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And Ask Questions After : Straight Shooting: What's Wrong With America And How To Fix It By John Silber, (harper & Row: $22.50; 352 Pp.; 0-060016184-1)

October 08, 1989|Robert Stevens | Robert Stevens, an English barrister, was educated at Oxford and Yale universities. Now an American citizen, he is professor of history and chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Silber is, indeed, in so many ways, the American success story writ large. His is a more intellectualized version of that rather unstructured thinking which is endemic in our society. In our social life, the weakness of the liturgical churches in this country insures the ahistorical enthusiasms of the Moral Majority on the right, and groups such as the Quakers on the left, just as it inspires ahistorical spokesmen like Silber.

In this All-American sense, of course, Silber's is an exciting book. The book has many challenging passages. He ranges into foreign affairs; he challenges the liberal view of disarmament at any price. He has an interesting chapter on tenure in the universities, and he scores some good points. He clearly cares that leadership in the academic community is now automatically seen to be the enemy. Yet his tough-minded views seem sometimes illogical and inconsistent, one with another.

He appears to come down against abortion. In an essay that is not always easy to follow, he also seems to be one of those who is against sex education.

He is, of course, in favor of morals. Ethical relativism is not for John Silber. Yet, his list of enemies is, at best, confusing. Among the "bad guys" are program traders and drug dealers. Yet he is strongly in favor of the private-enterprise system. He is opposed to regulation. Perhaps it is my muddled European background, but I still find it odd that we attempt to have the lowest speed limit on the roads among the major industrial nations; we have the best record for regulating new pharmaceutical products, for having lead-free gasoline, and may have the first smoke-free airlines. Yet, at the same time, we seem to think that teen-agers should have an inalienable right to buy AK47s.

In other words, the objects of John Silber's attack sometimes seem simple-minded and certainly not coherent--or at least consistent. To get rid of program traders, we may have to have far more regulation; to get rid of drug dealers, we may need less regulation. Perhaps Silber should embrace the views of his intellectual guru, Milton Friedman, and decriminalize all drugs. The money and energy now spent on fighting drugs in Colombia, Miami and Los Angeles, could then be spent in trying to educate our populace on the dangers of drugs. This might also show that the fault lies on the demand side rather than on the supply side. The subtleties of such approaches, however, are lost on John Silber. That makes for fun reading; it does not make for a serious book which will have lasting significance.

The one area where the book does offer a coherent picture is in education. If Silber had, like the good cobbler, stuck to his last, the book would have been a better one. He makes some good and stimulating points on Headstart programs and the need to subsidize them; he thinks through the implications of rigor in the high schools (again with a number of historically inaccurate assumptions), and he ends with a plug for his tuition plan for higher education. This would provide that, in return for paying the bulk of a student's education at the tertiary level, the state would take a percentage of that person's income throughout his life. In describing it, Silber also offers some stimulating analyses of the independent and state institutions of higher education. In short, if this book had been primarily on education, it might have achieved some of the same popularity that Allan Bloom achieved in his diatribe "The Closing of the American Mind." While "Straight Shooting" already has been chosen as the main selection for the Conservative Book Club, and while it is certainly to be recommended as a good romp, its intellectual force is not profound.

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