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John Silber and Immortality

Posted by Jim Stergios  September 27, 2012 05:12 PM

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Today is a day for John Silber’s detractors to put their pens down. John Silber is dead, and he was a great man in the sense of how human beings long were measured—by their accomplishments.

In many ways he was the exact opposite of the famously self-referential Milan Kundera, whose own thinking was summed up nicely in his novel Immortality:

A person is nothing but his image. Philosophers can tell us that it doesn't matter what the world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don't understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating. But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved?

While hypnotic, that obsession with self-reference is a recipe for hyper-sensitivity, resentments, and all-too-much navel-gazing, the kind that we require of our students all too often as they learn to write. We have them write about their feelings, their observations, their observations about their feelings, and maybe even their observations about others’ observations about their feelings.

For John Silber that was a disaster—in some ways the disaster of American education.

Some may think that Silber’s brusqueness was all about shunning people’s feelings. Back in 2008, when the Massachusetts Board of Education spent successive meetings seeking nicer ways to speak about school failure, hoping to soften even the already fluffy “underperforming” by calling them a “Commonwealth priority,” Silber thundered:

This is all word games… Changing the name doesn't change the reality. I think Shakespeare had a good line: 'A rose by another name would smell as sweet.' A skunk by any other name would stink.

The newspapers delighted in such quotes. But the fact is that Silber was interested in attaching the right word to the right object or the right idea. He is called the “architect of the MCAS” in today’s Globe, but the fact is that he thought that any useful test was good – even the Stanford 9. (He was wrong on that, BTW.) What he really is the architect of is the broader set of education reforms that set this state on a path focused on academics rather than simple skills or self-esteem. He believed in knowledge acquisition and thereafter the formulation of an individual’s judgment.

Tests were a vehicle to inject this into a system that was failing spectacularly. Like so many in the state, when Silber started as Chairman of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, he was not a fan of charter schools. He thought he would by dint of personality and force of will turn around the state's entire network of district schools. And he aimed to do it by focusing on academics, higher-quality teaching (ensured through subject/content–based tests rather than the usual PRAXIS tests employed in other states) and an accountability/audit office for the public schools that was to mirror the British system.

Those were difficult times for such an argument. After all, the Board of Education was, prior to his arrival, a place where debates about whether to include Ebonics in the state’s content standards took considerable air time. He was appointed in 1996 by his former rival for Governor, William Weld, to chair the state’s Board of Education. That appointment had the support of both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House, because they were disappointed with the pace of reform after the Commonwealth’s 1993 landmark Education Reform law.

All three of these elected leaders got what they were looking for: An energetic, focused educational leader who was willing to do what it took to shake up the education establishment and bureaucracy.

In this work, he followed the same principles and mission he used at Boston University, in taking it from a commuter school to a uniquely branded university with some of the most qualified faculty in the country. Coming from Texas, he brought scholars like William Arrowsmith, classicists like D.S. Carne-Ross and others. He recruited big names like Derek Walcott, Saul Bellow, and Elie Wiesel in the arts and humanities as well as high-profile scientists, critics like Christopher Ricks, and more. But he spent time personally and drove his staff to scour the academic credentials and weigh the quality of the academic publications of each tenure decision and even some non-tenure hires.

Some decisions may have rankled feathers, but the fact that a university president took that kind of care and spent the time acting as an academic leader is almost unheard of in modern day higher ed. Far too many have become an awkward blend of messenger-, ambassador- and fundraiser-in-chief. Silber did all that too, leading to a dramatic increase in the university’s endowment.

But Silber cared most about academic work and preserving the university from political correctness. Like Charles W. Elliot of Harvard at the end of the 19th century and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago in the mid-20th century, Silber took the role of public intellectual seriously and leading voice in higher education seriously. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you heard a college president engage the public on an important topic or make a public speech of any note? Yeah, and this is Boston.

That unwavering focus on academic quality and high standards transformed Boston University from a large but unspectacular university to one of the leading institutions of higher ed in the nation. It was a university that probably would have recoiled from the current facile marketing campaigns attached to it (start with the “Be You” t-shirts). Instead it was a university that sought to re-create the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought on the Charles River, calling it the University Professors Program. It was a university that created Trustee Scholarships that were meant to be the university’s

most prestigious merit-based award [which] recognizes students who show outstanding academic and leadership abilities. Students from the United States and around the world are nominated by secondary school principals and headmasters.

It was a university that dared to partner with the Boston City Hospital and create the new Medical Center, building research and faculty facilities to rival those of the best universities in the country.

It was a university that dared public involvement in the community, providing opportunities to many of the City’s inner city students but on a grander scale spent two decades and millions of dollars running the Chelsea Public Schools.

I am not saying Dr. Silber got everything right. Yes, yes, his detractors will read this and say that I am focusing on nothing but the good. On this day, clam up. Massachusetts students are the best-performing state and internationally competitive. No other state in the nation can make that claim. Boston University continues to be a strong university, though in a more humble way; today, it does not dare, as Silber explicitly did to the chagrin of many of the city's elites, to try and rival Harvard).

Contrary to his tough-guy image, he was an incredibly generous man who almost always kept his good deeds quiet and out of the public eye. You see, he didn’t care much for what people thought about him. He was aiming for what he believed was right.

That may not appeal to people today who “celebrate overcoming adversity,” when in Silber’s world that simply meant working hard and being an intellectually and morally serious person.

To many of us personally he has meant a lot. But for all of us he has improved our lot. Godspeed, John.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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