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BU President John Silber Takes Aim at America

By Ivan Squall
Published April 3, 2008

Book Review

Straight Shooting by John Silber, Harper Perennial: Division of Harper-Collins Publishers. Paperback: $10.95

John Silber’s national bestseller Straight Shooting proves that not all philosophers have forgotten how to speak in layman’s terms about the real challenges confronting our nation in the 1990s. In fact, if he didn’t tell you he was a philosopher, you might have thought he was an ordinary academic like you, struggling to discover effective solutions to the myriad problems facing society today. If you’re worried that Dean Silber might shoot straight over your head with a lofty treatise intended to instruct doctoral candidates in the ethereal ways of abstract philosophy, you can relax.

Silber speaks in a practical, relevant, and no-holds-barred manner to most of the key problems plaguing 20th century America. While many of his shots only hit the edge of the target, he offers sobering diagnoses and often radical prescriptions well worth considering. Even where he misses completely, his arguments are compelling and are not easily dismissed. Though often wide of the mark, his solutions reveal substantially correct principles which only lack proper application. And with so many of our academic and public policy marksmen shooting with ideological blindfolds on, even Silber’s most errant efforts seem relatively accurate by comparison.

Crime, drugs, alienation, promiscuity and poverty at home, coupled with a declining ability to effectively compete abroad; these are the well-known symptoms of the deterioration of our society. As President of Boston University, Silber not surprisingly believes that education is the primary cure for what ails us.

Loud cries of opposition are soon heard, however, when the content of Dr. Silber’s proposed curriculum is detailed. In addition to the 3 R’s, it seems our maverick metaphysician believes that such antiquated concepts such as morality, integrity, humility, character and self-discipline are desperately needed in our classrooms from nursery to post-doc. The immoral, the untrustworthy, the arrogant, the weak-willed and the libertine are all outraged.

Silber posits that “on many moral and social issues we can observe laws of natural sequence as predictable and as certain as any to be found in the natural sciences.” In other words, we are all bound by the reality of moral cause and effect, just as we are bound by gravity. What a man sows, he will also reap. Obey and be blessed; or assert your “autonomy” and deal with the predictable consequences. Effective education must clearly illustrate “the essential role of virtue in the attainment of happiness,” as well as the stark truth that “the degenerate society consumed in pleasure-seeking will not survive.” The wages of sin is death.

Education, of course, is not wholly or even principally the jurisdiction of the public schools, but at least equally the responsibility of families and churches. Unfortunately, many parents have abandoned their educational duties. Schools have attempted to fill in for delinquent parents, but this can have dangerous repercussions if leftist pedagogues are allowed to reprogram children with their vision of the new socialist/humanist morality so prevalent among the educational ‘elite’ who write textbooks and run teacher’s colleges.

Silber declares: “It is essential that (schools) not undermine the serious moral teaching that takes place in sound families. Along with the rejection of false values, it is the task of the school system to support the principles we learn from sound families, and from religion …” Dr. Silber is obviously not trying to get himself nominated as man of the year by the ACLU.

Silber’s support of traditional moral values and his numerous recognitions of religion’s vital role in the betterment of our lives, place him on the radical fringe of society’s educational, political, and media elites. However, given the placement of these elites on the distant leftward fringes of the social/moral/political spectrum of our nation, this probably means that John Silber is safely situated somewhere in the center, next to Joe and Jane average-American. That’s a long way from Jesse Jackson, Mike Dukakis, Mario Cuomo and most of the rest of Silber’s compatriots at the top of the Democratic Party, but it is not too far away from the average voter, whether Democratic, Independent, or Republican.

Straight Shooting has taken aim at a lot of cherished preconceptions concerning the priorities that a free people must pursue if they wish to maintain their freedom. This is a watershed book full of specific, practical solutions to the most daunting social ills confronting our nation. It will challenge any individual who dares to pick it up, and any institution that is willing to consider creative new applications of timeless principles and proven policies.

I would suspect that both major political parties will be carefully scrutinizing John Silber’s platform for national renewal, and that sizeable portions of his thinking will be incorporated into their party platforms for the 1992 presidential elections. If so, the political process and the nation as a whole stand to benefit handsomely. Nice shot, John!


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In 1776, a short time after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were assigned to design an official seal for the United States of America. Their proposed motto was Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. America owes its existence to centuries of Christian political philosophy. Our nation provided a model for liberty copied by nations the world over.

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