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.
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.
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.
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.