Idea Man

Straight Shooting: What’S Wrongwith America and How to Fix It.
by John Silber.
Harper ir Row. 336 pp. $22.50

The typical college president today is a mild and colorless person with vague but leftish ideas, a product both of the contemporary academic culture and of a search-and-selection process that confers veto power on a hundred campus factions. All the more remarkable, then, that a man of John Silber’s combative personality and decidedly non-leftist views should have been hired as the president of Boston University in 1970, at a moment when campuses across the land were erupting in protest against practically every value he cherishes. That Silber has retained his post through the ensuing two decades verges on the incredible.

Nor has Silber, like some of his long-serving counterparts elsewhere (including those at the helms of celebrated institutions across the Charles River in Cambridge), been content to preside quietly over ceremonies enshrining the conventional wisdom. Inventive educational ideas have bubbled continuously from Silber’s office and, more often than not, have been brought to fruition—an impressive recent example being the contract given to Boston University to revamp the Chelsea, Massachusetts public schools. Somewhat less widely noted but perhaps even gutsier for the head of an institution that depends heavily on tuition revenues from students who could enroll elsewhere is Silber’s campaign to discourage lusty (but unmarried) undergraduates from cohabiting in the university’s dormitories.

Silber has some admirers on the BU campus but is not much loved. Students have often protested his policies. The head of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors describes his as a “sleazy, fascist regime.” There has been a huge turnover in the university’s administrative offices. Even the trustees are said, on occasion, to have entertained doubts. But Silber has weathered every storm and forged ahead, with the result that BU today is a far more distinguished—and visible—institution than the one which hired him in 1970.

This has done John Silber no harm. (Neither, presumably, has a salary reputed to be among the highest paid to any American university president.) He is a frequent speaker at major conferences, a fixture in scholarly journals and on op-ed pages, a member of various panels and study groups (including President Reagan’s Commission on Central America), an oft-mentioned candidate for sundry government posts, and a possible contender for elective office. He has flirted with running for governor of Massachusetts and would be a formidable Senate candidate, even in a state that rarely elects Republicans.

Whether John Silber is preparing to throw his hat into the electoral ring or to settle into the role of pundit, this volume, containing large patches of ideas he has previously voiced or written, serves as an excellent introduction to his mind and views, as well as to his temperament. Approximately two-thirds of Straight Shooting has to do with education and with cultural issues broadly speaking, while the balance is devoted to a mixed menu of other matters, foreign and domestic. Underlying all is a passionate anxiety about the decay of our moral and ethical foundations, our falling standards of personal and social behavior, our waning capacity to subject intellectual and political pieties to rigorous examination, and our faltering commitment to the defense of democratic values.

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Naturally enough, it is in examining the shabby condition of American education, primary and secondary as well as higher, that Silber is at his best. His erudition and learning (his academic background is in philosophy) and especially his powerful sense of education as the agent of moral improvement and cultural transmission infuse half a dozen splendid—if perhaps excessively hortatory—chapters of general interest and several with narrower appeal (on such subjects as the role of the dean, the tenure system, the financing of higher education, and the “public” character of “private” colleges). Throughout, his message goes against the grain of practically every fashionable contemporary assumption.

Thus, after quoting Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” about the eternal verities that once were hammered home to schoolchildren via maxims on the pages of their primers, Silber comments:

If we have the courage to face reality, we will know and proclaim these harrowing truths: that the degenerate society consumed in pleasure-seeking will not survive (“the wages of sin is death”), that the society that will not defend its freedom will lose it (“stick to the Devil you know”), that a society that consumes more than it produces will go bankrupt (“if you don’t work, you die”). We ill serve ourselves and our children by preparing ourselves and them for a life of freedom and easy living that may never come and most certainly will never last. We had better prepare ourselves and them for reality—a reality that is infused with moral laws as surely as it is infused with physical laws; a reality in which there is no consumption without production, no freedom without defense, no self-fulfillment and no self-government without self-disciplined persons who govern themselves, persons who are capable of subordinating their desires long enough to achieve the conditions on which freedom and survival, and even pleasure, depend.

As this passage suggests, John Silber harbors old-fashioned, not to say grimly old-fashioned, notions about education, and about life as well. He is, though, perfectly correct in asserting that America used to do a better job of schooling its children, mainly because our educational system once had a moral compass, held a firm commitment to knowledge, and insisted on good behavior and hard work. That is to say, it taught sound values and it practiced what it preached.

Silber is not, however, urging us to recreate today the educational arrangements of the 19th century. He has no intention of backtracking on the principles of universal participation or equality of opportunity—although, invoking Kant, he deftly distinguishes the latter from “equality of achievement,” which can only be accomplished by “lowering the performances of the ablest individuals to those of the least able.” He also favors more foreign-language instruction, beginning in the primary grades, especially in such seldom-studied tongues as Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and Portuguese, in order to foster effective international economic competition. This eagerness for a multilingual population does not, however, sway Silber an iota from his insistence on English as the common national language, or from his conviction that most bilingual education diminishes the opportunities available to students. In this connection he memorably quotes “Ernesto Ortiz, a foreman on a south Texas ranch, who said: ‘My children learn Spanish in school so they can grow up to be busboys and waiters. I teach them English at home so they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers.’ “

To my ear, the only false notes in this strong and honest book are played at the end, where the author attempts, for a measure or two, to radiate optimism. Silber here declares his conviction that “we are on the threshold of a moral awakening,” a feeling he derives from “the growing dissatisfaction among our people with hedonism and materialism as a way of life” and from changes he insists he has observed in BU students: “a growing boredom with material things and a greater concern for matters of the spirit.”

One hopes Silber is correct about this. There is indeed some evidence, at least from opinion samplings, that Americans are ready for more radical changes in customary practices and institutional assumptions than those favored by their experts and elites (and by most elected officials). Shortly after President Bush’s September speech on drugs, for instance, pollsters reported considerable public sentiment to the effect that his plan was not tough enough. In late August, a survey of attitudes toward education indicated widespread support for such sweeping reforms as national curricula, norms, and tests. And so forth.

But how seriously should we take such findings? It is one thing to state a belief, quite another actually to alter behavior, especially if the proposed change means a reduction in easy pleasure and an increase in hard work. For Silber’s optimism to be justified, assertion will have to be matched by exertion. There have been few signs of this happening, at least within the education system. But then, too, that enterprise has not been blessed with many leaders and spokesmen willing to press hard for such change. John Silber is one.

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