Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Straight Shooting: What's Wrong with America and How to Fix It
by john silber
harper and row, 336 pages, $22.50

This book's seemingly presumptuous subtitle prepared me not to like it. That predisposition was quickly set aside, as was the presumption of presumption. This is a very good book, well worth the reading. Even the title and subtitle are more apt than one would expect. While the author can hardly be said to have identified all our problems and their solutions, he most assuredly has chosen to write about crucial issues, and he has done so with clarity, forceful argument, and purposeful-ness. In so doing he has contributed to the fixing that is needed.

The book is presented in three parts, beginning with “First Principles.” In this the author portrays several basic ideas that traditionally have informed and sustained American social structures. At the same time, these ideas have given meaning to individuals' activities within these structures. Much of today's difficulty, Silber argues, comes from the loss or erosion of these fundamental concepts. In the second part, “Lessons In School,” the author analyzes the impact on our educational enterprise of the weakened values portrayed in the previous section. His idea of “education” extends outward from the schools to include the media and commercial expressions—in short, anything that helps form the public consciousness. Finally, the section called “Lessons Out of School” brings the first principles to bear on various public-policy issues. The specific areas chosen are from one point of view random and thus lacking an evident design. But all are important, and they are presented because the author has particular knowledge or experience on each. Using particular competence as a criterion for selection is not the worst idea one has ever encountered.

Silber judges that the United States is seriously beset by very large ills which diminish the quality of life here and which, if not corrected or lessened, imperil our existence as we have known it. These ills include what he takes to be the failure of our schools to educate properly and to offer and instill a worthwhile cultural heritage. Educational failure, of course, exacts a national price in the sense of making the community less potent; and it more immediately exacts a devastating price on the individual who experiences it, for that person will find empowerment and fulfillment elusive at best. The author also treats the drug curse, and the criminal behavior and resultant social turbulence that accompany illicit drug use. Familial breakdown, especially in the most downtrodden social segment, is also analyzed. Silber sees in this development the real potential for establishment of a permanent underclass, lacking mobility and hope. He is concerned as well for the loss of American competitiveness in world markets and its accompanying threat to internal strength and stability. And he devotes attention to the relative lack of coherence in American foreign policy, as exemplified in Central America.

The author cannot be accused of picking easy matters on which to write. Nor can he be accused of avoiding or fuzzing the serious implications of these issues. His basic style is, indeed, one of “straight shooting” and straight talk. A reader can easily see where he starts, where he is going, and why. Silber's implicit epistemology is that of a metaphysical realist. He believes reality is discernible and that it can yield objective principles that should and can guide personal action. This essentialist foundation enables him to write strongly from an ethical as well as descriptive perspective. Particularly helpful is his realization that ethics and the need for ethical choosing inhere in all human situations, and call for a generally enlightened ethical disposition, not an “ethics of this” and an “ethics of that.”

For all its strengths, Straight Shooting has some problems, some puzzles, and some surprising omissions. Numerous phenomena that are disturbing to the author—e.g., the low quality of Presidential debates, the proclivity of the press to become adversarial—cannot really be understood or assessed without relating them to institutional causes that precede and transcend the players. The two examples cited, for instance, are derived directly from the fact that, in the separation of powers, there is no sustaining government-opposition dialogue to lend seriousness and rationality to political exchange. Similarly, Silber does not note among contributing factors in the nation's run-amok litigiousness the fact that American judicial review, an adaptation of separation of powers, invites unending legal efforts by removing the expectation of finality from many legislative enactments. Elsewhere, there is a puzzling assertion that businessmen, et al., should have the same rights of expression that academic freedom guarantees to faculty—but that assertion destroys the real and substantial teleological distinction between the work of faculty (precisely to deal with and attempt to clarify and expand truth for its own sake) and other professions with quite different ends.

Perhaps the most striking omission is the absence of discussion about educational choice as a tool for attacking many of the elementary and secondary school problems that most concern Silber. This is surprising because Silber is familiar with and supportive of the fundamental concept. Thus he advocates a voucher system to help independent colleges and universities cope with the radically uneven financial playing field they occupy in competing with state-owned and state-financed universities. The principles which validate his position re higher education can have at least as great an impact on elementary and secondary education if one applies them there.

As noted, this book is much given to discussion of virtue and its absence in portions of contemporary education. Less is said, however, about the premises necessary to authorize and effectuate serious ethical education. There is a void in this area because in the mass public systems there is too little shared ethical premise from which ethical teaching can emanate. And what shared premises do exist too often are paralyzed by legal entanglements. Such schools tend to be reduced to providing least-common-denominator ethical strictures. The void is filled by the “social science” and “value-free” material so sharply criticized by Silber. When it is possible to place a school or a system on a shared and pronounced ethical structure, religious or otherwise, then it is possible to place the educational process and product firmly within such a structure, and thereby, provide direction and substantive ethical content.

What public policy is called for to give life to such potentials? A policy aimed to enhance parental choice, through vouchers, is an obvious way to break the effective monopoly now held by many public systems, to attack the stultifying bureaucratic structures that have grown around such systems, to invite a spirit of performance and competitive attractiveness—and to make possible the teaching of serious ethical principles as the author wants. Silber refers to the “secularization” of America, but all evidence suggests that, in fact, the public is as religiously and spiritually oriented as ever. They need systems which make it possible for them to manifest these values in schools. They need to stop thinking about the public school systems as if they were ends unto themselves, and see instead that they are only means to the end of superior education for all educable children. When they see that, they will see also that systems must be tested against the end and replaced if found wanting.

The author himself succumbs to the temptation to confuse ends and means when he says “we of the older generation can accelerate the process of necessary reform of the public schools.” That almost certainly puts the issue the wrong way, precisely because it portrays the “public schools” as ends rather than means. Our challenge is to present better educational offerings, using what- ever tools are most efficacious, which no doubt would include public schools. Until we insist rigorously on that distinction, we will be trapped in a never-ending process of “reforming the public schools.” Let us have as our objective the education and empowerment of all children and especially those in most disadvantaged circumstances. And let us open for those children and those who nourish them many paths to such a result. That is the notion of choice as a reforming dynamic. And it is not an abstraction, for, as James S. Coleman and others have conclusively shown, those religious-based independent schools in the heart of the cities are winning the educational wars. Our policy need is to enable more of those flowers to bloom.

At the outset I suggested that there was more to the author's “how to fix it” claim than one might normally expect. Its strong contribution in this regard is in the method of his work, even more than any specific remedies he offers. He provides clear recognition of real problems and calls them by their real names. He sees those problems whole, including their personal and ethical dimensions. He offers plausible solutions to the problems he identifies. By doing these things he forms the beginning of a dialectic which, if pursued vigorously, can produce intelligent policy response to our very great difficulties. And that is the only way to fix them.

Quentin L. Quade is Executive Vice-President of Marquette University

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift