Bashing Teacher Unions 40 Years Ago – Washington Monthly

Teacher unions are catching more flak than ever before for championing school shutdowns on Covid pretexts and for campaigning for Critical Race Theory dogmas that sow the seeds of endless conflict.  I have written a few pieces on those issues this year, including “The ‘Honest History’ Fraud” and “Teacher Unions Have Always Been Terrible.”

But similar nonsense was proliferating 40 years ago, back when my beard was red.  Shortly after arriving in Washington, I pitched an investigative story on the teacher unions to the Washington Monthly, one of the most respected liberal magazines in the 1980s. One of their editors liked the proposal, so I was soon haunting National Education Association headquarters. The NEA helped Jimmy Carter capture the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1976 and received their own cabinet department as a reward.  Teacher unions worked to destroy local control of education, subvert standards, and minimize parents’ influence over their children’s education.

After the article was accepted, I was summoned to the Monthly’s headquarters in the rough-and-tumble Adams Morgan neighborhood to sign off on their edited version just before the magazine went to press. I was stunned to see that my article had been almost totally rewritten. And the revised piece was full of piffle: “of course” – “as everyone knows” – “It’s hard to believe, but…” This reminded me of Stalin’s trick of inserting the phrase “as is well known” prior to unveiling a new dogma to which communists must either assent or die.

I shuddered to see my piece smuggified. A few of my punchy lines survived the rewrite: “The NEA is the leading advocate of ‘no-fault’ teaching – whatever happens, don’t blame the teacher…. The almost total lack of teacher accountability is the central problem of contemporary public education.” The article noted that the teacher unions’ rise coincided with “a virtual collapse in public schools.”

But the edited version had more dissonance than a Mormon missionary caught bouncing a check in a New Orleans bawdy house.  The biggest surprise was that the article – re-titled as “How Teachers Teach Selfishness” – contained a completely new conclusion on teachers giving children “a cruel introduction to the world of selfishness… and for public education, it has come to represent a repudiation of some of its nobler ideals.”

This was the type of finger-wagging article finale that always made me retch. As a writer, I understood that some of my favorite lines could end up on the cutting room floor. But I was dumbfounded to see a barge load of bilge heaved into my piece.  There was no way of spiking that “selfishness” wrapup without forfeiting any chance of publication. And this would be my first D.C. publication since I moved East. Perhaps the editors claimed a droit du seigneur to screw any prose they published.

Denouncing selfishness was no substitute for repealing the laws that guaranteed teacher unions far more political clout than parents. I had no faith in shaming the perpetrators: I preferred to awaken the victims. (An excerpt from the Monthly article was reprinted in papers across the nation.)

[for PDF – this opens page by page – click on the PDF to see the next page]

jpb 1981 washington monthly how teachers teach selfishness document-2
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