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The Real McCoy

The Teachers Strike: New York, 1968

by Martin Mayer
Harper & Row, 122 pp., $3.95

Martin Mayer describes his book on the New York teachers’ strike as “an attempt at history.” What he has written instead is a courtroom melodrama in which he himself plays the prosecutor, the judge, and the courtroom reporters, while the rest of the players, with a few exceptions to be noted later, sit speechless in the dock. This is not to say that the events he describes have no relation to reality though, as was bound to happen in such a complex scenario, many minor errors of fact inevitably turn up (John Lotz of the New York City Board of Education was never an executive of the Health Insurance Plan. Whitney Young of the National Urban League had nothing to do with an ad placed in the Times by the Urban League of Greater New York denouncing the strike. It is not true that John Doar, the Board President, has no children in the public schools. The mysterious dinner at Armando’s Restaurant, of which Mr. Mayer makes so much, was not called at the request of the Mayor nor was it attended only by the Mayor’s new appointees to the Board.)1

In addition to these minor matters Mr. Mayer’s book also includes several serious factual errors which result in (or from) considerable misconceptions of the complex events he has tried to describe. For example, a most important question is whether the governing board of the Ocean Hill experimental school district in the Brooklyn ghetto “fired” a group of teachers in the spring of 1968 or whether it ordered these teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment.” The United Federation of Teachers insists that the teachers had been “fired.” The Ocean Hill governing board insists that they had been sent to central headquarters to be “reassigned.” The distinction is crucial because the UFT used the charge that the teachers had been “fired” to justify its three disastrous, city-wide teachers’ strikes whose origins and consequences are the subject of Mr. Mayer’s book.

Mr. Mayer quotes the letter of dismissal, which was sent on May 8, 1968, to the teachers from the Ocean Hill governing board and which, according to Mr. Mayer, supports the claim of the UFT that the teachers had been “fired.” Mr. Mayer says that he has quoted this letter in its “entirety.” He has not. He has omitted its crucial last paragraph, which advises the teachers “to report Friday morning to Personnel, 110 Livingston St., Brooklyn, for reassignment.” Mr. Mayer’s omission of this crucial passage may have been deliberate, in which case he is guilty of something worse than a factual error; or, as is more likely, he has been deceived by whoever gave him the truncated version, which may have been an earlier text of the letter, one that was never sent. Perhaps he got the letter from the UFT, from which source Mr. Mayer seems to have derived much of the information in this book. On the other hand, the correct version of the letter is not hard to find. Originals were sent to the several teachers in question and copies went to Superintendent of Schools Donovan and to his deputies, Theodore Lang and Norman Brombacker, any of whom could have challenged the UFT’s version of the Ocean Hill dismissals and, had Mr. Mayer troubled to check with them, the incomplete version of the letter which appears in this book.

But the bother is not so much with Mr. Mayer’s facts as with the excesses of his imagination from which these errors mainly derive. These excesses are of a manic consistency comparable to what can be found among those advocates (some of whom have appeared in these pages) of the idea that John Kennedy was really the victim of a conspiracy to avenge the Bay of Pigs or in the work of energetic scholars such as the one who has recently tried to show, in Modern Language Notes, that Yeats, because he seems to have read Hiawatha, had come under the influence of Longfellow. In the case of such theorists it is not the way they deal with facts that sets the reader on edge so much as it is their motives and their conclusions—what it is fashionable to call their ideologies.

It is Mr. Mayer’s idea that the New York school strike was the result of a kind of new left plot which Mayor Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation innocently abetted but which was in fact cynically manipulated by various unspecified militants on the governing board of the Ocean Hill experimental school district in the Brooklyn ghetto. The aim of these militants—“perhaps,” Mr. Mayer emphasizes, “because it had been planned that way from the beginning”—seems to have had less to do with improving the run-down schools in Ocean Hill than with seizing power for themselves, even if this meant wrecking the schools in their district and perhaps the rest of the city’s schools as well. In the governing board’s own rhetoric, the point was to “force a confrontation with a sick society,” and the burden of Mr. Mayer’s argument is to show that these words can be taken literally, that they bound the main participants in the alleged conspiracy to a course of action from which they never deviated until they had succeeded in visiting upon the city a disaster comparable, Mr. Mayer says, to an “earthquake.”

The “confrontation” which the Ocean Hill board “set up” was in response to its famous decision last April to exclude from the district nineteen teachers and administrators in a way that neither conformed with the complex and haphazard procedures established at school headquarters for such matters nor pleased the United Federation of Teachers, which responded to the Board’s provocation by ordering its members to walk off the job.

Though Mr. Mayer admits that Ocean Hill “got more than its share of bad teachers,” this fact in itself is insufficient, he feels, to account for the governing board’s decision: What really happened, according to Mr. Mayer, is that “it occurred to someone [on the Ocean Hill board]—almost certainly Father Powis,” whom Mayer later describes as a “lean and hungry worker priest,” and who is, in fact, given to rhetorical flourishes—“that one could make a very big splash in the world by firing a bunch of teachers and administrators and proclaiming that now and forevermore Ocean Hill would make its own decisions about who could and who could not teach in its schools.”

Now there are two conjectures entangled in this statement, of which one, I think, can be supported while the other seems to me an example of the agitated imagination from which Mr. Mayer’s book suffers throughout. From the complicated events in Ocean Hill during the school year 1967-68 it is apparent that the Ocean Hill board had sufficient reason to confirm its fear that the central school administration together with the UFT had decided to sabotage its experiment in community control of the local schools. Not only had the central administration been harassing the new district in a number of petty ways—by not supplying lists of parents to take part in the local board’s election, by taking its time in supplying an office and a telephone for the district’s unit administrator, by removing files and typewriters, etc.—but the UFT had in the fall of 1967 joined its traditional antagonist, the Council of Supervisory Associations, which represents the system’s principals and other officials, in a suit (which it subsequently lost in the Court of Appeals) to declare illegal the appointment of four principals whom the governing board had recently chosen to run its schools.

According to Mr. Mayer, when Albert Shanker, President of the UFT, was asked why he had entered this unusual alliance against the Ocean Hill principals, his reply was “pure pique.”2 Now if Mr. Mayer were as eager to discover how the UFT and the central school bureaucracy had conspired to confront Ocean Hill with an extreme provocation as he is to find a conspiracy within Ocean Hill to provoke the union, he might have pressed this question a little further. But he didn’t, perhaps on the assumption either that Mr. Shanker is hopelessly whimsical or that there is no need to question an alliance between the union and management when their mutual antagonist is an angry clientele demanding that its children be educated.

But if Mr. Mayer fails to appreciate the impact of such an alliance on the already irritable governing board, the governing board itself was capable of no such insensitivity. Inevitably it responded by trying to get rid of those teachers and administrators who were most closely identified with the union and with school headquarters, not simply because some of them were, in its opinion, incompetent but because they seemed to be trying to wreck the experimental district as well.

Given the rhetorical inclinations of the local governing board it was probably also predictable that when it decided to throw out the nineteen teachers and administrators it would choose to elevate its action to the level of principle and thus “proclaim,” as Mr. Mayer says, “that Ocean Hill would make its own decisions about who could and who could not teach in its schools,” a demand which can be made to seem revolutionary only in such a city as New York where it is taken for granted that these decisions are to be made by the UFT in consultation with the school bureaucracy. The result has been that only twelve tenured teachers have been fired in the past decade—none of them, as far as anyone can tell, for incompetence—though, as Mr. Mayer says, there are “literally hundreds of incompetent (some of them mentally ill) teachers drifting about the school system,” of whom “Ocean Hill got more than its share.”

But if one accepts this view of the events which led to the teachers’ strike it is unclear why one must also assume, as Mr. Mayer does, that it had occurred to someone on the Ocean Hill board that he “could make a very big splash by firing a bunch of teachers,” the “splash” presumably being the publicity attendant on the teachers’ strikes which would in turn produce something like an “earthquake” in New York City. Nor is there anything in Mr. Mayer’s account to suggest why it is not sufficient to conclude that the frustration, and confusion of the Ocean Hill board had turned, under the provocations of the UFT and the supervisors, to rage and determination, a common enough sequence of emotions in American ghettos, and the white neighborhoods which abut them, to explain a good many other phenomena as well.

Surely if Father Powis or someone else on the Ocean Hill governing board had shown signs that he entertained such fantasies as Mr. Mayer attributes to him, it should have been possible for Mr. Mayer, an indefatigable reporter by his own account, to document them. He seems to have interviewed several members of the board and attended at least one of their meetings. He also appears to have been on good terms with one of the board’s dissident members, who could, had there been evidence that someone was interested in making a “splash,” have supplied at least a few details. But on this question, Mr. Mayer, who elsewhere in his book is able to quote verbatim the most intimate (and trivial) conversation between Mr. Shanker and School Superintendent Donovan, is silent.

  1. 1

    Followers of Mr. Mayer’s career will want to examine his new collection of essays, All You Know Is Facts, in which he compliments himself at length on his accuracy as a reporter.

  2. 2

    A more plausible explanation might follow from the rumors which are still current that the CSA intends to join the American Federation of Teachers of which the UFT is the New York affiliate. If these rumors turn out to be true, the merger may prove to be an exemplary if ominous case of union-management solidarity.

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