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.