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“Clear your mind of cant,” John Silber said, standing at the crossroads of education and politics.

John Silber, 1926‒2012

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But if Silber was a friend of poor students, he seems to have had a growing conviction that upper-middle-class students at elite American institutions such as Boston University and its more prestigious rivals were increasingly flattered, coddled, and spoiled. He opposed facilitating residential fornication and “shacking up” in the BU dorms, trying to retain traditional parietals and in loco parentis responsibilities, which infuriated student leaders (though it may secretly have pleased female students). He opposed having Boston University recognize “sexual orientation” as a category of discrimination. He closed down the gay-straight alliance at the secondary school that he founded, Boston University Academy. He criticized the dean of the Boston University School of Theology for advocacy of homosexuals in the ministry; Silber did not demonize homosexuals and noted that we are all sinners but pointed out that male homosexuals were characterized by “obsessive promiscuity” and argued that “celibacy and fidelity are rare forms of homosexuality” (one of his sons died of AIDS). In his epic gubernatorial race against libertine, libertarian Republican William Weld in 1990, he conceded abortion rights as allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision but added that he personally considered abortion murder.

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Over the years Silber opposed and debated radicals such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the latter a Boston University faculty member whose massive-selling People’s History of the United States Silber called “one of the most incompetent and inaccurate histories of this country that has ever been written.” He defended Reagan’s policies in Latin America and proudly defended the large ROTC chapter at Boston University during a period when many ROTC chapters were banned from university campuses.

If Silber often seemed an angry man, it may have been owing to a sense of  “the treason of the intellectuals” in academia, the foundations, and elite journalism and on the left wing of the Democratic party. Though absolutely opposed to the racialism that had characterized many inner-city Boston Democrats such as Louise Day Hicks, Silber wished to retain and respect the pious and sensible Democratic social conservatism represented by figures such as the Catholic Boston mayor Ray Flynn and his Catholic successor Thomas Menino.

But social conservatism, Democratic and Republican, was in decline in Massachusetts and New England as a whole. Silber noted in an interview in 2005 that “if you don’t become politically correct, then you’re written off as some kind of social conservative.” Silber lost his 1990 gubernatorial race against William Weld not only because of a famously acerbic comment in a television interview shortly before the election but because of hatred of him by Democratic liberals in Cambridge and the Connecticut River valley — the strongholds of academic radicalism that had encouraged the Harvard historian H. Stuart Hughes to run for the U.S. Senate in 1962 on a platform that included unilateral nuclear disarmament. Such left, secular-Puritan Democrats preferred a libertarian Republican, and they got him.

Yet in 1996 Governor Weld appointed Silber chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, where he built on recent educational reforms to bring into existence the MCAS, Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, making subject-area exams a requirement for high-school graduation, a very big positive step in the direction of educational accountability and the provision of high common standards, areas in which Massachusetts had been sadly deficient and inferior to many other states, including New York. This step too, accomplished partly with the aid of his Boston University colleague and fellow board member Edwin Delattre, went in the teeth of the decadent egalitarian liberalism of many Democrats, often dwellers in wealthy, leafy suburbs with excellent schools, who nevertheless moralized self-righteously about urban, minority, immigrant, and impoverished youth. “Clear your mind of cant,” Dr. Johnson advised Boswell, an adage that John Silber defiantly represented throughout a long, noble, embattled career.



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