I just returned from DC where I spent some time in the National Education Association (NEA) Archive. I did a great deal of research in the NEA Archive for my first book, Education and the Cold War, when the NEA housed its own records. At that time, it was mostly a disorganized mess. But since then, the NEA Archive has found a new home at the George Washington University’s Gelman Library, within that library’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Labor History Research Center. What a difference trained archivists make! Though plenty of educational historians make use of the NEA Archive, few historians in other sub-fields do, and this is a shame because I find the NEA Archive a treasure trove of cultural, political, and intellectual historical artifacts.
One major insight that this particular visit to the NEA Archive has made clear to me is the rapid shift in consciousness that took place among left and liberal educators in the 1970s. Sure, recent 70s historiography has already made this consciousness u-turn clear to me more generally—especially Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. But to see this shift so clearly in the primary sources makes it more palpable. Let me give an example.
The NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Division was (and is) sort of the sixties movement arm of the teacher’s union. It published pamphlets and hosted conferences dedicated to themes such as race relations, feminism, ethnic studies, multiculturalism, etc. In the early 1970s, HCR operators spoke in revolutionary terms. They lamented institutional racism and sexism and, sometimes, even capitalism. Sam Ethridge, HCR director for much of the 70s, comes across as someone who genuinely embraced the counterculture, seeking out speakers for conferences that included Paul Goodman, Theodore Roszak, and Jonathan Kozol. Ethridge and other HCR officials spoke about American society in dour terms, as if it were barely redeemable. In this vein, Ethridge wrote some pretty nutty things, such as in a 1972 memo where he hinted that America might try to wipe out the blacks the way Germany did the Jews. But the ability to speak in revolutionary terms bespoke a certain optimism about the power of radical movements. In its combination of optimism about the possibilities of revolution and its pessimism about the United States, the NEA HCR Division almost seemed akin Students for a Democratic Society circa 1969. It even experienced a similar factionalism born of ideological purity. At a 1971 conference on “Implementing Cultural Diversity in Instructional Programs,” members split into several caucuses, each dedicated to its own ethnic identity. In the heat of the conference, NEA member Ché Cuéllar Cisneros shouted: “I am from the Great Racist State of Texas… and I feel castrated and raped by the NEA for not having enough Chicano representation at this conference and on the Association staff…”
Now for the u-turn: factionalism was not a luxury NEA members felt they could sustain by the late 1970s, when they united against the rising “new right.” In 1979, the annual NEA HCR Conference was on the topic of the “Rise of the New Right: Human and Civil Rights in Jeopardy.” In his opening remarks, John Ryor, NEA President, proclaimed that he was “paranoid about today’s public schools, for if there is anything that has increased faster than public expectations of public education it is criticism of that same education. Whether the attack comes from the organized new right or from a general loss of liberal and humane convictions in society—a falling apart of the center of the body politic…” Conference panels dealt with issues related to “neo-Right campaigns,” such as efforts “to reduce school financing through efforts similar to California’s Proposition 13, undercut teacher-school board collective bargaining, undermine affirmative action efforts, continue censorship battles aimed at curriculum as well as books, and threaten teacher privacy.”
By the early 1980s, in a different yet related move, instead of challenging capitalism and institutional racism, the NEA HCR, when not opposing conservatism, spent its time and energy engaging in the shallow multiculturalism that has since marked that particular pedagogical strategy. Here’s a sample from one pamphlet (1982): “As Americans, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate people, for our borders are filled with a precious assortment of cultures, each one contributing to history and seeking appreciate. Each culture has a special glow. A jewel from each sits in every classroom in the nation.”
Given that the span of time between these two conferences is a mere eight years, I find this u-turn remarkable. There’s a great deal that explains this political, intellectual, and educational u-turn, that I won’t get into here. Famously, something similar happened in the previous decade. SDS went from the participatory democrats of the 1962 Port Huron Statement to the violent revolutionaries of the 1969 Days of Rage. Concomitantly, some committed liberals went in the other direction, mostly in reaction to the New Left. While in DC I also spent time in the Norman Podhoretz Papers and the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Papers, both housed at the Library of Congress. Their neoconservative ideological shifts are legendary. Podhoretz’s is particularly striking. Whereas Commentary, the magazine he edited from 1960 to 1995, generally supported the New Left and civil rights movements through much of the early and mid 1960s, by the end of that decade, Podhoretz was having serious second thoughts. For instance, he was almost alone amongst the New York literati in supporting Albert Shanker’s United Federation of Teachers against black community control efforts. I am curious: when did similar massive and rapid u-turns in consciousness take place, in the United States and elsewhere?