Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Academic Freedom Fighter

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 5, 2014
By Mr. Kimball, editor of The New Criterion and the author of “Tenured Radicals.”

A genuine liberal, Silber was on a collision course with the illiberal liberalism of contemporary academic culture.

When writing about academic administrators, I often prepare for the task by retrieving a copy of Ralph Buchsbaum’s zoological classic “Animals Without Backbones,” to remind myself what species of creature I am communing with. A conspicuous exception to this rule was my friend John Silber, about whom no trace of invertebrateness was ever detected. Indeed, Silber, who died at 86 in 2012, thrived on confrontation. In a commencement address delivered at Boston University in 1996, he told his departing charges that “you can never succeed in realizing your highest dreams and ambitions if you do not strive for them with all the force of your personality.” You can be sure that all graduating seniors at BU would have learned that, for John Silber, “force of personality” was no idle commendation.

A specialist in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant—like the peripatetic timekeeper of Königsberg, he liked his imperatives categorical—Silber began his career at the University of Texas at Austin, where he chaired the department of philosophy and later served as a dean. But it was as president of Boston University, a position he held from 1971 until 1996, when he became chancellor, that Silber emerged as a national figure, celebrated or reviled depending on the filiations of the person delivering the judgment.

In his tonic foreword to “Seeking the North Star,” a wideranging selection of Silber’s speeches, Tom Wolfe notes that, at BU, Silber transformed “a moribund streetcar college into a major teaching and research institution,” building its endowment to some $430 million from $18 million. He stocked the faculty with world-class talent, including Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel, Derek Walcott, Saul Bellow and the physicist Sheldon Glashow. Unambiguous grounds for celebration, you might think, but that would be to neglect politically correct mediocrities such as historian Howard Zinn, who was for decades a fixture at BU and with whom Silber often clashed.

Two things guaranteed that Silber’s tenure at Boston University would be stormy. One was his passion for excellence. Can there be a greater provocation to the self-absorbed confraternity of academic underachievers? He roundly derided the passion for egalitarianism that is the apple of the academic eye. Democracy, he wrote in a speech entitled “The Social Responsibility of the Modern University,” is besieged by “counterfeits,” above all by the claim that “every institution in a democracy ought to be democratic.” Silber was a robust supporter of democracy, but he understood that “an effective democracy is essentially elitist, and flourishes when led by persons of virtue and talent.” How do you suppose that went down?

The other complaint against Silber was his stalwart defense of academic freedom. But wait, aren’t academics all for academic freedom? Not hardly. Zinn, author of the egregious but bestselling “People’s History of the United States” was a typical specimen. He specialized in organizing and abetting protests against people with whom he disagreed. His goal was not to engage in debate but to end it. “The Zinn principle,” Silber wrote in “Procedure or Dogma: The Core of Liberalism,” holds to the Orwellian tenet that “all academics were entitled to academic freedom, but that some academics were not.”

Silber was often labeled “conservative.” In fact, and as he always insisted, he was a liberal of the old school. He believed in advancement according to merit, not quotas; colorblind justice; the disinterested pursuit of truth; and open debate, not ideological conformity. This commitment to what we might call classical liberalism—the liberalism of an Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill—forms an important leitmotif of “Seeking the North Star.” It also explains why Silber was from the beginning on a collision course with the faux-liberalism, the illiberal liberalism, of contemporary academic culture. “No institution,” he writes sadly, “has contributed so extensively to the deracination and diminishment of our humanity as university faculties.”

The irony, of course, is that an institution supposedly dedicated to fostering the liberal arts—those arts that promise to liberate by acquainting us with past models of human greatness—should today so often work to undermine our faith in humanity. I am not sure that we—parents and citizens who lavishly fund these tax-free oases—have taken on board how far the reality of academic life today departs from the traditional ideal of a liberal-arts education. As the essays in this volume amply attest, Silber dedicated himself to battling against the multifarious agents of academic diminishment, from the spurious imperatives of “multiculturalism,” which substitutes politics for culture, to the parodies of genuine scientific inquiry, which insist that only the measurable is true.

Silber’s understanding of the importance of the humanities as a leaven for what is noblest in our aspirations sets him apart from the usual technocratic university president, who is more of a fund-raising apparatchik than an intellectual leader. He understood that the index of civilization was a society’s commitment to what the early 20th-century British jurist John Fletcher Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable.” Civilized life takes place mostly in a realm between the coercive law and complete freedom—a realm governed by such flexible imperatives as taste, manners and custom. More and more, the extent of that gracious dominion has been diminished. It’s an odd situation we face.

“The future of our country,” Silber notes, “our future happiness and that of our children depends decisively on whether we as individuals and as a people practice obedience to the unenforceable.” This quarter’s report, I think you’ll agree, is not encouraging.

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