Saving John Silber
On June 12, 2021, the National Education Association (NEA) took a stand. As part of the "National Day of Action to Teach the Truth," the union's president, Becky Pringle, issued a statement condemning legislative restrictions on the teaching of critical race theory, which "keep kids from learning our shared stories of confronting injustice to build a more perfect union." This day of action embodied the left-of-center pseudo embrace of American tradition. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the organization behind the event was the Zinn Education Project, whose namesake, Howard Zinn, famously developed an approach to history that emphasizes American injustice and downplays American achievement.
The NEA's statement reflects the lasting effect of Zinn's work on American education. Once a professor of political science himself, Zinn's influence is perhaps most apparent on college campuses. It can be seen in left-wing professors who build their careers on criticizing American political and economic systems, in the prevalence of activist student groups attempting to mobilize the university's resources to achieve political aims, and in university presidents and other administrators who pander to criticisms of their institutions' most prominent traditions, ranging from the importance of teaching Western philosophy to freedom of expression and open-ended scientific inquiry.
Though we have grown accustomed to such pandering, during Zinn's 24-year teaching career at Boston University (BU) and his concurrent rise to prominence as a progressive icon, he tangled with a different type of administrator. John Silber — "a philosopher by training but a fighter by instinct," as the New York Times described him upon his death — was a giant of classical liberalism who served as BU's president from 1971 to 1996. And for nearly 18 years, he clashed on campus with Zinn.
Since their deaths (Zinn's in 2010, Silber's in 2012), the duo's debates have been forgotten, and their reputations have diverged. Today, Zinn's thought lies at the center of the progressive canon. A People's History of the United States, his most famous work, has sold more than 2 million copies, become one of the most widely assigned books in American high schools and colleges, and, in its recent 35th-anniversary edition, was labeled a classic. Silber, meanwhile, has faded from public discourse, memorialized in many accounts chiefly as Zinn's "neoconservative" antagonist who obsessed over anti-communism, fought his faculty's unionization effort, and ruled BU as a petty tyrant, denying Zinn pay raises and teaching assistants. Silber's books — Seeking the North Star (which includes an impressive foreword by Tom Wolfe) and Straight Shooting — are as out of fashion as their author is. They deserve more attention, as does he.
As the contemporary campus (and our country more broadly) continues to be remade in Zinn's image, those dissatisfied with the status quo would do well to learn from the example of the man who once went toe to toe with him.
PERSONALITIES AND PEDAGOGIES
Zinn and Silber epitomize the gradual partition of American liberal thought from the 1950s onward. Both men began their academic careers on the left, and both fought segregation in the 1960s. But by the time their paths crossed at BU, they were already at odds: natural friends turned bitter enemies. To understand these divisions, it is worth revisiting how each man made his way to Boston.
Born to a working-class family in 1920s Brooklyn, Zinn grew up in the neighborhood's slums. As a young man, he was eager to fight fascists, so he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Eventually he became a B-17 bombardier in the European theater and, upon his return, worked in a warehouse to support his young family, ultimately earning an undergraduate education at New York University and a history PhD at Columbia. This dashing professor, who was often seen sporting a corduroy coat and V-neck sweater, was no faux proletarian.
Zinn's experiences would influence his approach to his first academic job as chair of the history department at Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta. "[R]efusing to accept the idea that a teacher should confine his teaching to the classroom when so much was at stake outside it," Zinn began his career with students whose experiences in a city "as rigidly segregated as Johannesburg" moved him to action. In early 1959, he suggested to the Spelman Social Science Club, to which he was the faculty advisor, that "it might be interesting to undertake some real project involving social change." In response, the students "decided to launch an attack on the racial policy of the main library in Atlanta," which maintained separate "colored" branches.
Once the civil-rights movement gained steam, Zinn's involvement deepened, and his profile as a left-wing activist professor mounted. As sit-ins sprang up in early 1960, he lent students his car so they could drive downtown and participate. When 77 people were arrested — including 14 Spelman students — Zinn made calls to newspapers and covered the event himself in The Nation:
"You can always tell a Spelman girl," alumni and friends of the college have boasted for years. The "Spelman girl" walked gracefully, talked properly, went to church every Sunday, poured tea elegantly and had all the attributes of the product of a fine finishing school. If intellect and talent and social consciousness happened to develop also, they were, to an alarming extent, byproducts. This is changing. It would be an exaggeration to say: "You can always tell a Spelman girl — she's under arrest." But the statement has a measure of truth.
Zinn was in no small part responsible for this change. As a tribute to him observed, "Zinn, a white vaguely Jewish professor from Brooklyn, stepped into the supportive role he was to play in the movement as one of its persistent spokesmen in the northern press." His push for student activism did not confine itself to the incontrovertible evil of Jim Crow; it was the essence of his entire pedagogy. As a student of Zinn's at BU, your author was assigned to work at the National Welfare Rights Organization — during the civil-rights era, the charismatic professor urging students on to social action outside the classroom was difficult to question. Nonetheless, Zinn's teaching tactics did raise ethical questions, particularly regarding the consequences for the students as compared to those for the instructor. Such questions came to a head in June 1963, when Spelman's president dismissed Zinn. As he would later recall: "I was fired for insubordination. Which happened to be true."
Silber shared Zinn's zeal for fighting for civil rights, but not his style. Originally from San Antonio, Silber was pugnacious, self-evidently intolerant of fools, and born with a birth defect that left him with a withered stump of a right arm that he never hid and frequently employed for emphasis. After penning a doctoral thesis on Immanuel Kant at Yale, Silber's first full-time academic job was at the University of Texas (UT), where he rose from assistant philosophy professor in 1957 to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences a decade later. By the standards of that time and place, Silber was an assertive liberal. And, like Zinn, he rose to prominence advocating integration in the late 1950s.
Yet rather than looking outward to national issues, Silber set his focus inward, on issues directly facing his campus. And rather than pushing his students to follow his lead, he advocated on their behalf. As a first-year junior faculty member, he stood alone in support of Barbara Smith Conrad, a black undergraduate and aspiring opera singer who had been barred from playing Dido opposite a white male in the Henry Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas due to pressure from a Texas state legislator. As much a Kantian as a political liberal, Silber was outraged by an immoral social context that stifled talent and destiny.
Conrad had plenty of both, and thanks in part to Silber's support, she would go on to become a celebrated mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera as well as the subject of a play titled "Pressed but Not Crushed: The UT Saga of Barbara Smith Conrad." That same play memorializes Silber's impassioned speech to the UT Faculty Council, in which he rejected allowing fear of violence — UT's ostensible reason for prohibiting Conrad's performance — to dictate policy:
I am here as a faculty member to call into question the actions of our University President, Dr. Wilson, regarding the Negro girl who was savagely expelled from the Dido part in the school opera. I disagree completely with our President's reasoning, and outlook. I oppose his strategy on integration. Let us first consider the fact that hooligans of some sort or other were threatening our negro student. Should it not be our university policy to intimidate, find, foil, and prosecute these hooligans? Why instead has our university victimized the victim? I have been told that this negro girl wanted to sing the part more than anything. Why did we deprive her of this hard-won opportunity? Civilization...does not abdicate to barbarism on the basis of threats....Rather it calls the police. I am not sold on the idea that if the negro girl had sung, there would have been uncontrollable violence.
Silber, like Zinn, was soon dismissed from his post. Ironically, his firing by the chairman of the university's board of regents made him a progressive hero, and brought him to the attention of the presidential search committee at BU — where Zinn had already become a professor.
BUTTING HEADS IN BOSTON
In Boston, Zinn, the quintessential tenured radical, and Silber, the prototypical humanist, crossed paths personally, repeatedly, and bitterly. Jousting on issues including free speech, divestiture, and unionization, their enunciated reasons for disagreement were neither petty nor narrowly personal. They reveal a more radical disagreement about the nature of a liberal education and the role of the faculty in providing it — one that continues to resonate today.
Upon his arrival at the university, Silber made it his mission to revamp BU and "set a hard-nosed example of how to elevate a second-tier school in a hurry," as the Washington Post would write upon his death. In hindsight, he was largely successful. During his presidency, from 1971 to 1996, the "university morphed from a lightly regarded commuter school, in the shadow of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to a major research institution in its own right." Such a serious transformation required Silber to take significant — and controversial — steps, including dismissing "deadwood" faculty to make space for celebrity professors such as Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel, replacing almost all the school's deans, and intervening to deny Zinn pay raises despite his popular classes and his book's national accolades. Silber would later say that he did not move to fire Zinn — who had received tenure just a few years before he arrived — so as not to "make a martyr" of him.
Silber and Zinn first locked horns on the return of ROTC and Vietnam-era military recruiters to the BU campus in 1972. As a Scoop Jackson, anti-communist Democrat, Silber could have explained his support for the controversial policy by invoking patriotic, Cold War rhetoric; instead, he couched his decision in terms of the rights of students to meet with and learn from the Marines. When the recruiters arrived, students blocked the entrance to the building where they were staged, at which point Silber called in the police and warned students to disperse through a bullhorn. Arrests soon followed. When hooligans are loosed, Silber later explained, police must be involved: "Disruptive students must be taught respect for law." The parallels with Silber's involvement in the Conrad situation at UT are unavoidable; when it came to protecting students and handling violence on campus, Silber would walk his talk. At BU, the adults would be in charge.
In advocating for student access and law and order, Silber always kept an eye on the university's role in a democratic society. With respect to the idea of military recruiters on civilian campuses, Silber said, "I and most faculty members believed that civilian control of the military is better ensured when a significant percentage of officers are civilian in orientation and educated in civilian institutions rather than in military academies." On this same subject, Silber would later write:
Being willing to take up our obligation to the nation does not mean that we fail to recognize the deficiencies of the United States. It means rather that we, free to pursue the truth, are obligated to recognize them and to call attention to them. If our universities contribute to the education of journalists in such a way that they recognize and prefer the success of the United States to its defeat by its enemies, we will be doing no more than our job — not only as patriots, and certainly not as chauvinists, but as educators. We will be meeting a fundamental obligation placed on the university: to put the highest value on human freedom as a sine qua non of human fulfillment.
Zinn did not feel the same way about the university or its relationship to our republic, to put it mildly. Sympathetic to the demonstration against military recruiters, Zinn saw Silber as an oppressive dictator who called in the police not to protect students, but to impose his point of view on them. "If his arguments don't work on the students — who sometimes prefer to look at the world around them than to read Kant — then he can call in the police, and after that momentary interruption (the billy club serving as an exclamation point to the rational argument) the discussion can continue, in a more subdued atmosphere."
Though deeply personal, Zinn's criticism of Silber was informed by his overall approach to American history. In A People's History, he summarized this perspective:
The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) — the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress — is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they — the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court — represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.
Reflecting on the incident — which culminated with Silber invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.'s idea that those engaging in civil disobedience should welcome arrest and Zinn comparing him to Bull Connor — Silber held firm. "When there were students setting fire to buildings on the campus of Boston University, and when there were riots, and students preventing students from going into buildings, then I think being resolute was absolutely required," he explained in an interview on the matter in 2006.
That it is almost unimaginable for a university president to be similarly resolute today reflects the hegemony of Zinn's approach in the contemporary academy and highlights how courageous Silber was in his time. In addition to weathering criticism from Zinn, Silber stood up against a student "referendum," in which 16,000 voted against allowing the Marines on campus. Silber responded simply, "I would be much more impressed by a thoughtful document that was brought in by one single student than I would by a mindless referendum of 16,000." Like his counterpart, Silber's strong perspective on campus issues was informed by a deeper philosophical approach, perhaps best summed up by Harold Willis Dodds — Princeton's president from 1933 to 1957 — who famously said, "[i]deas should not be made safe for students, but students should be made safe for ideas."
The next public controversy that embroiled Zinn and Silber involved students demanding that the university divest stocks it held in companies doing business with South Africa. Zinn, who had visited the region and spent time in "a real shantytown outside of Capetown, where thousands of blacks occupied places that looked like chicken coops," would serve as keynote speaker at a rally held at a student-built version of a South African shantytown, which Silber threatened to clear. Zinn was "impressed that young Americans who had not seen that with their own eyes...would be so moved to step out of their comfortable lives and act." From his perspective, those replica shantytowns were the essence of education:
The university is trying to politicize what the students are doing here. But these shanties that the university considers eyesores are not about politics, but about education. If people can literally see the living conditions of black people in South Africa, they will know how wrong apartheid is and that something must be done.
Silber was appalled by Zinn's approach to education, which he took to be motivated in no small part by a desire for self-aggrandizement, and which he thought stood in the way of real solutions. At the time, BU was sponsoring a program to provide scholarships to black South African students, and Silber saw calls for divestiture as a form of virtue signaling. In a private meeting with protestors who demanded BU divest from General Motors and IBM, he asked, "[w]hy should we do that? Is it immoral to own that stock?" When the students responded that it was, he said, "[s]o then, we're supposed to sell it to somebody? We can't divest unless we sell it to somebody....If we sell it to somebody, we have just gotten rid of our guilt in order to impose guilt on somebody else." As college administrators are increasingly put under pressure to sell endowment holdings in companies that specialize in fossil fuels or have business dealings with Israel, Silber's cool-headed comments are as instructive as ever.
Zinn and Silber butted heads again in April 1979, when more than 400 faculty members went on strike as part of a campaign for higher wages and benefits. Naturally, Zinn played a key role in the strike, helping to organize the picket lines that temporarily forced the administration to cancel classes. As firm in his beliefs as Silber was in his, Zinn (along with four other faculty members who came to be known as the "BU Five") went so far as to hold classes outside and off campus to avoid crossing the picket lines. "I rented a loudspeaker system and explained to the class why we were not going inside," Zinn said. "We had a lively discussion about the reasons for the strike and how it connected with the subject of our course, ‘Law and Justice in America.'"
Zinn, very much in the mode of fellow Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders, viewed all university faculty and staff as "workers" akin to the warehouse employees he had labored with as a young man. And he had firm ideas about how the BU faculty strike related to law and justice in the United States. As he would go on to put it in 1999:
[T]he Constitution says nothing about economic rights. There is no legal right to food or housing or health care or education. When workers discovered they could not depend on the Constitution, on the government, on the courts, they did what people do to make democracy come alive. They organized and used direct action — strikes, boycotts, picket lines, demonstrations — to get the eight-hour day, and reasonable wages, and safety rules, at least the bare minimum for a decent life....Isn't it clear, therefore, that all of us — whatever work we do — need to organize ourselves, as did blacks in the South, anti-war protesters and women demanding equality? Don't we all need to gain control over our own work, our own lives, and see to it that the enormous wealth of this country is used for the good of all the people, and not the profits of corporations?
Silber did not think it so clear. Though he "entered high school pro-Roosevelt, pro-labor, and pro-civil rights," his views evolved over time. Eventually he came to not only oppose faculty unionization at BU, but teachers' unions in general. When the state asked BU to manage a failing public-school system in impoverished Chelsea, Massachusetts, Silber quickly made it clear that he would not cater to the caprices of organized labor. In a speech on the subject entitled "Roadblocks to Education Reform," he openly criticized state policy that allowed "procedures for conducting teacher evaluations...[to] be subject to collective bargaining provisions," and explained that when BU took over the Chelsea schools, his team "told the teachers' union that our negotiator would reserve our right to hire on the basis of quality rather than seniority."
This emphasis on merit lay at the heart of Silber's understanding of education. It informed not only his work at BU, but also his time on the Massachusetts Board of Education, where he pioneered regular standardized testing that has led to consistently high levels of student achievement in the commonwealth. Silber's shift in thinking also underscored the extent to which he and Zinn, who were both initially considered liberal, had become divided on essential issues — the former championing individual achievement, the latter collective action.
EDUCATION VERSUS IDEOLOGY
Though Zinn and Silber's arguments often concentrated on campus issues, their battles cannot and should not be reduced to personal spats. Zinn was not just another left-leaning faculty member; he was the avatar of activist teaching and an exemplar of the new left. Likewise, Silber was an exceptional university president. Said to be Ronald Reagan's "favorite Democrat," he would go on to run for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 before losing narrowly to the libertarian-leaning William Weld. Such an extraordinary duo's most important battle was bound to transcend campus politics — and indeed, Zinn and Silber's central disagreement was definitional: What really is an education, and what is a teacher's role in providing it?
In a memoir tellingly titled You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn described Silber as "fast talking...fast thinking," and his rise to prominence as representative of "a common fallacy among intellectuals, that to say someone is ‘bright,' even ‘brilliant'...is equivalent to saying someone is good." Zinn found Silber's broader approach to education anathema to his own, which he laid out in the introduction to his memoir:
I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world. Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible — that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong? In my teaching I never concealed my political views....I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the crucial issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.
The core of this now ascendant — indeed, triumphant — idea is that all education is political. And Silber, whom Zinn surely had in mind as one of the "guardians of traditional education," was indeed disturbed by this perspective. In an essay titled "Procedure or Dogma: The Core of Liberalism," Silber wrote, "[t]he example of Howard Zinn shows how far we have come from the liberal ideal practiced by Socrates and developed by Milton and Mill." In his view, Zinn offered students an ideological counterfeit of liberal education, one that maintained the trappings of the traditional university but lacked its substance.
Ideology accepts in principle and inevitably demands in practice that we overrule reason, ignore method, falsify facts, and constrain the freedom of others in the projection and defense of pre-established objectives void of any rational legitimation....The substitution of talk about ideology for a discussion of the facts and of truth has been the source of widespread confusion and has led to the intellectual disarmament of the democracies. Those who beat the sword of truth into the plowshare of ideology can neither fight nor farm — neither defend their freedom nor feed themselves....Educating people for autonomy has never been easy. It can only be done by teachers who are themselves autonomous — teachers capable of ruling themselves in accordance with their intellectual and moral responsibilities. Good teachers do not succumb to the ideology of entertainment, telling their students what they want to hear....Good teachers accept the responsibility of doing the extremely hard work that is required to discover the truth and to make that truth known to students.
SILBER'S FORGOTTEN LEGACY
Today, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for a university president like John Silber to emerge. Perhaps such a person would sneak into the position under false pretenses about his ideological persuasion, as Silber did at BU. Maybe the board of trustees at one of the many struggling small liberal-arts colleges now facing a battle for survival would see a comparative advantage in embracing Silber over Zinn. Perhaps parents will demand a change. Or perhaps higher education as it exists today will prove to be unsustainable. If enrollment numbers — which have fallen by 5.1% since 2019 — are any indication, all is not well in the ivory tower.
Silber's famous essay, "Poisoning the Wells of Academe," presaged such problems, and his words ring truer today than when he first wrote them for Encounter in 1974. In that piece, Silber observed that the same academic freedom that once "entailed an immunity for what is said and done by dedicated, thoughtful, conscientious scholars in pursuit of truth" had become a shield for "persons unconcerned for the truth; who, reckless, incompetent, frivolous or even malevolent, promulgate ideas for which they can claim no expertise, or even commit deeds for which they can claim no sanction of law." In trading truth for ideology, Silber explained, the university loses its credibility: "The community outside looks in at the madness and doubts whether the university, after all, is an institution worthy of any special admiration."
Silber's insights suggest that the fate of higher education in America is intimately linked to preserving the tradition of liberal education. Yet guardians of that tradition are harder and harder to find in colleges and universities across the country.
It is worth noting that at least one university president has, post-Silber, made clear his disdain for Zinn's teaching and influence. Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, expressed the hope that the People's History — "a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page" — was not in use in Indiana. When that view was later made public, 90 Purdue professors signed a petition saying they were "troubled" by Daniels's perspective, which he has continued to express as the university's president.
It's a dispute that both Zinn and Silber would recognize — and on which they would undoubtedly, and memorably, weigh in.