Seeking the North Star:

Selected Speeches

If you lived and worked in Boston at any point during the last half century, you were aware of a force emanating from an increasingly influential institution on the banks of the Charles River; the institution was Boston University and the force behind it was John Silber. From his induction in 1971 until his retirement in 2011, Silber was unrelenting in improving the standards and quality of his university. What he may have lacked in tact, he more than made up for in intellectual brilliance, wide-ranging vision, and stubborn advocacy. A professor of philosophy, celebrated for his work on Immanuel Kant, Silber was a humanist in the tradition of Jefferson, Holmes, Whitehead, and Barzun.

The best of the man is revealed in this selection of his writing, speeches, essays, and articles, collected from over forty years of vigorous engagement. Here he speaks as a philosopher, educator, parent, and political observer and participant (ahead in the polls, he would have been elected Governor of Massachusetts had he not run afoul of Channel Five’s beloved Natalie Jacobsen. The famous incident is recounted in high style in Tom Wolfe’s Foreword). Silber tackles issues including education at all levels, culture and the media, democracy and international affairs. Delivered from 1971 to 2012, the speeches offer his incisive reflections on the Vietnam War, Watergate, student activism of the seventies, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, developments in science and technology, the increasing power of the media, global corporations, and many other issues. His style is lively, crisp, and pointed, spiked with his acerbic wit and guided by an ongoing search for wisdom.

Silber was a model of probity and integrity in both his private and his public life, an intellectual pessimist and a congenital optimist. Even as he brought Boston University from a sleepy and fast-declining “streetcar college” to a major educational institution, he spoke out on topical issues and principles on which our human fulfillment and national identity depended. Inspiring many and infuriating some, his was a life that mattered and his voice was one worth listening to.

John Robert Silber was born in San Antonio in 1926. The seventh president of Boston University, he was, in addition, the first chairman of the Texas Society to Abolish Capital Punishment, a leader in the racial integration of the University of Texas, a member of the founding committee of Project Head Start, a member of President Reagan’s Bipartisan Committee on Central America, the 1990 Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts, and Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. His books include Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It, Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, and Kant’s Ethics. Silber died in 2012.

Tom Wolfe is widely considered one of the most important journalists of the twentieth century. His formally experimental nonfiction works, including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, had considerable influence over the New Journalism literary movement. He has received dozens of awards and nominations for his writing, including a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Wolfe lives in New York City with his wife Sheila, a designer.