Probably several OCMM members remember John Silber. After all, Massachusetts is New York’s neighbor, and Silber was President or Chancellor of Boston University from 1971 to 2003. He was also the Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts in the 1990 election, which he lost to Republican William Weld. Although Silber taught at Yale while he worked on his Ph.D., his first full-time faculty position was as a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.
When I arrived at the University of Texas in 1964, I enrolled in Plan II, an honors degree plan in Liberal Arts. One of Plan II’s required courses was an introductory philosophy course taught by John Silber. As I sat in his class the first day, I immediately noticed that his right arm was half as long as normal, ending in a stump with rudimentary fingers. I don’t remember for sure, but Silber probably gave us our first assignment on that first day. We were to write a short paper in which we discussed objectivity as applied in the sciences and the liberal arts.
I do remember very well the class in which that assignment was returned to us. Silber shuffled through the papers, seemingly wanting to toss them aside (perhaps into the trash can), a look of impatient disgust upon his face. He read excerpts from what appeared to be a random selection of student work. Apparently, most of us (myself included) had argued that science approached the world objectively while humanists could only give their subjective impressions of reality. That provoked John Silber, who proceeded to demolish our naiveté with irrefutable proofs that all knowledge was subjective, whether scientific or not.
John Silber was smart, and I couldn’t help respecting his intellect and his passionate personality. In fact, my interest in philosophy has its roots in Silber’s philosophy course. However, from my first encounter with him, I guessed that Silber carried around a load of anger related to his defective arm. Tom Wolfe—the famous journalist—seems to confirm my suspicions when he writes that
(Other kids) …called him (Silber) “One-Arm Pete.” His only recourse, he
finally concluded, was to punch the little trolls out, small and handicapped
though he was. He punched with his left fist and used his truncated
right arm like a cattle prod. The bone was just under the skin of his
proto-fingers, and when he jammed it into his little combatants’
stomachs or kidneys—Aha! Thrust PRODDDD!—they would go oof or
arrrgggh!...the action would come to a halt, and little John Silber
could take a break. If he didn’t have a quick temper and a pugnacious
side before all that, he sure did afterward. (Seeking the North Star, p. XII)
In fact, Silber probably lost the 1990 gubernatorial election because of a display of temper during an interview, seen HERE in a YouTube video.
Regardless of his failure as a politician, Silber led a successful life full of achievement. He was a noted scholar of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and took Boston College from a mediocre “streetcar school” to the status of a world-class university dedicated first and foremost to teaching students. Tom Wolfe calls Silber a Stoic because he embodied in his life the philosophy and values he preached.
One of those values was providing educational opportunities to the poor and disadvantaged. Silber wanted to create an elite class of educated people whose status was based on ability as opposed to wealth or family connections. Their success would be the result of a capacity to reason through problems, and that
reasoning ability would be acquired through quality primary, secondary, and university schooling.
While I agree with Silber’s idea of opportunity for all, neither Silber nor I believe that the lower classes in American society can attain equality with the elite. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t BE an elite!) A combination of genes, environment, bad luck, and personal choice conspire to keep people “down.” However, we can potentially have a society and culture where everyone is respected whether they cashier in Walmart or design rocket engines.
That respect may best come, not so much through reason and education, as through a belief like the Quaker “that of God in everyone.” If we acknowledge that we are not self-created, that our talents and gifts come from God, we are more likely to see a “holy equality” in all human beings. All of us share in each other’s achievements because—ultimately—we are all the “same” in God. Thus, religion or spirituality—not education—is the solution to the problem of inequality. In the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, nobody is above anybody else.
(The sources for this article are my memory and Seeking the North Star: Selected Speeches by John R. Silber.)
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.