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A Texan to the Rescue

by M. D. Aeschliman

Seeking the North Star: Selected Speeches, by John R. Silber (Godine, 306 pp., $29.95)

John Silber (1926–2012) and New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003) were probably the most serious first-order intellectuals to commit themselves effectively to high public service in the United States since World War II. Journalist Steven R. Weisman performed a public service by editing and publishing, in 2010, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary; and we now should be grateful to have a similar volume of Silber’s speeches over a 40-year period. Though Silber never succeeded in reaching the high public office that Senator Moynihan did — he narrowly lost the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts in 1990 — his various services to the American republic deserve close attention and high commendation.

John Silber should rank with Nicholas Murray Butler (president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945) and Robert Maynard Hutchins (president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951) as one of the great, benign university presidents and educational statesmen of the last 150 years in America, all three being in salutary contrast to the long and influential but ambiguous tenure of Charles William Eliot as president of Harvard (1869–1909). Eliot shares with John Dewey most of the responsibility for the educational confusion and incompetence that have plagued the U.S. over the past century: In gutting the Harvard undergraduate curriculum, Eliot ultimately collaborated with the sentimental “progressive” naturalist Dewey in dumbing down and betraying the fundamentally decent and sound American educational system that had been inspired by the natural-law ideals of the Founding Fathers and devoted to equality of opportunity.

Just as Hutchins and his assistant and ally Mortimer Adler tried to reverse this decline at Chicago in mid-century, John Silber brought to bear his own extraordinary intelligence, will, executive and administrative abilities, and eloquence to defend, recover, and vindicate the promise of American education. Born small, crippled (only one functioning arm), and poor in Texas in 1926, he interested himself in education at all levels, including preschool: He was one of the original theorists of Head Start and all of his life advocated for the provision of decent educational opportunities for poor, minority, and immigrant children in the United States.

One of his several important ventures was the unique educational partnership between Boston University and Chelsea, Massachusetts, in which the improving but far-from-rich private BU invested in taking  over — and rescuing — the K–12 public schools of Massachusetts’s poorest school district, the bankrupt and crime-ridden Chelsea, a haven for immigrants and their children. (The Commonwealth provided most of the funding for the effort, but BU provided both the ideas and the management.)

This is a story that educational “progressives” do not like to hear about: It forced a university education school to “put up or shut up” by focusing its conceptions, personnel, and expertise on a real-life, proximate educational problem — a whole, actually impoverished school district. No other university or education school or teachers’ college has imitated this public-spirited educational initiative, but it has attracted international attention and praise. (The story is well told in Partnering for Progress: Boston University, the Chelsea Public Schools, and Urban Education Reform, a 2009 volume of essays gathered by the young scholar Cara S. Candal.)

In addition to working on Head Start and the Chelsea initiative, the conservative Democrat Silber was a great friend to educational opportunity and reform in Boston itself and throughout Massachusetts, of whose board of education he served as a very effective chairman for several crucial years in the late 1990s. Longtime Democratic Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino said of Silber: “His passion for education spanned every corner of our state. . . . The City of Boston could not have asked for a better friend.” In a very important book that the liberal, anti-Silber Boston Globe never reviewed, Reforming Boston Schools, 1930 to the Present (2008), the nationally eminent Massachusetts education scholar Joseph Cronin showed Silber’s benefactions to the city in detail.

Why then the hatred — no other word will do — of Silber by political and educational “liberals” and the Left? The salvation and then vast improvement of the once-tottering Boston University under Silber’s long tenure — 1971–2003 — is a matter of public record. He built the university’s endowment from “$18.8 million to $430 million [even as] its physical plant more than doubled” (I quote here from the same Boston Globe that is antipathetic to Silber). He attracted scholars of national and international renown to the university, once the poor relation of its cross-river neighbors Harvard and MIT — including such luminaries as sociologist Peter L. Berger; Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow (Nobel-laureate writer-moralists); Sheldon Glashow (Nobel laureate in physics); the poets Geoffrey Hill, Robert Pinsky, and Rosanna Warren; literary critics Christopher Ricks and Roger Shattuck; and education-policy specialists Kevin Ryan and Charles L. Glenn. He introduced sound programs and vastly improved the quality of the student body through, among other things, the risky tactic of purposely downsizing it at the cost of millions of dollars of tuition income. This alone would have caused the firing of nine out of ten university presidents by boards of trustees. Yet the Boston University trustees supported Silber through thick and thin, even in the face of aggressive, insulting, well-publicized student and faculty protests.

While dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas (1967–70), Silber had improved that university academically, worked against the death penalty, worked for the racial integration of the university, and refused to cooperate with meddling by the right-wing chairman of its board of trustees, Frank Erwin, who fired him in 1970. The crumbling Boston University hired him partly owing to his reputation as a liberal.

But as Silber later wryly noted, what was decent liberalism in very conservative Texas turned out to be conservatism in the increasingly radical and libertine Northeast of the Sixties and after (brilliantly documented in his friend Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet), and especially in Boston, “the Athens of America.” Like Moynihan, and like Silber’s hero Jacques Barzun at Columbia University, Silber was a “liberal” in the 19th-century or traditional sense, the sense in which Burke, Hamilton, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Gladstone, Lord Acton, Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Herbert Butterfield, Hutchins, Adler, and educational reformer E. D. Hirsch are “liberals”: believers in the essential values of the American founding documents, including equality under the law, due process, limited government, fiscal prudence, free speech, free assembly, natural law, and pious moral self-regulation. Despite Silber’s advocacy for the poor and marginalized — represented as much in deeds as in words — he hated “political correctness” and restless, volatile, anti-American, left-wing moralizing (often consisting of what Montaigne called “supercelestial talk and subterranean conduct”). In the unflattering mirror of Silber’s actions, achievements, and policies, the political and educational Left could not help but see itself as Caliban, raging against the civilizing, normative traditions of mind, rationality, literature, language, the liberal arts, and common human decency.

Complaints against Silber came from the many academics whom he annoyed by firing or failing to promote or flatter, from those whose ideas of collective decision-making his bold leadership and risk-taking offended, from hard-edged left-wingers (Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky), from those who opposed his moral and political outspokenness and traditionalism, and from those resentful of his high financial compensation (he had seven children). He hated euphemism and verbal inflation. Having been bullied as a small, one-armed schoolchild in Texas, he was ever ready to contest browbeating, peer pressure, and the “moral inversion” of intellectuals whose ethical relativism failed to prevent them from indulging in furious moralism in favor of their pet causes.

Perhaps there are two keys to understanding Silber’s combative courage and his achievements: He was a Texan and he was a Kantian. He was keenly aware of the evils of the old South, including Texas racism and segregation, and painfully aware of the privations of the American Depression of the Thirties, in which the architectural practice of his immigrant German father dried up, projecting the family into near poverty from which it was rescued only by his Methodist mother’s schoolteaching. But something of the decency, hopefulness, and promise of American life, especially by comparison with the history of other major nations in the 20th century, always seemed to animate Silber: perhaps some of the hardiness of the frontier and Texans’ life and consciousness. He thought the academic and political Left’s contemptuous critique of American life — as in the writing of Zinn and Chomsky — ludicrously disproportionate in light of the realities of comparative modern history. And he never shied away from taking on Marxists or followers of decadent French follies such as deconstructionism.

The present volume contains Silber’s lucidly argued speeches on a wide variety of philosophical, educational, and political topics. It rightly starts with his celebrated 1971 inaugural address as president of Boston University, “The Pollution of Time,” in which he argues strongly against “a quasi-religious” ideological “scientism,” with its blindness to human proportion and duration, and for a historical, cultural understanding of the human person. He would return to this theme in 2005 with “Science vs. Scientism,” delivered at the invitation of Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and printed in The New Criterion. He critiques reductionistic, scientistic dogmatism for its “unrelenting assault on the dignity of the human spirit.”

Among the other highlights: “The Need for Honesty in Confronting the World,” a judicious 1995 address in Hiroshima, Japan, delivered to a largely Japanese audience, carefully but clearly defends President Truman’s decision to drop the two atomic bombs. A 1971 “Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.” praises the ethical depth and personal courage of Dr. King, a Boston University alumnus. “Ethics and Corporate Responsibility,” given in Zurich in 2003 to a convention of Swiss bankers, is a brilliantly sustained example of applied philosophy, with ominous implications for capitalist societies that lose or subvert their own enabling moral framework. There are 22 other speeches of great point and power.

Raised as a fervent Protestant, John Silber studied Kant for his Ph.D. at Yale and then taught philosophy there, in Germany, and at the University of Texas. While in Germany he discovered that his deceased immigrant father had actually been a German Jew, one of whose sisters perished at Auschwitz. Kant’s moral universalism, with its Judeo-Christian and stoical roots, would give Silber his lifelong intellectual ballast and compass, his “North Star,” as he called it. He became a fearless man, and this quality evoked both admiration and loyalty, on one hand, and, on the other, hatred and fear. Shortly before his death in 2012, he finished and published his book Kant’s Ethics: The Good, Freedom, and the Will. The book has a most profound and moving appendix, the essay “Kant at Auschwitz,” in which Silber carefully considers the horrifying claim of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann, at his trial in Israel, that in dutifully following the orders of his Nazi superiors he was being true to Kant’s fundamental principle for citizens, that they should defer to legally constituted authorities. Carefully investigating Eichmann’s appalling claim to have acted in accordance with the fundamental principles of the greatest secular moral philosopher since Aristotle, Silber concluded that Eichmann’s claim was credible, for Kant recognized no right to revolution. Like Socrates, Silber, even at the gates of death, followed the argument fairly where it led, giving even the devil his due.

If there be a God, this Texan pleased Him.

– Mr. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, and editor of paperback editions of novels by Charles Dickens and Malcolm Muggeridge.

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