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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.

When Mr. Mayer theorizes about the members of the governing board, most of whom he neither describes nor even identifies, he is dealing with fairly malleable stuff. But when he comes to Rhody McCoy, the unit administrator of the Ocean Hill district, “a compact, thoughtful, impressive schoolman of eighteen years’ experience in New York…committed,” Mr. Mayer says, “to a range of educational innovations in the project’s classrooms,” he is up against a different kind of problem, for most of McCoy’s activities during the months in question are either part of the public record or within the reach of a conscientious reporter. “From May to December,” Mr. Mayer says, McCoy “was the only person who met regularly with all the disputants….”

Had the “thoughtful and impressive” McCoy been part of a plan, as Mr. Mayer assumes he was, to force the presumed confrontation, then surely someone among the scores of people McCoy met with, whether on the governing board, the central Board of Education, or within the UFT, in the superintendent’s office, or among the many reporters, including Mr. Mayer himself, who interviewed him, should have been able to supply, if not McCoy’s entire manifesto, then at least an incriminating sentence or two; something, for example, comparable to the statement by Albert Shanker, which Mr. Mayer doesn’t mention, on the occasion of the third teachers’ strike last October, that the objective this time was the destruction of the Ocean Hill experimental district. But if Mr. Mayer has gathered such material he has kept it to himself and has chosen instead to render the “compact” Mr. McCoy as incorporeal as he had the governing board. In Mr. Mayer’s view, “confusion followed [McCoy] wherever he went, as the fog follows the tide.”

Mr. Mayer, nevertheless, charges that McCoy was the chief mischief-maker of them all and “the source of any number of inflammatory statements,” though Mr. Mayer, in his quest for the truth, neither gives us the number of these statements nor troubles to quote a single example beyond the rather neutral observation, which he attributes to McCoy, that when a Negro mother sees that a whole class of Negro children is failing, she may conclude that the school “system is designed to keep black children down.” Presumably Mr. Mayer feels that it would have been less inflammatory had the mother said that if a whole class of Negro children is failing then Negro children must be stupider than other children, or, in the jargon of the school system, that they are “culturally deprived.” Later in his book Mr. Mayer acknowledges that such admissions are “psychologically” difficult for parents to make.

According to Mr. Mayer, the complex plot that McCoy hatched was independent of what the governing board itself was conspiring to do. Furthermore, the success of McCoy’s scheme depended upon his keeping his principal maneuver secret from the board. What McCoy was secretly up to from September 1967 through April 1968, according to Mr. Mayer, was, strangely enough, nothing less than an attempt to arrange the orderly dismissal, through routine channels, of the same teachers whom the governing board wanted to “fire” so that someone on it could “make a splash.” McCoy’s subtle technique was to work discreetly with Superintendent of Schools Donovan, “who was ready,” Mr. Mayer says, “to help McCoy quietly transfer out people he didn’t want.” Far from pleasing McCoy, however, Donovan’s acquiescence, Mr. Mayer says, threatened to ruin his scheme. This required the “thoughtful schoolman” to play an extremely complicated double game. It also requires Mr. Mayer’s unfortunate reader to untangle an even more complicated and sloppy argument.

According to Mr. Mayer, McCoy was slyly trying to provoke the Ocean Hill governing board into a precipitate and dangerous decision to “fire” the unwanted teachers (even though the governing board had been planning such an action on its own) by refusing to tell its members that they didn’t have to “fire” the teachers at all. Donovan was going to do it for them. Had the governing board known what Donovan was willing to do, McCoy’s plot would have been ruined, for the board would then not have been able to fire anybody. Thus McCoy would, Mr. Mayer says, “have lost most of the confrontation.” But by lying to the local board McCoy managed to keep Donovan’s intentions a secret, and by the beginning of May McCoy had “tricked” the board into its desperate action. Convinced that Donovan would never go along with its plans, the board on May 8 demanded that the unwanted teachers be sent out of the district,3 and thus the teachers’ strikes which were called in the fall of 1968 became inevitable.

It is unclear from Mr. Mayer’s account why it was necessary for McCoy to go to these lengths to provoke the local governing board when, according to Mr. Mayer, the governing board had long since decided on its own to “fire a group of teachers” for no better reason than to make a “splash.” It is even less clear why McCoy had bothered to discuss the question of the teachers with Donovan at all if his intention had been simply to convince the governing board that Donovan wasn’t going to agree to the dismissals. Even less clear are the names of the teachers whom McCoy and Donovan had been discussing and whom Donovan had agreed to help transfer out.

According to Mr. Mayer, the UFT too had agreed to let Ocean Hill “fire” a number of unwanted teachers or, in the jargon of the system, arrange for their “involuntary transfer.” Mr. Mayer doubts, however, that the union would have agreed to let the local board “fire” a group of teachers which included the chairmen of its own union chapters in Ocean Hill. But in the view of the Ocean Hill board, these were precisely the teachers who had been attempting to sabotage the experimental district and whom the board, therefore, most wanted to get rid of. Perhaps it was for these same reasons that this was the group which the union most wanted to keep in Ocean Hill. As it happened, these chapter chairmen were among the teachers to whom the governing board sent the letters of dismissal.

In any case, it is impossible to tell from Mr. Mayer’s account whether it was this group whom Donovan had been willing “to help…quietly transfer out,” or whether he had in mind another group to whose fate the union presumably was indifferent. Common sense, however, would suggest that Donovan could not have had the group including the union chapter chairmen in mind, for had Donovan offered to sacrifice this group he would himself have been responsible for causing the strike, in which case he would appear either to have been insane or part of a plot to force the confrontation. Neither of these hypotheses is likely, however, for, according to Mr. Mayer, Donovan was “more of a politician, perhaps, than anyone else involved in the story.” Almost certainly, therefore, Donovan could not have promised to help McCoy “fire” the same group of teachers whom the governing board wanted to get rid of but whom the UFT wanted to keep.

It is impossible, then, to understand why it had been necessary for McCoy to lie to the governing board about Donovan’s intentions. To make matters still more confusing, Mr. Mayer concludes this account by saying, perhaps inadvertently, that “McCoy had never asked Donovan to transfer out any teachers” at all. It is typical of Mr. Mayer’s carelessness that only two pages before he says that “McCoy had mentioned to Donovan that some people were going to have to go.”

Mr. Mayer admits, however, that it was “more difficult than the casual observer might think” for McCoy to have been involved in such an unlikely plot; and this would seem to be the case, since no one else, including Albert Shanker, President of the UFT, has come up with a similar hypothesis to explain the complex events which led to the school strikes. This may only mean, however, that other observers of these events are, to use a word that Mr. Mayer enjoys, “ignorant.” “To this day,” Mr. Mayer says, “most members of the Ocean Hill governing board believe that McCoy asked to be relieved of the people” whom the board wanted to get rid of, “and got nowhere. And thus,” Mr. Mayer says, McCoy’s “trick was accomplished.”

Mr. Mayer neglects, however, to give the names of this astute minority of governing board members who were not taken in by McCoy’s “trick,” nor does he explain why they failed to convey their misgivings to their colleagues, if not to the press. Though it is too late to undo the effects of the “trick” that McCoy played on them, these board members might at least try to get rid of McCoy so that he can’t betray Ocean Hill again. That Mr. Mayer finds no evidence of such misgivings on the part of the unnamed board members who presumably saw through McCoy’s scheme might lead one to conclude (Mr. Mayer, at any rate, seems to conclude) that the board accepted McCoy’s duplicity as a matter of course, the sort of thing that typically happens when ghetto leaders try to run a school district.

It would seem more plausible, however, to accept the word of those governing board members who insist that they had known all along of McCoy’s discussions with Donovan about the unwanted teachers, especially since McCoy and the governing board, in the weeks before the dismissals were finally announced, had met twice with the superintendent and the central Board and had come away with the impression that Donovan wasn’t going to do anything about the teachers whom the Ocean Hill board wanted to get rid of. It was only after these meetings, in March and April, that the governing board, “against, McCoy’s advice,” according to Father Powis, whom Mr. Mayer quotes without disagreement, decided to act on its own and order the unwanted teachers to report for reassignment. Mr. Mayer neglects to mention these meetings, though they are recorded in the minutes of the governing board and are referred to in a document which the governing board released and which Mr. Mayer appears to have read: had he mentioned these meetings he would, of course, have made it all the harder for a “casual observer” to accept his version of the “confrontation.”

What a disinterested, if not necessarily a “casual” observer might conclude from all this is that McCoy had been negotiating with Donovan not in order to force a “confrontation” but to avoid one. Both Donovan and McCoy had spent enough time in the school system to know that to transfer the chapter chairmen would bring on the wrath of the UFT, which would in turn seriously endanger or perhaps destroy Ocean Hill and with it any hope of city-wide decentralization. By early April, apparently, it became clear that Donovan could not agree to the transfers without causing the UFT to strike and McCoy could no longer control his board. The “confrontation” followed.4

Mr. Mayer advances his theory of a conspiracy to show that the Ocean Hill leaders were for the most part irresponsible troublemakers and their supporters on the State Board of Regents (especially Kenneth Clark who is, of course, a Negro), in the Mayor’s office, on the central Board of Education, and in the foundations and the universities were fools. In such circumstances one would expect the UFT to emerge heroically, but Mr. Mayer is willing to offer even Albert (“Al” as Mr. Mayer calls him) Shanker no more than the role of an innocent victim. The true hero of this narrative is Mr. Mayer himself. It is difficult for the reader to escape the impression that if Mr. Mayer, who describes himself as “among the leaders” of the movement to decentralize the schools, had only been called in at the beginning, the “earthquake” would never have happened.

But Mr. Mayer was not called in and it was left to Mayor Lindsay to cope with the Ocean Hill militants himself. That he fell into their trap is largely the result of his mistaken decision, according to Mr. Mayer, “that his office should have control of the Board of Education.” Where Lindsay went wrong, Mr. Mayer says, was in deciding to pack the Board with six new members who “were in one way or another intimately connected with poverty programs or with promoting social change.” “These men” (one of whom, Mr. Mayer fails to observe, was a woman) “were elected to nothing and responsible to no one,” which in itself, of course, doesn’t distinguish them from those Board members who had been appointed by Lindsay’s predecessor and to whom Mr. Mayer seems not to object, presumably because they were not interested in “social change.” But these six were in the “habit of dealing with issues, not with people…and they had no idea how a big organization runs or even what a big organization is…the six had no way to think about issues except in terms of slogans and personalities and the positions they had taken…”

What Mr. Mayer means by these categorical denunciations is obscure. He tells us almost nothing about the careers of four of these appointees, while one of the other two is John Doar, former chief of the civil rights section of the Justice Department, who, in his earlier career, must surely have dealt with “people” on many occasions, and perhaps even fell into the “habit” of dealing with them; nor can it be said that the Justice Department is not a big organization.

The point of these generalizations becomes clearer, however, when Mr. Mayer introduces the seventh Lindsay appointee, Mr. Walter Straley, a vice president of the telephone company who “had the background and training and position to see how profoundly harmful a third teachers’ strike would be,” though Mr. Mayer tells us no more of Mr. Straley’s “background and training” than he does of the backgrounds of the other Lindsay appointees or why a job with the telephone company makes one wiser than a job with the Justice Department. We are meant, however, to infer Mr. Straley’s superior wisdom from the fact that at a mysterious meeting at Armando’s Restaurant in Brooklyn on the night of October 13, as Shanker was about to call his third strike of the fall, Mr. Straley, “for five hours, from seven to midnight, hammered at his colleagues to get them to reverse the decision so hastily taken on Friday. He could not,” according to Mr. Mayer, “budge one of them.”

The decision which the Board had “hastily” taken, and to which Mr. Straley so strenuously objected, was to re-open Ocean Hill’s JHS 271. This school had been the scene of serious disturbances in the aftermath of the second UFT strike, and Superintendent Donovan had therefore decided to close it, a decision which seemed to many observers at the time to set the stage for more violence.

Mr. Mayer’s version of the events which led the Board to decide that 271 should be reopened, even if this meant a third teachers’ strike, is inadequate and thus fails to explain why Mr. Straley could not convince his colleagues. His account is based partly on conjecture and partly on what appear to have been interviews with several of the people involved in the negotiations between the Central Board and the UFT, including representatives of the Mayor’s office, the superintendent of schools, officials of the UFT, and various Board of Education members. The developments in Ocean Hill itself, however, are reported sketchily, scornfully, and at second hand, while the larger conflicts that had begun to arise, in the course of the fall, from the bitterness of the two previous strikes Mr. Mayer ignores entirely, perhaps on the assumption, as he later says, “that there were no real issues in the strikes—only slogans.”

In concentrating, as he does in the passages that describe the origins of the third and longest strike, on the inner machinery, together with the private conversations, secret meetings, and mysterious phone calls of the various negotiators, Mr. Mayer has neglected to observe what had been happening in the city itself. By the middle of October, on the eve of the third strike, a war was flickering between blacks and whites, and as long as the junior high school in Ocean Hill remained shut, that war threatened to break out on the streets. It was a skirmish on the edges of this war that led to the disturbances which caused Donovan to shut 271 in the first place.

The UFT teachers who had returned to Ocean Hill at the end of the second strike of the fall and the teachers, many of them white, who had remained on the job, had begun to squabble and occasionally to do worse than squabble, a detail which Mr. Mayer neglects to mention. It was partly because of this quarreling, and partly for reasons that go back to the governing board’s original decision last spring to get rid of those UFT teachers who had seemed to be sabotaging the district, that some of the Ocean Hill principals, as well as McCoy himself, found it difficult to comply quickly or easily with the terms on which the first two strikes of the 1968-69 school year were settled. These terms were mainly that the UFT teachers be returned to their regular classroom assignments.

John Doar, who had become President of the central Board of Education as the third strike emerged, was convinced that the only way to secure the necessary compliance was to rely upon the people in charge of the Ocean Hill schools themselves: to depend not upon the police who had been sent into the district but upon the local governing board, the unit administrator, and the principals whom they had appointed to meet the terms on which the central Board and the union had settled the second strike. In effect, it is this very arrangement—supervised rather gingerly by a representative of the State Department of Education—which has maintained the uneasy peace in Ocean Hill since the third strike was settled. It was also John Doar’s idea that if the situation in Ocean Hill were to be stabilized, 271 should be reopened. (According to Mr. Mayer’s improbable account of these events, Shanker himself is said to have agreed to this proposition. Mr. Mayer says that Shanker wanted 271 closed for only “one more day” beyond the date on which the Board had proposed to open it.)

Mr. Straley, for all his “background and training,” felt differently, but if he was unable to convince his colleagues in Armando’s Restaurant to go along with him, it was for reasons that had nothing to do with what Mr. Mayer presumes to be the simplemindedness of his fellow Lindsay appointees. What Mr. Straley had proposed to his colleagues a few days before the Armando’s meeting on October 13, but which Mr. Mayer leaves out of his account, was not simply that 271 remain closed but that the Ocean Hill project itself be abandoned, that its 9,000 children be sent away to other schools in the city, that the central Board of Education lease the buildings to the Ocean Hill governing board for one dollar a year and that the governing board look to foundations for the money with which to run them, for whatever children might still be left in the district. This scheme was enough to convince Mr. Straley’s colleagues that no matter how he might “hammer away at them,” his advice was to be regarded with the utmost caution.

But by this time the conflict between the Board of Education and the UFT, and within the Board itself between its pre-and post-Lindsay factions, had been far exceeded by a conflict within the school system as a whole—between white teachers and administrators, the majority of whom, alas, were Jewish, and their black and Puerto Rican clientele. The backlash within the UFT had become intense, though it was the same UFT which supports school integration and has given time, money, and spirit to the cause of civil rights (although, as John O’Neill, a former UFT Vice President, has pointed out, the Union employs only a handful of blacks and Puerto Ricans on its professional staff). What is worse, this backlash was rashly abetted by various Jewish leaders throughout the city who were fearful of what might happen if Jewish teachers were to find themselves employed not by the central bureaucracy but by “militant” black and Puerto Rican local governing boards. Though Mr. Mayer makes it appear that the third strike could have been avoided if only Lindsay’s new appointees had listened to Mr. Straley, the more likely hypothesis is that even Mr. Shanker could not control the fears of his union members, to which he and other leaders of the UFT had unwisely contributed, as the third and longest strike approached.

A long and bitter strike was inevitable. Its goal would be to destroy Ocean Hill, and with it any further hope of school decentralization, and it would wear itself out only when the teachers found at least the first of these goals unattainable and themselves exhausted, as the majority, but by no means all, of them eventually did. Having been so rash as to add to the furor of his followers, Shanker found that he, like the rest of the city, had become the victim of their passions.

Though Mr. Mayer says on one page of his book that there were no issues in the strike, he admits, on another, that there were. They were “the most difficult” of all strike issues to settle: the disposal of what Mr. Mayer rather coldly calls “surplus staff.” He is referring here to the teachers who had been hired by Ocean Hill to replace the ones who had gone out on strike. But he might as well have applied his statement to the school system at large, for at the source of the teachers’ strike and its proliferating antagonisms there is the hard question of what to do about ghetto teachers and principals for many of whom there may no longer be places in a changed educational structure, but who have worked and risen in the traditional system, who depend upon it for their livings and their self-esteem, and who in many cases have given their best efforts to a task which has, surprisingly, turned out to be among the most difficult on earth: teaching the young in a world which, in many ways, no longer makes sense either to them or to their elders.

The idea behind the decentralization of the schools, and the issue which precipitated the strikes and continues to generate great hostility within the city, is what has rather wistfully come to be known as institutional change: that by changing the administrative conditions within which teaching takes place, the teaching itself will change, presumably for the better. The argument for school decentralization in New York was that the schools should be separated from their centralized and aloof bureaucracy and brought closer to the reality of the neighborhoods in which they operated. Thus their administrators would become accountable to the people in these neighborhoods, rather than to a distant headquarters. What gave this idea force was that the school bureaucracy had indeed become an aloof and stupefying institution. Even its own Superintendents, together with several previous Boards of Education and a majority of the present Board of Education, had urged that it be decentralized.

The corollary to this proposition is what, in fact, precipitated the strikes, for to weaken the grip of the central bureaucracy presupposes that the individual districts and their community governing boards will become correspondingly stronger. Since a majority of the children who now attend New York City public schools are black or Puerto Rican, their parents are likely to predominate on a number of the local boards. The blacks and Puerto Ricans would thus become, in effect, the employers of many of the teachers and principals who have traditionally depended upon mechanisms within the central bureaucracy for their advancement and upon contracts between their city-wide union and the central Board of Education for their tenure and other rights.

Inevitably a great many teachers and administrators must have concluded that under a decentralized system, in which the staff would be directly accountable to local governing boards, they would sooner or later become what Mr. Mayer calls “surplus.” At best they would find themselves employed by the very Negro and Puerto Rican leaders whom many teachers and principals had typically come to fear and patronize. This fear was undoubtedly aggravated by the fact that in New York City the average non-white child at the age of twelve was two years behind his average white counterpart and, as Mr. Mayer says, “it is psychologically very difficult for parents,” in such circumstances, “not to blame the schools.” Whether it is a question of psychology or justice, the fact is that great numbers of ghetto parents had begun to blame the schools and the teachers for the failure of their children, and leaders had risen among them who were no longer willing to wait upon the yearly promises of the central bureaucracy to do something about it.

The attack upon decentralization by groups representing the apprehensive teachers had begun well before the events with which Mr. Mayer’s book is concerned. Mr. Mayer says nothing, for example, about the concentrated, expensive, and successful efforts of the UFT to defeat decentralization when it was discussed in the legislature last spring, nor does he mention the militant factions within the union which urged these tactics, and which Shanker, in order to secure his own power, had to accommodate, well before the Bundy decentralization plan appeared in the fall of 1967.5 He fails, too, to mention the fact that the Jewish Teachers Association, which claims 26,000 members, attacked the Bundy proposals months before the troubles began in Ocean Hill, and that the New York Board of Rabbis (but not the Brooklyn Board) had done the same, while the Board of Examiners, which supervises promotions within the system, issued a warning that decentralization was “terrifying” in its implications for “white teachers.”

These are admittedly delicate matters and require the most scrupulous analysis. Had Mr. Mayer chosen to face them, however, he would then have been able to consider the teachers’ strike in a far more complex and enlightening perspective than he has, for it is merely distracting to go into such detail as Mr. Mayer does about what “Al” Shanker said to Rose Shapiro, a former acting President of the Central Board, and what she said to Harold Israelson, a labor mediator, or who may have said what to whom at an agitated dinner meeting at Armando’s between seven and twelve o’clock on October 13, when the city and its school system were in the midst of an unprecedented and bewildering crisis.

The urgent matter before the city is no longer simply the school crisis—much less the conversations that may have taken place in Rose Shapiro’s apartment. The urgent crisis is the outrageous and heartbreaking and potentially dangerous hostility between the city’s blacks and its Jews that has followed in the wake of the strikes and has by now had the effect of distorting not only the original strike issues but the concept of school decentralization itself.

One result of this is that it will be exceedingly difficult for the State Legislature, which must soon consider proposals for permanent school decentralization, to think sensibly about the issues and to act upon them without fear of antagonizing the black and Jewish constituencies within the city. The problem for analysis is how this hostility broke loose and what can be done about it, if anything can be done at all. Instead of analyzing the crisis, Mr. Mayer’s book exacerbates it; all the more so because The New York Times Sunday Magazine had printed a substantial part of it, with its numerous errors uncorrected, a few weeks before the book itself appeared.

The result has been that the Times has given Mr. Mayer a platform from which to create the widespread impression, on the eve of the legislature’s deliberations, that the Ocean Hill crisis had been the result of no more than the treachery and foolishness of a handful of black troublemakers and their dupes among a largely Protestant group of establishment nincompoops. As Mr. Mayer says, New York City “is two thirds non-Spanish Catholic and Jewish. The political decision [by Lindsay and his appointees to the Board of Education] to permit the horror of the third teachers’ strike was taken by a group which did not include a single representative of the two majority elements and which acted solely in the interests of the ideological bias and self-esteem of its members.”

Now this statement is not only condescending and, in the present atmosphere, inflammatory, but it ignores the central role of the UFT in “permitting,” if not causing, the third strike—to say nothing of the first two. Furthermore, Mr. Mayer’s statement is untrue. Of the group of Lindsay appointees to whom Mr. Mayer presumably refers (i.e., those who would not accept. Mr. Straley’s advice and who strongly support decentralization), two are black, two are Puerto Rican, but only Mr. Straley himself is a white Protestant. The other two are John Doar, a “non-Spanish Catholic” and William Haddad, a Jew. Another of Lindsay’s appointments to the Board was Salim Lewis, an investment banker and a former president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Had Lewis not been forced to resign from the Board for reasons of health, he would probably have become its President and would probably have supported the group to which Mr. Mayer objects. When Lewis resigned, Lindsay replaced him with Doar, who did become President. Furthermore, this group established itself as a majority caucus with the help of John Lotz, who had been appointed to the Board by Lindsay’s predecessor, but who was reappointed by Lindsay, and who is also a “non-Spanish Catholic,” while Lindsay’s go-between with this group of Board members was usually Lew Feldstein, also a Jew. Recently, when Lloyd Garrison, a WASP, resigned from the Board, Lindsay replaced him with Norman Redlich, a Jew who favors decentralization. That Mr. Mayer, who has described himself as an expert reporter, should have stumbled over such verifiable facts is perhaps the result of his haste to make events conform to his own “ideological bias.” But for the Times, which has usually been scrupulous in matters of ethnic and group conflict, it is quite another matter to publicize such invidious inaccuracies as are to be found within Mr. Mayer’s arraignment of the Ocean Hill blacks and their supporters in City Hall.

Mr. Mayer evidently subscribes to the idea, which has been expounded recently in Commentary, a magazine sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, that “establishment” gentiles have begun to express their residual anti-Semitism by encouraging militant Negroes to attack Jewish institutions as well as Jews themselves. Thus Mr. Mayer’s book implies a larger conspiracy than the one which he claims to have uncovered within the Ocean Hill Board. In suggesting that the gentile administration in City Hall has ignored the interests of the city’s Jews in preference to those of the Negroes and Puerto Ricans, he seems to be arguing that Lindsay, perhaps unconsciously, has confirmed the Commentary hypothesis.

Now this is a narrow and considerably obsessed interpretation based on an impertinent and cursory judgment of Mr. Lindsay’s private motives and a mistaken account of his public acts. Though the roots of the current hostility between the city’s Jews and its blacks may be as ancient as the sources of anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism themselves, there is a more apparent source of the city’s miseries than either the ancient quarrel or the presumed malignity of Mr. Lindsay’s private motives. The attack on New York City’s educational bureaucracy is, in many ways, inseparable from what appears to be a nearly world-wide revulsion from those highly centralized institutions and their bureaucracies which have come to characterize the advanced cultures. This tendency may be found not only in the decentralist bent of our own youth movements and those which have arisen in the other capitals of the West, including not only Paris and London but also Prague; but something similar seems to have been involved in China’s antibureaucratic cultural revolution and in the separatist movements within Great Britain and France as well as the one in Canada.

In any case, it is hardly news that our bourgeois civilization is considerably agitated, nor is the agitation limited to the bourgeois countries of the West. If the demand for decentralization and for the transfer of power from the bureaucracies to what Alexander Dubcek, but also the leaders of the Roman Catholic minority in Ulster, call the “people” has filtered down from the foundations to New York City’s ghettos—or perhaps the other way round—then New York and its highly centralized and archaic school system have no reason to feel unique.

Yet by a grotesque accident of history the drama of decentralization has begun to play itself out in New York as a conflict between Jews and blacks for the simple (and pathetic) reason that one of New York’s most malignant and vulnerable bureaucracies happens to be its school system, which is controlled not by Stalinist bureaucrats or Cromwellian Ulstermen or complacent Gaullist deputies, but by Jewish liberals, whose antagonists turn out to be, of all people, the very ghetto residents of whom these liberals had typically been proud to feel them themselves the special benefactors.

When Mr. Mayer says that “there were no issues in the school strike—only slogans,” he means that, from the point of view of pedagogy and school administration, the “people” are powerless no matter who sits on the governing boards. It is the “professional” teachers and administrators who inevitably have all the power. To protect this power they are as likely to bamboozle or ignore a local board as they are a centralized bureaucracy. This is what happens, according to Mr. Mayer, in the case of suburban school systems whose local boards are powerless to control their “professional” staffs, and it is what he feels is likely to happen to the local boards in New York too. Thus Mr. Mayer feels that the demand for community control is gratuitous and arises out of ignorance of how schools really operate.

But this complacent and hopeless view leaves too much out of account: for example, that the local governing board in Ocean Hill hired, in Rhody McCoy, a “professional” administrator who, according to Mr. Mayer, was at once responsible to “professional” educational standards but also, according to Mr. Mayer, to the wishes of his community representatives—if, in Mr. Mayer’s view, excessively so. Furthermore, there are schools in New York which have traditionally been controlled by their communities in the sense that their “professional” administrators and faculties consider themselves directly accountable to the parents whose children attend them. These are the private schools, which are totally decentralized in that they are responsible to no larger authority (except for the State Board of Regents) than their own boards of trustees.

Nor is community control in New York simply an upper-middle-class privilege. The Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn, according to Rabbi Kurt Klappholz, President of the Brooklyn Board of Rabbis, are also accountable to their communities, perhaps even more than the private schools in Manhattan. The principals of these schools, Rabbi Klappholz says, must often ignore their ordinary business in order to hear the dissatisfied mothers, who, on Mondays, fill the schools with complaints that they have accumulated from their children over the weekend. It is characteristic of the schools that Rabbi Klappholz describes, and of the private schools in Manhattan, that their teachers do not usually consider themselves “professionals” in the sense that Mr. Mayer intends. Many of them would not insist that they are in possession of specifically pedagogical skills beyond the knowledge of the subjects they teach. In the Manhattan private schools what seems to characterize the better teachers is a sense of responsibility to their students and their subjects and not to a professional identity nor to an administrative hierarchy beyond the reach of both parents and students. These teachers are usually accessible to troubled parents, and their relationships with their students are often very direct and informal. It is the sort of thing one saw in Ocean Hill earlier this year, when the teachers whom the governing board had hired, many of them white, Jewish, young, and not self-consciously “professional,” had begun to take over from their more “professional” colleagues who had joined the UFT strike.

The success, such as it is, of these private schools derives, partly, from the parents’ knowledge that if enough of them are dissatisfied they can always demand that the headmaster dismiss an unwanted teacher, or they can find a new headmaster, or take their children elsewhere. The teachers and administrators of these schools have no ultimate legal or institutional authority over the parents, who may deal with the school authorities more or less on terms of cultural and political equality. Ultimately the choice belongs to the parent and not to the institution. It is something like this view of how a school should be accountable to its community that underlies the argument for decentralization, and that may explain the support it has had from people like Mayor Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, who, as Mr. Mayer points out, send their children to private schools (as does Mr. Mayer himself), and whom he therefore accuses of insensitivity to the realities of public education.

To say therefore, as Mr. Mayer does, that “in any context community control of complex public services cannot be discussed intelligently…because it is thoroughly impossible,” is clearly untrue.6 Still worse, Mr. Mayer’s complacent generalization denies what is essential to any democratic society: the accountability of public officials and their staffs to the people they serve. It is not only possible for communities to have more control over their public institutions than they do now but, from the point of view of the citizens themselves, it is a matter of increasing urgency that they should have such control, as the people of Prague and the parents of Ocean Hill have shown.

Indeed, even Mr. Mayer himself, at the end of his lengthy argument to prove the contrary, characteristically reverses himself and admits that “part of the solution [to the problem of bureaucracy] lies in breaking down the units of decision into smaller pieces geographically and by function to permit visible leadership to wrestle with perceived problems,” which is no more than an elaborate way of denying what he had said earlier. But there were other issues in the strike too, and the most immediate of them is one which Mr. Mayer fails to confront at all. For if the parents have a “legitimate” grievance against the school system, as Mr. Mayer admits they do, the teachers and administrators who belong to the system in New York have a “legitimate” fear of losing their jobs, of becoming, under a decentralized system, as Mr. Mayer says in another context, “surplus staff.”

If Mr. Mayer has been remiss in failing to deal with this issue, so too have Mayor Lindsay and several successive Boards of Education, including the present one, as well as the foundation people who drew up the original decentralization plans. For no matter how decadent the school system may be, the teachers who have given their lives to it are human beings, vulnerable to the usual fears and delusions that affect people when the normal conditions of their lives are threatened with change. Nor is it simply a matter of fears and delusions, for there is also the question of self-esteem and the honest conviction on the part of many teachers that they have, after all, given their best efforts, that they should therefore be protected from the animosity of parents who feel that these efforts have been insufficient.

That the proponents of decentralization have failed adequately to confront these legitimate apprehensions—though as Mr. Mayer says the problem of “surplus staff” is the hardest problem of all—has only intensified the fears of the present school staff. These fears have generated much of the hysterical animosity which has now come to obscure the question of school decentralization and which has given rise to the paranoiac suggestion that the blacks and the City Hall gentiles have banded together to attack the Jewish interests within the city.

From this issue there has arisen another to which Mr. Mayer unfortunately pays no attention either. This is the bitter response of the aggrieved blacks to what they see as the efforts of a largely Jewish school bureaucracy to protect its interests at the expense of the self-determination of the black neighborhoods and the hopes that black parents have for their children.

This clash of “legitimate” interests has produced remarkably ugly instances of anti-Semitism on the part of certain black demagogues, including most notably the doggerel which Leslie Campbell, a teacher at JHS 271 read over radio station WBAI. That Jewish demagogues have responded to these insults in such a way as to imply that the black population generally shares such feelings (and by demanding that WBAI be put off the air) in no way mitigates the original insults. On the other hand, it does nothing to clarify the confusion over decentralization when certain agitated Jewish leaders, including those within the leadership of the UFT, attempt to identify black anti-Semitism as not only a source of the initiative toward school decentralization but a necessary consequence of it, an implication which also emerges from Mr. Mayer’s accusation that Mayor Lindsay did not consider the interest of the city’s Jews when he appointed his new members to the Board of Education.

These hostilities may be seen as the outcome of the powerlessness of the ghetto, but also of the powerlessness of the schoolteachers and their administrators to protect their careers from what they see as an arbitrary and perhaps conspiratorial initiative against their personal security. As Hannah Arendt has recently argued in these pages, violence tends to follow when people or governments feel that they no longer have power over their own affairs; for example when bureaucracies absorb all the initiatives. This describes the situation within the city at this moment; though thankfully the violence, except for the violent decision by the UFT to shut down all the city’s schools in order to destroy a single experimental district, has so far been almost entirely a matter of strong feeling and even stronger words. On the part of the blacks the case is comparable, in some ways, to that of the Zionists in Palestine as the British mandate was coming to an end, although in the case of the school crisis the incidents of violence have not, as yet, descended to acts of terror, though such a horror may yet come. Allowing for such differences, it may nonetheless be instructive to compare Leslie Campbell with such a literary precursor as Ben Hecht, who, as a partisan of the Stern Gang, bought an ad in The New York Times to announce that “Every time a British soldier is blown up we make a little holiday in our hearts,” for which sentiments, incidentally, there were no demands that the Times go out of business as there have been that WBAI be shut down.

The solution to such assaults upon the British was for them to leave Palestine to the Jews and Arabs who lived there and who had considerable reason to feel the land was theirs and, in the case of the Jews, that their survival as a people depended upon having such a homeland. Though one can imagine a publicist for a continuing British involvement arguing that Zionism was no real issue at all—only “a slogan”—the facts were different. It was the decision by the British that the Jews should be left to manage their own affairs, with whatever help they could get, that spared the British any further anguish and made possible the present state of Israel whose once “militant” Zionists have now become, in their various ways, conservative (or liberal) citizens of a flourishing if still embattled society. (That the Arab refugees have inherited the powerlessness from which the Zionists had once suffered is, of course, another matter. However Miss Arendt’s principle remains intact.) This analogy is not to suggest that the black efforts in New York toward community control must also imply racial separation. On the contrary, in the Ocean Hill experiment, where a great many of the teachers hired by the governing board were white and a majority of those were Jewish, the tragedy has been that this enterprise in racial cooperation should have been so brutally assailed by the UFT and the supervisory associations.

There is finally a larger issue than the frustrations of the city’s black and Jewish minorities. The “earthquake” to which Mr. Mayer compares the teachers’ strikes resulted, he says, in damage equivalent to the destruction of “Manhattan below Chambers Street.” That he does not pursue the implications of this metaphor suggests that he is unaware of them, but Manhattan “below Chambers Street” is, of course, the financial district where the mortgages on the city’s office buildings and other valuable properties are kept. It may not be unreasonable to assume that the City Hall Protestants, and their associates within the great foundations who have been advocating decentralization, have an even greater interest in the city’s financial future than they do in expressing surreptitiously their residual anti-Semitism.

So far, unfortunately, the presumed financial consequences of decentralization have been explored only by people whose “ideological bias,” as Mr. Mayer would say, is opposed to decentralization. Mario Procaccino, for example, the city’s antic and ambitious Comptroller and a “fiscal conservative,” has argued that to establish as many as thirty independent school districts within the city, as the Board of Education has now petitioned the State Legislature to approve, would result in thirty separate bureaucracies, each proportionately more costly than the present central bureaucracy. The force of Mr. Procaccino’s argument depends upon his assumption that each new school district would take the form of the present archaic, remote, and hugely expensive central administration. It is the aim, however, of school decentralization to discourage such coral accumulations, which, in any case, take generations to grow and are thus not likely to become the immediate problem that Mr. Procaccino fears.

Liberals, on the other hand, have attacked decentralization as a way of pacifying the Negroes on the cheap. The real answer to the school problem, they feel, is to spend more money on new programs and personnel. These critics feel that school decentralization, Mr. Procaccino to the contrary, is a way of evading these costs. It is no better than a fraud, these people insist, to turn the present impoverished schools over to the ghetto communities.

The UFT and several of its supporters within the Socialist Party have advanced these arguments, and recently Maurice Goldbloom expanded upon them in an article in Commentary. Mr. Goldbloom feels that what really needs to be done is to extend the More Effective Schools Program, which allows for fewer pupils per teacher and extra professional services for the schools, and which the UFT has itself vigorously advocated. But Mr. Goldbloom appears not to have examined the elaborate evaluations of MES prepared for the Center for Urban Education. Though there are no reasons to assume that the several authors of these studies were opposed to spending more money on the schools, their findings were largely negative; they found that the MES program provided insufficient improvement in educational results to justify its considerable expense, though teacher morale was visibly better and the work load considerably less. It was partly on the basis of these studies that the Board decided not to expand MES but, as Mr. Goldbloom also fails to observe, partly because of a political struggle within school headquarters over the leadership of the program.

Mr. Goldbloom also advocates that the Talking Typewriter program be extended, but here too he seems not to have followed the arguments among the “professionals,” including a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review by Ottinger and Marks which raises doubts that devices of this sort will ever be of any use in the classroom. The Talking Typewriter, like similar electronic gadgets, has the same pedagogical value as a fountain pen. Its usefulness depends, to use the jargon, upon how it is “programmed,” and it is the “programs” or “software” that so far have not shown themselves to be as effective as Mr. Goldbloom assumes.

The point is not that school budgets should not be increased. It is that New York’s present school administration has not been able to use its increased budgets for purposes pedagogically more fruitful than MES or the Talking Typewriter, to say nothing of hundreds of other programs which haven’t made any difference either. In New York, most of these innovations have been sacrificed, no matter what their likely effectiveness, to bureaucratic mismanagement or internal administrative rivalries.

Mr. Procaccino’s arguments that school decentralization will cost more than the city should spend and Mr. Goldbloom’s that decentralization will cost less seem to reflect not their considered analysis of complex political and pedagogical issues but the fact that they have been able to accommodate their opposing “ideological biases” on the question of public spending to suit their common “ideological bias” against decentralization.

Some months ago, in these pages, the present writer argued that the cost to the city of the failure of its public schools foreshadowed an unprecedented economic disaster. The cost of Social Services in New York City—what is spent out of public funds to support citizens who cannot support themselves—has recently risen within two years from $700,000,000 to nearly $1,200,000,000. In the coming year this budget will have increased to $1,700,000,000, and the future promises to be even worse. More than 20,000 new welfare clients are added to the city’s burden each month, and many of these unfortunate people, perhaps most of them, are the product of schools that had failed them, either in the rural South or Puerto Rico or in the slums of New York itself.

It does not require a skillful statistician to project the cost of New York’s social services forward to the time when the current generation of school failures comes of age. According to Mr. Mayer, the average black and Puerto Rican twelve-year-old is two years behind his average white counterpart and this average white counterpart is not doing so well either. The present proportion of black and Puerto Rican children in the New York City schools is greater than 50 percent. Surely there is something like Mr. Mayer’s “earthquake” implied in these observations, for New York’s middle class can hardly sustain the future costs of school failure on such a vast scale, to say nothing of the social disorder which such a future population of unemployable citizens also presupposes. With its notoriously inadequate public schools, its swiftly rising welfare costs, and its crime in the streets, New York is even now becoming uninhabitable by the thousands of middle-class workers and businessmen who make their livings in its office buildings. Yet it is the activities of these people which secure the mortgages that may already have begun to quiver in their vaults as the first tremors reverberate below Chambers Street.

The pedagogical consequences of school decentralization are as yet unproven—one way or the other. But it is clear that the incumbent school “professionals” have failed and their promised improvements have not materialized, nor are there adequate grounds on which to assume that they ever will. Surely some alternative is called for. It is a pity that the Ocean Hill district, under the “thoughtful, impressive Rhody McCoy,” who is “committed to a range of educational innovations in [Ocean Hill’s] class-rooms,” should have been met with such violent assaults, including Mr. Mayer’s own, from thoughtless or self-interested people.

But there is a larger sense in which the misery of Ocean Hill is to be deplored. Apart from whatever pedagogical consequences they may have, decentralization and its corollary, community control, are of great symbolic interest. They foreshadow a shift of power within the city from its established institutions to the currently powerless and desperate ghettos. The pathos of Ocean Hill is not simply that it may prove to be an unsuccessful experiment in community control but that it is an experiment in community control which has shown many signs of succeeding but which the school “professionals” have done so much to destroy.

That Ocean Hill may nevertheless still succeed suggests the strength of the will to survive even in such a depleted community as Ocean Hill—even against such powerful antagonists as it had to face. Unless ghetto residents throughout the city are allowed to prove that they can function as managers of their own public institutions and thus assume the responsibilities that are expected of middle-class wage earners and taxpayers, and that they can, if they will, not only meet these responsibilities but transcend them, there is no future either for them or us.

It was with this in mind that I suggested in a previous issue of The New York Review [June 6, 1968] that those who currently occupy positions of power within the city—and I did not mean simply the school bureaucrats but the so-called “power structure” generally—that unless these people are willing to allow real political and economic power to emerge from the powerless ghettos, the results for the city would be chaotic. The ghetto blacks and Puerto Ricans, I wrote, by their accumulating pressure upon the public treasury, had driven the city to the wall. It was therefore up to the city’s middle class either to capitulate by sharing its power—whatever was left of it—or instead to leave the people of the ghettos to destroy themselves as the Indians had been left to do on their reservations.

Mr. Mayer, typically, has misread this comment and has concluded that along with the Ocean Hill governing board and Rhody McCoy, I too have “called on the Negro community to confront its white opponents with a choice between ‘capitulation and genocide.’ ” Mr. Mayer has missed the point. The Negro community has already confronted the rest of us with this alternative. The next move is ours. We might, as we contemplate which way to turn, reflect on the price this country paid when it chose violent means to decide the outcome of its first Civil War. The cost of the second is unthinkable.


Dropped Lines April 10, 1969

  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.

  3. 3

    The letter of dismissal which was sent to the unwanted teachers advised them to report to school headquarters for reassignment. This is the normal procedure in the case of “involuntary transfers,” which Mr. Mayer agrees are routine within the system. The governing board neither intended to “fire” the teachers, as the UFT and Mr. Mayer have accused it of doing, nor did it have the power to “fire” them if it wanted to, as Mr. Mayer himself points out, somewhat confusingly in view of what he had said earlier. The governing board simply wanted these teachers out of its district and reassigned to schools in other districts. Had the superintendent and the UFT agreed to this procedure, as Mr. Mayer feels that they had, there could hardly have been the “confrontation” that eventually occurred. But they did not agree, and the confrontation did occur. Despite the letter advising the teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment” (i.e., transfer to another district), Mr. Mayer insists that “there is absolutely no evidence [“in the documents of the time”] to support” the contention that the Ocean Hill Board tried to transfer the teachers routinely. The evidence is the letter of dismissal, which Mr. Mayer reproduces in his book, but from which, as I have noted, he has omitted the crucial sentence ordering the teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment.”

  4. 4

    In order to dramatize the issue on which it chose to strike the entire school system on behalf of a grievance within a single district, the UFT argued that the teachers had been dismissed without “due process.” Mr. Mayer’s argument implies that Donovan offered to reassign these people through “due process” but that McCoy did not convey this offer to his board. This argument, as has been shown, does not bear scrutiny. Nor is it accurate for Mr. Mayer and the UFT to talk of “firing” teachers without “due process” when these teachers were not to suffer a loss of pay or seniority and indeed were likely to have been transferred to jobs more congenial than the ones they had. Shanker, in fact, had to urge his teachers, as the present school year began, to stay in their jobs in Ocean Hill, no matter how they may have wanted to get out, because he too was interested in “forcing a confrontation.”

    However, the dispute over “due process” remains, and it is unlikely to be settled one way or another. This is because of the complex procedures, covering twelve pages of the union contract, established between headquarters and the UFT for such matters, and because of the tendency at headquarters to by-pass these procedures through informal means when it appears that the UFT won’t retaliate. A simple, if provisional, formula might be that the governing board did, in fact, attempt to dismiss (though not to “fire”) the teachers from its district and did, in fact, ask that the teachers be reassigned elsewhere, a routine procedure, according to Mr. Mayer, which the central administration refused to follow in this case. If there was a failure of “due process” the responsibility, therefore, is in the central administration for failing to carry out a routine procedure as much as in the local board for proceeding without headquarters’ approval. It is interesting to ask why, if such procedures are routine throughout the system, headquarters refused to apply them in this case and why the UFT responded as violently as it did when, in the case of routine transfers from other districts, it seldom bothered to respond at all.

  5. 5

    The UFT disingenuously had insisted that it supports decentralization and to prove this, it points to its support of the Marchi bill in the legislature last spring. The Marchi bill, however, was a weak and ambiguous substitute for the much stronger Regents bill which the UFT fought. Much of the confusion that took place last fall can be traced to the inadequacies of the Marchi bill.

  6. 6

    Emphasis added.

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