsky and Jason Epstein, to join a panel discussion on “Morality & Radical Political Action.” It’s an important, perhaps now the important political topic, and I hope they will accept. But I must decline for a reason they don’t share: I signed, and they didn’t, that September 20th ad in the Times you got up, as Chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy, supporting the United Federation of Teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute. Now, wearing the more splendiferous hat of National Chairman, Socialist Party, USA, you want me to discuss political morality. But, after the September 20 affair, I’d prefer not to. I think you led me—and others—into a false position, and I haven’t any stomach for talking about political morality, and certainly not the radical kind, under your auspices.

This letter is to tell you why I feel so strongly about it, and to provoke you to an explication of your point of view. Of the thousands of “cause” statements I’ve signed in my time, I’ve regretted more than a few but this is the first one I’ve been ashamed of, also the first time I felt I’d really been “had.” My own ignorance—and, more painful, my sloth in being so ignorant—was responsible, an aspect of which was my confidence in you, from which I assumed there was at least a prima facie validity to the statement. I soon (two weeks) discovered I was wrong and resigned from your/our Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the Right to Teach. This awakening was all the more painful because I’ve known, and respected, you for a long time. We first met in 1952 when you, then editor of The Catholic Worker, helped me find my way around while I was writing a profile of Dorothy Day—I needed no guide with Dorothy, she is beautifully obvious. Then in 1963 you published your book, The Other America, and I wrote a review-article that was widely read, summarizing and extending your great discovery; between us, we did something to force poverty into the national consciousness. So I’m sure you won’t take this letter as a personal insult—a political one, maybe—and I hope you’ll correct any inaccuracies or unfairnesses and, more important, will feel stimulated to articulate the mindset that led you to promote that ad.

Its headline was “In Defense of the Freedom to Teach.” Had it appeared three weeks later—without my signature by then—it would have had to be titled: “In Defense of the Freedom Not to Teach” since Albert Shanker, supported by a big majority of the UFT, had called, over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville issue, their third strike in a year. But the original headline has now become sadly appropriate for an ad in favor of the other side, one that would support Rhody McCoy and his principals and school board (and their dedicated new corps of teachers) in their refusal to allow Brother Shanker and his equally dedicated (to another god) UFT majority to deny them The Freedom to Teach.

Dedicated but, I know you agree at least on this, short-sighted. How can the UFT strikers—some four-fifths of the city’s public school teachers, alas—go back to teaching in ghetto schools, after abandoning their pupils for now going on two months (and on a racial issue they have largely fabricated)? How can they not expect even more recalcitrance to learning than before the strikes, if such may be conceived, and even more hostility, from black students and parents, to them as faithless teachers? There is a minority in the UFT, represented by Vice-President O’Neill who was fired last month by Shanker for his opposition to the third strike and his sympathy with the Ocean Hill experiment, which has crossed the picket lines to cries of “scabs”—it will soon be “nigger lovers” after the Shanker racist demagogy hots up a bit more. But the UFT majority has actually succeeded in making the future of our ghetto schools even more hopeless than it has been for twenty years.

They have also done their best to increase the fear and hatred dividing Negro and Jew in this city, playing the game of anti-Semitic black extremists by circulating in Jewish neighborhoods and among the (mostly Jewish) rank and file of the union, reprints of nutty racist tracts issued by minuscule (and, as Jason Epstein showed in the November 21st New York Review of Books, in one instance non-existent) covens of black racists. The only motive for a predominantly Jewish organization giving wide circulation to such nonsense is to imply, as the UFT does, that it represents the policy of the Ocean Hill leaders and the feelings of the parents in the community. (That the motive is not racism but trade union tactics makes it, somehow, all the more disgusting. Anyone who has heard, on television or in private meetings, Mr. McCoy, the Rev. Oliver, or some of the principals of the district, as I have, knows they are serious educators and that support from such fantasts is as welcome to them as an endorsement by the Black Panthers would be to Senator Brooke of Massachusetts. As has often been noted, although it seems not to have penetrated to the minds of Mr. Shanker and his UFT majority who keep groaning about the pogrom atmosphere in Ocean Hill—they have their little racial fantasies too—70 percent of the new teachers hired over the summer by Mr. McCoy and his mostly black school board are white and of these, 50 percent are Jewish. This may be a subtle plot, worthy of the Elders of Zion, to lull Whitey into an illusion of security. Or, of course, it’s possible that the Ocean Hill crowd is more interested in education than in race. Why do you think, Mike, that Shanker circulates that racist filth? And why does he ignore, at least publicly, those 70 percent-50 percent racial statistics about the Ocean Hill faculty? You’re on the inside, you should know.

My complaint is not only that the Ad Hoc statement came out for the less just and the more socially retrogressive party in the Ocean Hill-UFT row, but, more specifically, that it contained two drastic misrepresentations of fact, and those on the main points at issue: (1) whether the UFT is for or against community control of schools, and (2) whether its members had been denied at Ocean Hill “due process” on job security as provided for in the union contract.

(1) The ad stated “Decentralization is not the issue,” adding that the UFT favored it and “has pledged its full cooperation to make the reorganization succeed.” But I soon discovered that decentralization is the issue and that Shanker’s UFT has been sabotaging it, while paying it lip homage, for some time. For example, last spring it bussed hundreds of members to Albany for a day of intensive lobbying against a bill giving the New York City Board of Education authority to set up community-controlled districts like Ocean Hill. The current strike, aimed openly at the destruction of Ocean Hill community control, is another instance, as is Shanker’s recent appeal for a special session of the state legislature, presumably in the hope it will suspend the city Board of Education (changed recently into a pro-decentralization, experimentally minded body by Mayor Lindsay’s new appointees) which still hopes to institute real, as against verbal, decentralization. So we signed an untruth, my dear Mike, unless you want to take Shanker’s pieties as the reality and his actions as the illusion. To anybody who had much knowledge of the school situation, it was a palpable untruth on September 20th. I know why I didn’t know it: as Dr. Johnson said to the lady who asked him why his dictionary defined pastern as the knee of a horse: “Ignorance, madame, mere ignorance.” But you ought to have known.

(2) The ad states thrice—“What I tell you three times is true!” said the Bellman—that the nineteen supervisors and teachers the Ocean Hill school board tried to get rid of last spring (out of several hundred, by the way) were “fired,” but in fact, as you yourself admitted to me when I raised the point, Administrator McCoy asked for something much milder, something which is routinely done in hundreds of cases every year by the Board of Education, namely involuntary transfers, which don’t mean loss of employment, or even of accumulated seniority, and so cannot be called by any verbal stretch, “firings.” When a principal for whatever reason wants to get rid of a teacher, he asks Livingston Street to transfer him to another school, a request that is normally granted by headquarters. The teacher can demand a hearing but this has dangers for him, since if the principal is upheld, there is a black mark on the teacher’s record and, I suppose, in extreme circumstances, he might even be fired, really fired. (Though things almost never get so awkward—Epstein’s earlier piece in the NYR estimated that in the last five years, out of some 60,000 teachers in the city school system, fewer than fifty have been fired, a tribute to how effectively the system protects its own.)

In this case, the Livingston St. administrators, who viewed community control as benevolently as Mr. Shanker, recommended a hearing, with formal charges; and the Ocean Hill people—whose power to transfer teachers and choose their own faculty had never been clarified by the central administration—made the tactical mistake of agreeing to participate on the central administration’s terms, without insisting that their ambiguous rights as an experimental district first be defined. The trial examiner—a retired Negro judge—found for the defendants (now reduced to ten, the other nine having been transferred out at their own request). Then the Ocean Hill leadership made its second tactical error. When the Persistent Ten came back in the fall, they were not exactly welcomed: they—and some eighty UFT strikers who returned at the same time—were made to feel unwanted as they were; Mr. McCoy and his principals seem to have made little effort to produce a more agreeable atmosphere. This was wrong, though understandable (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong) but (a) nobody was threatened with being “fired” so the voltage of the “due process” charge in our ad is considerably stepped down, and (b) to decapitate the Ocean Hill experiment and to hold the whole city school system up for ransom if one district isn’t punished seems to me vietnam overkill and I’m ashamed of having lent my name to a statement that may have encouraged the UFT in its rule-or-ruin course.

If they do succeed in ruling, for a time, like the Bourbons returning after Waterloo, it won’t be for long and meanwhile there will be more ruin than rule in our public schools. But aside from these grand historical analogies—“perspectives” we used to call them in my Trotskyist days, as I dare say you did in yours—there is the specific little fact that our ad three times spoke of teachers being “fired” when actually they were threatened only with being “transferred,” not at all the same thing either practically or in emotional connotation. If you didn’t know this, you should have. And if you did, the use of the stronger term was demagogic at best, and, at worst, a lie. The New York Civil Liberties Union’s report of October 9th last, “The Burden of Blame: A Report on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy,” seems to me to withdraw, stone by stone, in laborious historical detail, the underpinnings of Shanker’s “due process” charge against Ocean Hill. I’d be interested to have your reaction to it, as well as your present feelings about the semantics of “firing” v. “transferring.”

One of the problems in this problematic tangle is that while I’ve found no lack of arguments and data supporting the Ocean Hill side, there seems to be, in print or verbally, a paucity of discourse on the Shanker-UFT side—the one I joined, with visions of due process dancing in my head, for an uneasy fortnight. You haven’t been of much help, I’m afraid. On October 8th, I sent you a note of resignation from your committee, enclosing a carbon of a two-page letter I’d written to the other Harrington, Donald, explaining why I had decided to join his group, The Emergency Committee to Save School Decentralization and Community control—neither side can be accused of catchy nomenclature. No response. I called you several times, before and after my change of mind, leaving messages at your office and home. No reply. Finally, early in November, stimulated by a letter from a non-striking teacher who had just received from UFT pickets a reprint of the September 20th ad with my name still attached—and who chanced to have seen in Hentoff’s column in The Village Voice that I had long since joined the opposition—I called you again to ask you to take my name off and, at last, had the pleasure of a talk with you. You admitted you weren’t happy about the third strike and you agreed that to paralyze indefinitely the whole school system to win a contractual dispute in one district was not justifiable trade union practice. You said you had been meeting privately with Shanker and had tried to persuade him to moderate his demands for the extirpation of Ocean Hill and to settle the strike. You regretted your efforts had, so far, been unsuccessful, but you had hopes. You granted that Brother Shanker had certainly gone “too far.”

Then why not say so publicly?” I asked. “It seems to me immoral, in your position, to keep quiet if you’re against this strike.” To which you, patiently reasonable as always: “But I’ve told you I’ve been telling Shanker for weeks now he should compromise. He doesn’t see it that way yet, but he’s not entirely unreasonable, Dwight, you have to understand his fears as a trade unionist. There’ll be real problems for him if the school system is split up into thirty or forty or sixty autonomous districts.” “How many would you say was the maximum, from the union’s point of view?” “Well…even thirty seems too many…fragmentation…chaos…and those white racists on Staten Island could fire all the liberal and colored teachers….” “But the issue right now isn’t the future of the UFT or the possible Birchite control of future school districts but the survival of Ocean Hill. Shouldn’t you speak out now against Shanker’s use of a citywide strike to destroy it?” “But if I did, I’d lose my influence with the union, can’t you see that? And I resent your bringing morality into it, really. It’s not that I’m afraid to criticize the union. It’s just that I know I can be more effective if I don’t get in a position of public opposition.”

We also discussed the September 20th statement. You told me that Ned Polsky and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had also withdrawn their names, which I knew, but that you still stood by it in general—you seemed surprised I’d asked the question. (You may recall our conversation differently, I didn’t take notes, but the above is my recollection of what was said.)

I also told you I’d just spent a day poking around in four of the Ocean Hill schools and had been impressed by the friendly, serious, relaxed atmosphere in the dozen or so classes I sat in on; by the easy way the young, mostly white teachers related to their pupils, talking to them without condescension; by the order, if not exactly quiet, in the halls between classes—I saw no fighting and only three or four instances of rowdy behavior (which were dealt with promptly by passing teachers who didn’t threaten or shout—I don’t remember hearing a teacher raise his, or her, voice the whole day). “Discipline,” the Calvary of “normal” ghetto schools, was rarely apparent. The teachers generally seemed to like their pupils and find them interesting and vice versa, so that a mildly disorderly hum of cooperative effort was the usual classroom atmosphere. I’m told it used to be rather different in the ghetto schools when the UFT veterans ran them in professional style. Ocean Hill reinforced the prejudice I’ve always had in favor of amateurs who don’t know how to do it but, as the etymology suggests, love doing it. I was allowed, by the way, to wander anywhere I liked, sometimes without a guide, which, I’m also told, would be unthinkable in the normal, or professional, ghetto school. It was a moving and satisfying experience, that day at Ocean Hill. I hope you’ll try it yourself, before you reply to this letter. It might make a difference. I suppose it wouldn’t be practical to take Mr. Shanker along too?

Best regards, as always,


A Reply January 2, 1969