Excerpted from a WSJ book review of Seeking the North Star, by John R. Silber
As the essays in this volume amply attest, Silber dedicated himself to battling against the multifarious agents of academic diminishment, from the spurious imperatives of “multiculturalism,” which substitutes politics for culture, to the parodies of genuine scientific inquiry, which insist that only the measurable is true.
Silber’s understanding of the importance of the humanities as a leaven for what is noblest in our aspirations sets him apart from the usual technocratic university president, who is more of a fund-raising apparatchik than an intellectual leader. He understood that the index of civilization was a society’s commitment to what the early 20th-century British jurist John Fletcher Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable.” Civilized life takes place mostly in a realm between the coercive law and complete freedom—a realm governed by such flexible imperatives as taste, manners and custom. More and more, the extent of that gracious dominion has been diminished. It’s an odd situation we face.
“The future of our country,” Silber notes, “our future happiness and that of our children depends decisively on whether we as individuals and as a people practice obedience to the unenforceable.” This quarter’s report, I think you’ll agree, is not encouraging.