The Errant Education Elite


NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, by Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Boise, Idaho: Paradigm Co., 284 pp., $7.95 paper

Samuel L. Blumenfeld's new book, NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education, bears a superscript across the top for any prospective reader who may not know what he's in for: "The first full-length exposé of the National Education Association," the larger of the two nationwide teachers' unions.

One wonders, for which readers are such books written? Not the National Education Association (NEA) itself, nor the PTA, and certainly not the research or policy community of either the left or the right. Its strident tone prevents it being taken seriously. It is a case of preaching to the faithful, a book designed to confirm the worst fears of the New Right about the old bugaboo the NEA and its puerile brand of creeping socialism.

Although the book gets off to a reasonable start with chapter one, "How We Got into Public Education," the true nature of the exposé to which the reader may look forward appears in chapter five, "Turning Children into Animals." Other equally provocative and inflammatory chapter titles are sprinkled throughout this 21-chapter book: "The Education Mafia," "The Conspiracy Against Literacy," "The Soviet Connection," "The Drive for Power," "Toward Educational Dictatorship."

The fundamental problem with books of this genre is that they so far overreach that they cannot sustain themselves. If they were true we would be lost, so sinister and so clever are the masters of deceit that hold us in thrall. And if they are not true, they must be treated as exaggeration and overstatement.

The problem is not simple flamboyance and hyperbole—"The Education Mafia," for example. The problem is fundamental error. The NEA leadership is less like a mafioso don and more like a punch-drunk fighter, reeling toward the ropes. NEA membership is declining, and the leadership is out of touch with both the mood of the American people and the sentiments of its own rank and file. The vaunted radicalism of the leadership does not translate into votes—in 1980, only slightly more than half of teachers polled indicated that they voted for Jimmy Carter.

The fact is that the typical teacher in this country is sober and responsible, socially conservative, and often politically conservative. From an analytic standpoint, the interesting question is how a union leadership drifted so far left—certainly far to the left of its own membership—in so short a time. Two decades ago the NEA was a limited and ineffectual "professional association," more afraid of the American Federation of Teachers than of any other organization in American life.

The collateral question, then, is how long can the NEA leadership cling to its positions when both the public and the rank and file view them with hostility? It is, of course, precisely the problem the Democratic party faces.

The notion that the NEA leadership is a menace to American society gives them too much credit; they are obdurate, wrongheaded, softheaded, out of touch. Being all these things, how can they lead? They cannot. Unless, and only unless, one is prepared to believe in conspiracy theories of politics, an idea so uncongenial and so foreign to the American experience that it lacks credibility.

Indeed, it would be a relief to find that the NEA leadership did have the wit and intellectual capability to conspire and work their way through difficult tactical and strategic problems. They would at least then be worthy opponents. But no such claim can be seriously advanced. Rather, they are most accurately characterized as welfare-state social democrats of the Swedish variety—long on liberal rhetoric, short on careful reasoning, and losing their constituency as each day passes.

The problem in dealing with the NEA at book length is that the narrative cannot sustain the subject. By implication and explication it suggests that the NEA is more powerful than it is. Ironically, only the NEA is likely to draw comfort from this line of reasoning.

More to the point, the general case for private schools and the specific case for tax credits and tuition vouchers does not and should not rest on the NEA's stands on the issues. The NEA may push the American public toward private schools by its behavior, but the philosophic foundations of private schooling do not stand on claims about NEA pig-headedness and stupidity. What if the NEA took Blumenfeld to heart and changed its ways? Suppose the NEA backed prayer in school, opposed abortion, attacked racial quotas, taught capitalist principles with enthusiasm, and endorsed a strong defense? In the late 19th century the NEA did support most of these positions.

Would the case for private schools be weaker? Only if private schools achieve their legitimacy by juxtaposition to some short-run political instrumentalism. The NEA excesses add weight to the argument, but the raison d'être for private schools exists without reference to it. The critique the NEA deserves is not a book, but one that is short, persuasive, and to the point. As it happens, it has already been written by Chester E. Finn, Jr., for Commentary magazine ("Teacher Politics," Feb. 1983).

It is a pity Blumenfeld's book is not more carefully crafted and more tightly reasoned, for if it were, it might reach a larger audience. As it is, it seems designed to circulate within a community already convinced that the NEA is public enemy number one.

Denis Doyle is director of Education Policy Studies at the American Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. D.C.