Louis Silverstein: Someone You Should Know

By Jessica Galliart

Liberal education faculty member Louis Silverstein’s classes are always full. Students usually sign up quickly for the 68-year-old’s courses, and hardly any ever drop his classes, he said.

Silverstein, a “longtimer” at Columbia, is one of few faculty members at the college who have seen firsthand the changes Columbia has gone through in the past few decades. And with the many life experiences he has endured—living through World War II as a young Jewish boy, protesting the Vietnam War,  becoming one of the first to apply for release from the military as a conscientious objector—it’s no surprise students

scramble to sign up for his courses: Education, Culture, and Society; Peace Studies; Death and Dying; and Contemporary Problems in American Society.

In the early 1970s, Silverstein served as the dean of the college and later worked to research for and publish An Oral History Of Columbia College: A Telling of Columbia’s Story and its Contributions To American Higher Education Through Personal Narrative, which recorded the histories of many longtime faculty members and the college itself.

The Chronicle talked to Silverstein about his history at Columbia, the philosophy behind his teaching method and the time he spent in jail with political activist Abbie Hoffman.

The Chronicle: How long have you been at Columbia?

Louis Silverstein: Since 1968. I started as a part-time faculty member. I left in 1970 to teach full-time at Rhode Island, which I did for one year.  Then I was asked to come back to Columbia. So I came back as an assistant dean, and then the present dean Bill Wilkes had enough problems with life and he decided to leave the deanship of Columbia. He left, and I became the dean of the college in 1971.

You worked on creating the oral history of Columbia. What made you want to do that?

At the time when the oral history wasinitiated, which I suggested the college do, I think at that time about maybe 12, 13 or 14 faculty members that had been longtimers, who had been working at Columbia for a long time, had died. With them had gone their history in relation to Columbia, and these are incredible folks. I began to realize Columbia has incredible stories that will go down the drain because there’s no recorded history of Columbia and the histories and stories of people’s lives there. So I suggested to the college president at the time that I initiate a project called the Columbia College Oral History Project to literally record a history of Columbia. There was so much to say. I became the director and I hired two oral historians, not to write the history but to record the history of these folks. What the oral historians did is come up with questions that were asked of those folks. It was really the folks who were in it who wrote the oral history. By the time we were through, which was five years later, we had something like 72 interviews. Within a short period of time, something like 20 to 25 folks who had been interviewed had died. And without them, Columbia would not exist.

Is Columbia’s mission today the same as it was when you started teaching here?

I think there’s more than one mission [at] Columbia. I think the mission to educate people to their fullest potential in the arts and communication field is still there. At the same time, part of the original mission of Columbia is to give people the skills and values to go about and write the history of their times, or what I call it, transform the world. I think that part of the mission is not as strong now as it was then. The focus is much more so primarily in one’s profession and not necessarily in one’s citizen role.

What’s your philosophy behind your method of teaching?

My goal is really to get the students to think critically and creatively about what they have, how they see the world, how they take in the world, how they make sense of the world and what they want to put out there. Higher education tends to be about education of the head. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. I value minds,

but I also think our hearts and our guts are other seats of intelligence. My way of educating is to go to the head, the heart and the gut. I also believe that you need to start where people are at and then move them to large issues. A lot of times the larger issues are too abstract and they can’t really connect. [They say,] “What does this have to do with me?” I try to bring up issues that are part of students’ lives, something they can actually relate to. I also believe that I try to choose reading materials that students want to read. My hope is that what goes on in the classroom is just to stimulate or go outside the classroom. And I don’t know too many students who go home and say, “Look at this incredible text.” But I want the student to then become the teacher, to go out and take it to their homes and boyfriends and girlfriends. And it becomes part of their lives.

What do you mean when you explain to your students in your classes that they shouldn’t necessarily know the answers to the questions you’re asking?

My sense is that it’s better to force creative and critical thinking rather than answers or how to think about a specific subject. Because most of what you’re going to face after college, you’re going to be faced with stuff you didn’t study. If you get freaked out with a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s going to wipe you out. So I think part of our training is that we come up with questions that students don’t know the answer to and don’t know what to do about. I say one of the best skills you can learn by going through the higher education process is what do you do when you don’t know what to do. A lot of what happens, you don’t know what to do and if you haven’t figured out how to deal with it, you’re going to freak. I try to come up with questions that need more thought, more reflection. I’m not interested so much in answers.

What made you decide to become one of the first to apply for release from the military as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War?

During my junior year of college I dropped out to join the army. I came upon an interest in realization by virtue of basic training that I, too, could kill. I saw what training does to people and then I got out when I was still in the active reserves, and I started teaching high school. I started showing a magazine, and Dr. Spock authored this piece dealing with the children in Vietnam—It showed the effects of violence on children in Vietnam. I was teaching five classes a day with no lunch break, and I wanted my students to be affected by what they were seeing. Then I realized that come fourth period that I was eating my lunch while watching. I thought what kind of person I am that I can just see this horrible carnage and eat my lunch?  Being of Jewish descent, my parents from eastern Europe, I said, “Well, I have a little insight right now about how Germans could go about their business while they smelled the bodies in the concentration camps,” and I said, “That’s not the person that I’m supposed to be.” I reflected upon that, and I said, “One of the first things I can do is not give my body over to my government to kill other people for any reason.”

I applied for release as a conscientious objector—refused to kill on the orders of the government because it violates your basic religious and moral beliefs. Since this was 1965, the Vietnam War was still not in high gear. The government thought that those of us applying for conscientious objector were very few, so what they decided to do rather than contest us—and we were ready to go to court fight in public—they basically just let us go. So they felt that [we would feel], “Well we got this now, we’re safe, we don’t have to go off and [can now] go about our business.” But we refused to do it. We weren’t silent, and we spoke out against the war and we marched against the war and wrote stuff against the war. Then there was the realization that there are a lot of folks like this, and that’s when they started clamping down. Now at the same time, I said my body is not going to war because I don’t believe in this war and what it’s doing is against our basic beliefs as Americans.

I remember as I was going through school I read these essays by [Henry David] Thoreau about civil disobedience and how he was not going to give moneys for slavery. I said, “If my body isn’t going to war, then my money shouldn’t go to war.” At that time people figured out what proportion of what taxes were specifically for the war, and I refused to pay those taxes. I became a war tax resister. And told my government why I wasn’t paying those taxes. Now what happens realistically is that if you have any assets and you’re a tax resister, what they will do is they can seize any money in your bank account, your car, your house, your persona property then they put it up for sale and they auction off and if that provides enough money to pay your tax bill you’re basically [free]. If you don’t have it they’ll go after you personally and put you on trial and can sentence you to many years in jail, as it happened with many friends of mine. And then from that, I started counseling people in the military who wanted out. I’m still doing this at 68, as with the die-in [on Sept. 22]. I don’t want my kids to go to war; I don’t want any kids to go to war.

How did Columbia react to your political involvement at the time?

At that time, Columbia was a very radical political place. The president of the college and my colleagues were out of sight. That’s what you feel you have to do. Right now I don’t feel like that would be the same reaction. We have a different political framework now at the college. That was not an issue. What you’re doing is teaching your students without requiring them to do that that the classroom is life and not just talking about this in class—you’re actually living your bill of rights. You’re living your conscience out there.

How did you end up in jail with political activist Abbie Hoffman in 1968?

It was the 1968 Democratic Convention, and I was with a group of people from the American Friend Service Committee, and violence had erupted. The police had gone crazy. We put together a group of people, and our mission was to stand between the police and people who were demonstrating. [We hoped] since we were nonviolent that the police would not then wreak violence. We’re not going to fight back in that way. Police said, “You’re arrested. You’re violating the law.” My group of people was taken down to 26th [Street] and California [Avenue], we were put in the holding pen. In that holding pen, which was like a large studio room, among the other people there was Mr. Abbie Hoffman, who was arrested also. He was not with our group; he was arrested for different reasons. Then we had about 8 or 10 hours together in the holding pen talking about the war, talking about philosophy, talking about what life should be all about. Mr. Abbie Hoffman put on a demonstration of living theater, which he did his very best to drive the guard absolutely crazy, to show that there’s evil in everybody. He did a very effective job of doing that.

Some of us had some problems about that, because there’s no question there’s evil in everybody, but that guard to us was already doing evil by being a guard there. What we needed to work on was bringing out the goodness. If you bring out the evil he’s going to do it on you or go home. The guard went absolutely berserk, and after that was over and things calmed down we had conversations about, “Is the most effective way to bring about change touching other people’s evil spots?” That was the time I was in jail with Mr. Abbie Hoffman.

What do you think of the current state of our country and the war? Are we in a state of crisis?

In very blunt terms, it sucks. That we have in countries around the world so many people who are in need of basic necessities of life and the idea that we can go to war with a country, Iraq, that is admitted by the administration, had no role in 9/11, and spend $720 million a day to destroy life rather than to spend those monies to heal life after we’ve been through so many wars, and realize hopefully we had learned some lesson from Vietnam, is to me a monumental tragedy. The fact that while there are protests, there are so little protests in comparison to what went on in the past is disheartening to me. So that is somewhat disheartening for me. But I’m 68 years old; I was born during World War II. Having lived through that, no matter how disheartening it is, believe me, being a Jewish kid in 1940 was pretty disheartening, I know that all things pass. The good passes, and the bad passes. But we can also hasten the passing. While I find a lot disheartening, I also find that the possibility for change exists. It’s here. We can do it; this is America. This is a good site for change.