John Silber, my father, never caved

He saw freedom of speech as vital to our understanding

I WISH JOHN SILBER, my father, could see the new Center for Computer and Data Sciences on the Boston University campus. Some call it the Jenga building; to me it looks like a stack of toppling books.

In his Architecture of the Absurd, a perfect gem on the subject of modern architecture, Silber clearly loves some whimsical architecture, such as the works of Gaudi, in which the whimsical shapes of buildings and public spaces clearly enhance the experience of people who live and work in them.

It is the saddest thing to not be able to ask my father, who has now been gone for 10 years, what he thinks when I see a new building. I can guess, but I can’t be sure, and I surely can’t know exactly what he would say with his extraordinary expressive capacity. So I wonder if his impression would coincide with mine. Would he see “Toppling Books” as a metaphor for the state of higher education today?

The move toward censoring voices has afflicted higher education over the last 50 years. As president and then chancellor of Boston University from 1971 to 2003, he forcefully protected the academic freedom and constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech, of the students, faculty, and staff. He was prescient in recognizing the urgency of this stand.

For John Silber, being a liberal was related to being a philosopher. All knowledge comes from the scientific method, and its twin process the Socratic method. Both involve skeptical questioning in an attempt to arrive at the nearest approximation to the truth. How can this work in a society that shuts down speech? In which some subjects are taboo and cannot be questioned without serious ramifications to your reputation, your career, and livelihood, and even to your physical safety? Pop saw freedom of speech as fundamental and vital to our understanding. As he saw it, a liberal looks at all sides of an issue and listens to all voices, considering all points of view.

Throughout his career, John Silber championed liberal causes. He was on the bipartisan commission that created Head Start. As a teacher, one of his big assignments each year was called “The Slum Project,” for which he had his students investigate areas of urban blight and find out if the landlords were fulfilling their legal obligations. Under his guidance, Boston University took on the management of the Chelsea schools for 20 years and revitalized them.  His accomplishments were so numerous they cannot all be listed here, or even in a book.

John Silber had an idea of activism as an activity that was respectful of the constitution and not destructive. Shouting down the other side is anti-intellectual. It resorts to brute strength: Might makes right. And when the shouting leads to violence, it enters the realm of destruction and anarchy. The only thing that can be learned from violence is that violence is bad. The only thing that can be learned from shouting down opposing views is that the shouters were louder; no one is convinced by their arguments because they didn’t offer any.

Many college presidents continue to cave when students and faculty threaten disruption or violence, but John Silber never pandered to them. He expected all students and faculty to make their voices heard, but also to listen to the other side. By writing, speaking, and actually debating issues, both sides might learn something.

John Silber was a classical liberal all his life, but he often found, especially on college campuses, that there was a litany of left-wing beliefs that one was expected to hold in order to be considered a liberal. As he said, “Whenever one uses a set of beliefs as a liberal litmus test, one has confused liberalism with dogmatism.” And he continued, “The ideologue of the left is no more liberal than the ideologue of the right, for neither believes in humility before the facts and logic, respect for the experience and views of others, and the importance of making a supreme effort to avoid irrationality.”

My father was sometimes called a fascist when he put a stop to protests that interrupted speaking events, but his motives were not authoritarian. He always believed strongly in the rights of each individual and was protecting the constitutional rights — freedom of speech and freedom of assembly — of those who were trying to participate in the public discussion of issues. Despite the name-calling, the only sense in which John Silber conceded that he was conservative was, “in the sense that we conserve a methodology begun by Socrates and essential to all scientific thought.”

Dogma has toppled true liberalism, but a resurgence of respect for the constitution, especially for our freedom of speech, can restore the civility of debate and public discourse.

Rachel Silber Devlin is a teacher, writer, and author of Snapshots of My Father, John Silber.