A Light In The Dark

Posted: Dec 08, 2012 12:01 AM
A Light In The Dark

"Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire."

-- Homer Bannon, the old rancher in the movie "Hud."

We'll know there's still hope for what Thorstein Veblen called "The Higher Learning in America," low and overpriced as it may be, when the appearance of a great new work of scholarships gets as much attention as the weekend football scores. Or the passing of a great scholar-educator merits as much coverage as the death of another Hollywood celebrity from an overdose.

The full title of Herr Veblen's 1918 broadside, which remains as scathing and relevant as ever, is worth citing: "The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities by Business Men." For the trends that so disheartened (and amused) Professor Veblen in his time have grown into standard academic operating procedures. Until, today, our universities may be run like any other factory churning out interchangeable widgets.

These days, the emphasis of The Higher Learning may not be learning at all but the sheer number of graduates rolled off the assembly line, the economic stimulus provided the surrounding community, and anything and everything but what used to be known as liberal education.

The strenuous life of John Silber, educator and fighter, stands as an admirable exception to the sad decline of higher education in this country and deserves more than a moment of recognition. Greatness in a teacher, in a scholar, in an educator has little to do with how crowded his classes are, or how many politicians-on-the-make call him for advice. It has everything to do with an old-fashioned quality called integrity, which is not just a synonym for honesty, but means a wholeness, a oneness, a constancy of vision and purpose and character. None of which have anything to do with the bubble popularity. Quite the opposite.

See the adventures of Robert Hutchins, who presided over the rebirth of liberal education and the rediscovery of the Great Books at the University of Chicago. Or the controversy that swirled around a young, idealistic president of the University of Arkansas named J. William Fulbright long before he became a U.S. senator and whited sepulchre, and started signing his name to Southern Manifestoes.

Some of us would much prefer to remember the young educator rather than the political opportunist, for politicians may affect only current policy, while teachers can shape generations. Does anyone remember the names of the Thirty Tyrants who ruled Athens in Socrates' lifetime, but who has not heard of Socrates?

All of which brings us to John Silber, a Texas boy out of old San Antone and the German-speaking hill country around it. He died at 86 this year, and a light went out. A son of German immigrants himself, young Silber proved as promising a student as he was feisty -- two qualities that would distinguish the man as well as boy. He didn't let a malformed right arm get in his way any more than he suffered fools. (He had his shirts and suits tailored to show the stump.)

Appointed dean of arts and sciences at the University of Texas in 1967, he lasted only a couple of years after he replaced 22 of the 28 department chairmen. He never was much interested by titles, only accomplishment.

When he'd taught philosophy at the university (his specialty was Kant, his pet hate any form of cant), he was accused of being insensitive to the tender feelings of his students. His defense was simple enough: "Grate on their sensitivity? I want to grate on their minds. I want to grate on their conscience."

Dr. Silber took his propensity for shaking the deadwood in the academic establishment with him when a nondescript urban university up East took a chance on him as its president in 1971.

Boston U. was just another streetcar university when he came aboard. By the time he'd left, it had become a seat of intellectual ferment with an endowment fund on an Ivy League scale, and a faculty with a lot fewer slackers and a passel of Nobel laureates, artists, poets and independent thinkers. Thanks to a leader who delighted in fierce debate and the life of the mind.

Somewhere along the line, John Silber also saw to it that B.U. establish its own theater company (the Huntington) and sponsor the legendary Partisan Review when that literary quarterly fell on hard times. And he had the university start its own secondary school, Boston University Academy.

One year he even ran for governor of Massachusetts, and came within 77,000 votes of winning despite his abrasive style. By then his candid comments about education, health care and just about everything else had a name: Silber Shockers. And it was about time folks were shocked at some of the goings-on in Massachusetts government.

John Silber may have described his intellectual legacy best: "My major contribution," he once said, "has been to declare that there is one university in the country with no interest in intellectual fads, in following propaganda and ideology." Whether philosophy professor or university administrator at the time, he would remain a student of Socrates and a standing provocation to the politically correct, who stayed outraged at his simple candor.

When he was hired as B.U.'s new president, one member of the search committee predicted just what would happen: "Dr. Silber will pick us up and throw us, and I'm afraid we need to be picked up and thrown." Which is just what John Silber proceeded to do over the next couple of decades, transforming a run-of-the-mill urban university into a buzzing, re-invigorated, newly alive center of learning that only now is slipping back into politically correct mediocrity.

As he told the Boston Globe in a 1990 interview: "Now most college presidents would go out of their way to avoid controversy. ... I don't think that's the function of an educator. What you call provocative, I call educative."

If there is a single adjective that sums up John Silber's life and style, it would be Socratic. He lived for dialogue -- tough, probing, but always civil.

It wasn't just Boston University the man revolutionized. It was any part of education he touched. To quote Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino, "His passion for education spanned every corner of our state -- under his leadership, Boston University provided the resources to our students in the form of scholarships ... he gave opportunity to thousands of Boston public school students, and that legacy continues today."

Boston's public schools never took him up on his proposal that B.U. assume responsibility for running them, more's the pity, but the university was granted authority over Chelsea's public schools in 1989, and the change was dramatic. To quote a former principal of Chelsea High:

"He passionately defended real opportunity for all schoolchildren, and the courage of his convictions, along with his considerable intellect and drive, directly led to the creation of one of the most unique and inspired ventures in the history of American education -- the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership. Two generations of Chelsea's children benefited because one great man dared to insist on higher standards for them."

John Silber never bought into the myth and excuse about the poor or racially isolated or any other minority, ethnic or economic, being ineducable. As chairman of Massachusetts' board of education in the 1990s, he was the architect of that state's annual exams for public school students -- standardized tests that have made public education in Massachusetts a model for the rest of the nation's school systems.

You bet John Silber was a controversial figure. God send us more such controversy in education, and -- rare as they are in the upper echelons of ever lower higher education in America -- more John Silbers. For they shatter the dingy darkness with their welcome, and needed, light.

Who brings the day

Always has right of way

To enter here,

Has leave to pass

Instant as light through glass.