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The John Silber Myth

Posted by Joshua Glenn  October 4, 2012 08:22 AM

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Last week’s posthumous lauding of John Silber made us curious about what philosophers thought of Silber — since his actual field was philosophy.

Where better to turn than one of Brian Leiter's various websites? Leiter, a professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago, and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, is one of the most interesting — by which I mean counter-intuitive —commentators on philosophy working today, in my opinion. (Here's an older Brainiac post about Leiter.)

At Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, on Sept. 27, Leiter wrote the following, which isn't in any way about Silber as a philosopher. But it's certainly counter-intuitive, at least for those who only know about Silber via the recent obits. Leiter says:

Silber, who began his career as a Kant scholar (!), but was best-known as a serial violator of academic freedom as the tyrannical ruler of Boston University for more than a quarter-century, has passed away. It's curious how gullible journalists repeat the myth that he enhanced BU's academic stature, and cite as evidence a few Nobel Laureates in literature whom he hired in their dotage. Where is the evidence that he helped create and sustain top 20 PhD programs in any fields that didn't have them? I'm not aware of any — maybe economics? Older philosophers will recall the exodus from the Philosophy Department in the late 1970s and early 1980s (including Alasdair MacIntyre), as philosophers fled the autocracy. (The Department today is probably stronger than it was then, I should add, but much of that happened despite or after Silber over the last 15 years.) I imagine similar things happened in other departments. He may well have improved the school's finances, but it's not at all clear he improved the academics. That appears to be a self-serving myth he promoted, and which journalists simply repeat.

Ouch.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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