In drastically reducing the size of the Boston University School of Education (voluntarily forfeiting millions of dollars of tuition money), Silber tried to improve its quality and make it a showcase of non-Deweyan educational approaches, not only using it as a resource for the Chelsea and Boston public schools but also promoting alternative ways of conceiving and dealing with educational problems. Under the leadership of Delattre, Silber’s lieutenant and the school’s dean, such nationally eminent scholars as Kevin Ryan and Charles Glenn developed important bodies of non-“progressive” scholarship, although the attempt to bring E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation to Boston University failed — a significant defeat.
In a more general sense, Silber may justly be called one of the greatest university presidents of the 20th century, resembling Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia (1901–45) and Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago (1929–51). As a distinguished Kantian and moralist, Silber saw himself as a moral and rational agent — what Thomas Carlyle called “an incarnated Word” — with great leadership responsibilities, which he refused to shirk or devolve, as, for example, the current president of Yale has done by allowing a pornographic “Sex Week” on his campus, conceding to the increasingly obscene, promiscuous, ironic, pan-sexual paganism of American culture. (See Nathan Harden, “Bawd and Man at Yale
.”) So much for the legacy of Jonathan Edwards and the Niebuhrs.
Right to the end of his long and embattled life, Silber’s humor, candor, and courage remained sharp. He called “online education” largely “bogus” and fraudulent, insisting on the interplay between ideas and arguments with real students and real teachers. Without teachers’ knowing their students, he worried, an epidemic of cheating would ensue: Thinking back on his own teaching career, and on the importance of teachers actually knowing students and grading and annotating their papers, he told the Austin American-Statesman last year, “I had human beings in my class, and human beings are sinners,” who would cheat if not prudently prevented from doing so. It is hard to imagine any educational leader at the “progressive” Harvard Graduate School of Education saying such a thing. The organized flattery of the young is now the rule. Tant pis.
Silber’s lifelong meditation on the strengths and limits of Kant’s ethics was like Jacob wrestling with the angel. A Germanophile, Silber was haunted by the fact that the noble Germanic philosophical tradition best represented by Kant had not been able to do more to prevent luciferian National Socialism: He thought this revealed an inadequacy in Kant’s thinking and, like C. S. Lewis, proposed the Christian Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost as an ultimately more accurate reading of diabolical evil. Yet Kant had also said that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made,” a paraphrase of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Silber never himself indulged in the flattery of human nature, but never turned pessimistic or cynical either.
According to reports, within a few hours of Silber’s death he was still autographing for friends copies of his final book, published this year. Its title: “Kant’s Ethics: The Good, Freedom, and the Will.”
— M. D. Aeschliman is professor of education emeritus at Boston University, where he taught from 1997 through 2011, and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His most recent book is a new edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Critical Editions). He was a friend of John Silber.