Targeting Democratic Imperatives


STRAIGHT SHOOTING: WHAT'S WRONG WITH AMERICA AND HOW TO FIX IT by John Silber, New York: Harper & Row, 336 pp., $22.50

TWO delights linger with this learned yet volatile book: the interplay of a disciplined mind postulating and then proving the moral consequence of ideas on matters of conscience and state, especially the education of the young; a passionate love of country forged by the union of duty, freedom, and intellect.

A lifelong student of philosophy and Kantian scholar of the first rank, John Silber deploys well-researched and invigoratingly original arguments on a field of broad erudition. His style is as direct as a cavalry charge at Gettysburg. Saddled and mounted are the great thinkers from Plato onwards. The foe, a battery of problems - personal and public, moral and political - confronting contemporary America, is challenged to a verbal duel, where the only quarter given is truth lived.

Just as wielding a saber is not for the faint of heart, this book is not for the faint of mind. Ideas are cut, flayed, and skewered by Silber's reasoned convictions. Alan Bloom may write of the ``closing of the American mind'' on college campuses. Dr. Silber rips any door from its hinges should it impede ``the willingness to follow truth close on the heels wherever she leads us, the insistence on having the evidence and all the evidence, the remorseless comparison of idea with idea, the necessary distinction between idea and act, the very belief in an external reality common to all, accessible to all,...''

Rather than a seamless cloth, the text is a cluster of essays or lectures (16 in total) addressing a specific issue or problem. As much at home with Plato, Spinoza, or Kant as he is with Hamilton, Madison, or his beloved Sam Houston, Silber's finely honed scholarship evidences one for whom teaching is a vocation. Critics may not like his deductions, but respect his analysis they must. He stands on common ground with great thinkers and invites readers to step onto the intellectual real estate bequeathed by those who have gone before.

Silber's exegesis of the old McGuffey readers in the chapter ``The Gods of the Copybook Headings'' - my favorite - sets forth the primacy of moral education in all educational endeavors. It typifies the original cast he brings to time-tested practices, self-evident realities.

In ``Paying the Bill for College'' he recounts an idea he proffered in 1977 on an advance tuition payment plan. Had it been enacted then, staggering personal debt would not go hand in hand with so many college diplomas today. He is at his best on complex issues affecting academia, where he is able to expound the raison d'^etre of the university itself: ``Academic freedom does not exist to give job security to professors; it exists, rather, as an expression of the continuing movement of humanity toward goals of truth and persuasion.''

In the chapter ``The Litigious Society,'' Silber targets the two most troublesome threats to the rule of law in a democracy: 1.``The important differences between the federal government and all other plaintiffs is that all other plaintiffs are ultimately restrained by limitations on their purse and time.'' 2. ``The legal profession in America has become not only self-perpetuating but a self-expanding organism, driven by professional imperialism.'' Like a religious reformer in the Middle Ages, he challenges the status of a new priestly class: lawyers, who would intrude personal power between citizens and the democratic rule of law.

Though the tone of ``Straight Shooting'' is serious and sober, there is much good wit and humor in the telling. On bilingual education and the need for all children to be proficient in English, he quips: ``Like all native Texans, I had to learn English as a foreign language when I started school.'' Teachers should graduate from college knowing the subject they will teach rather than studying the pedagogy of pedagogy in schools of education. Vintage Silber surfaces when he suggests schools of education will produce educators when seminaries produce saints.

There is a major flaw, however: the title. One may not judge a book by its cover, but first impressions are made by the linguistic nuance of its title. This one suggests, anachronistically, a shootout at the OK Corral, the lone enforcer standing in the center of town at high noon.

One puzzles why a book that so vigorously marshals ancient and communal wisdom, the wit of humane letters, would undercut the scope and weight of its argument with a title that detracts from the complexly precise language and broad vision it embodies. ``Democratic Imperatives'' or some such would be a more appropriate choice.

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