The career of Dr. John Silber, who died on September 25 at age 86, is surely one of the most consequential of our era in the contested battleground of “cultural politics.” Other than Daniel Patrick Moynihan, no high intellectual since World War II — perhaps even since the American founding — has been as seriously engaged in electoral politics, high-level policymaking, cultural controversy, educational leadership, and serious scholarship. The Silber saga is most instructive, like the career of Moynihan, as a way of understanding American and modern culture, politics, and society since 1945. He was a brilliant, angular, articulate, irascible force in policy disputes and formulations in early-childhood and K–12 public education, higher education, Massachusetts politics, foreign policy, and the all-important “bloody crossroads” where culture and politics meet. And he was brave.
Silber’s biography itself is a kind of moral fable that frequently resembles “Jack the Giant Killer.” Born short and with a stunted arm in Texas, he was the son of a German-Jewish immigrant architect father and a devout Texas Presbyterian schoolteacher mother who had to support her unemployed husband and children during the Depression. If his devoutly religious home was poor, he apparently never felt it was. Academically brilliant, and talented in painting and music, he graduated from Trinity University in Texas, tried seminary at Yale before turning to philosophy, in which he took a Ph.D. at Yale, taught there, and became a distinguished Kant scholar, spending a year teaching at the University of Bonn in 1959. It was only while in Germany that he first realized that his father was Jewish and that one of his aunts had been killed at Auschwitz, facts that would lead to his fine 1985 essay “Kant at Auschwitz.”
Silber returned to Texas to teach philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, eventually becoming dean of the College of Arts and Science (1967–70) and a prominent liberal Democrat, opposed to the remnants of segregation and to the death penalty. Helping build that university into a great institution, he ran afoul of conservative Texas trustee Frank Erwin, who fired him in 1970; forty years later, Silber told the Austin Statesman-American
that he held no hard feelings against Erwin, whom he described as charming and mean as a snake but honest enough to confront him and openly fire him: a characteristically Silberian comment.
Interviewed to lead Boston University as president in 1971, he candidly told the trustees interviewing him that the university was in terrible shape and needed drastic change. He was hired and over the next thirty years converted a marginal commuter university in an academically snobbish town into a major research and teaching institution, increasing its endowment from $18 million to $422 million, adding buildings and renovating neighborhoods, and attracting and promoting such world-class scholars, scientists, and writers as Elie Wiesel, Derek Walcott, Sheldon Glashow, Peter Berger, Christopher Ricks, Saul Bellow, Geoffrey Hill, and Charles Glenn.
But if in Texas the apparently liberal Democrat Silber believed most enemies were on the right, when he got to Boston, he later said, he soon came to see that in the Northeast they were on the left. He began an epic battle, which would last the rest of his life, against what he clearly thought was a decadent Northeastern liberalism in both academia and politics. He insisted that his own politics had not changed, but he became increasingly antagonistic to the post-Sixties academic and intellectual radicalism that he clearly thought was a betrayal of the finest “liberal” traditions of the university and of American politics: He became a neoconservative Democrat, like Moynihan. One might say that as a Kantian with strong Christian influences who had deeply meditated the injustices, nightmares, and tragedies of 20th-century history — from Auschwitz and the Gulag to Southern segregation — he found the increasingly fashionable Marxist or hippie-antinomian radicalism of our privileged academic and cultural elites infuriatingly feckless. Soon after his arrival in Boston, his home mysteriously burned down, student and faculty protests threatened to terminate his presidency, and the disdain of Massachusetts liberals and the Boston Globe became clear.
But Silber not only built Boston University, “the house that John built.” He also took a strong interest in the fate of poor students in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in fact throughout the nation. He had been one of the early theorists of Head Start for poor preschool students; in 1989 he would lead Boston University in taking over the defunct, bankrupt public-school system of poor Chelsea, a heavily immigrant, rust-belt urban community just across the Mystic River from Boston, in a unique partnership that would gradually turn that poor city’s dysfunctional schools around over a 25-year period. He would get the trustees of Boston University, a private institution, to agree to provide scholarships for poor students from Boston and Chelsea and also to exemplary graduates of Massachusetts Catholic high schools. As Mayor Thomas Menino said on the occasion of Silber’s death, the students of the city and state never had a better, steadier friend, a fact documented in Joseph Cronin’s authoritative history, Reforming Boston Schools, 1930 to the Present.