On Aug. 10, the City Council of Cambridge, Mass., passed, by unanimous vote, a resolution to which even the local media gave scant notice. But the document merits attention throughout the Republic of Letters, and quoting it at some length seems in order, since paraphrase would not do it justice:
“WHEREAS: George Scialabba is retiring on Aug. 31, 2015, from his job stationed in the basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, having diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years; and
“WHEREAS: Scialabba has published over the same period nearly 400 essays, reviews and commentaries concerning literature, science, politics and morality from the perspectives of the bemused, the nonprivileged and the unsmug; and
“WHEREAS: To that end, Scialabba has spent thousands of hours pacing his apartment on Washington Avenue, gnashing his teeth over the sorry spectacle of American politics and the fearful mayhem of American capitalism, while himself hanging on by his fingertips,
“NOW THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge hereby proclaims Sept. 10, 2015 ‘George Scialabba Day’ to honor Scialabba for staring unflinchingly into the abyss and reporting what he has found there in sensitive, true and graceful prose …”
In 2006, this column did its part to further the appreciation of George Scialabba by giving notice of Divided Mind, a sampler of his work in the form of a chapbook, issued by a small literary press called Pressed Wafer. Divided Mind was modest both in size and prize run, but it whetted enough readers’ appetites for the publisher to bring out What Are Intellectuals Good For? in 2009. Two more collections have appeared since then; a fourth volume is on its way. (All available through online retailers or the press itself.)
To continue with the Cambridge City Council proclamation, picking up where the ellipsis left off:
“RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge encourages those of its residents who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks and to celebrate the achievements of George Scialabba on Sept. 10, 2015; and finally
“RESOLVED: That the city clerk is hereby requested to forward a suitably embossed copy of this resolution to the Committee to Preserve George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If Any).”
And so Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich will be among the featured speakers tomorrow night at “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” to be held at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Tickets for the event were sold out as of Sunday. And that was before the Boston Globe’s prominently placed feature on the event. (Large blocks of tickets were purchased by well-read but ruthless scalpers, according to the rumor I just thought up.)
The Committee to Preserve George Scialabba consists, as far as I can tell, mainly of John Summers, editor of The Baffler, where Scialabba is a contributing editor. In an email note he describes the planned course of Thursday night’s festivities as a series of toasts by speakers -- running “anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or so” each, followed by a hoisting of the glasses -- which will be interspersed with the screening of a video consisting of tributes by friends and readers who can’t attend. It will be made available online the next day.
“The toasts will branch out from [George’s] person,” Summers says, “into the larger, collective issues and situations of contemporary intellectual life. We will focus on the persistence of independent-minded writing and thinking outside the professions and institutions -- the sort of people who don't need to ask permission.” (Summers has been named by Scialabba as his literary executor and will presumably handle the Library of America edition of his essays.)
So much acclaim would swell the heads of most people. My impression from speaking with Scialabba by phone is that he is happy but embarrassed and will likely remain in that state for the duration. As a young man he was a member of Opus Dei -- a Roman Catholic organization primarily for laymen, known for its unyielding advocacy of theological tradition. And although studying intellectual history as a Harvard University undergraduate eventually cost him his religious faith (“the foundations had been crumbling all through my junior and senior years”), it seems that the years of quasi-monastic discipline mortified the ego right out of him.
The experience of leaving a closed but rigorous moral and intellectual worldview left him in a position that has been difficult and, at times, painful, but also rewarding, at least for his readers. It taught him “that ideas matter,” the historian Rick Perlstein writes in the preface to Scialabba’s next book. “That they are a matter of life and death …. He believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal say, is neither a function of American arms or the sacred working out of the laws of supply and demand. It is caused by human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up.”
The title of that forthcoming volume is Low, Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015. The indicated span happens to coincide with the years Scialabba has been a clerical worker at Harvard, managing the building that houses the Center for International Affairs and a number of smaller research centers. Part of the legend that circulates among his admirers concerns a file cabinet in his basement office that was filled with all the writing he'd done when not busy scheduling room usage or checking on the progress of air-conditioning repairs.
It turns out that not only is the story true but that the files are still there. Clearing them out remains his last workplace-related chore. He says there are no unfinished books among them, or manuscripts for posthumous discovery -- and that with Low, Dishonest Decades, most of the work he’d want preserved will be between covers, apart from a few recent essays. I was disappointed to hear that, at least initially.
But now he has a good pension (“thanks to the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers,” he stresses) and more time. So let me end by repeating what I said in the video that will be shown on Thursday night: while the world is not exactly crying out for more memoirs, an exception can be made for the memoirs of someone who joined Opus Dei as a teenager and read his way out of it. The tributes to George Scialabba will soon be over; let his late-life flourishing begin!
The University of Michigan is today announcing a plan to spend $100 million over the next five years on research and teaching related to data science. In the first four years of the program, the university plans to hire 35 new faculty members. The university will also expand support for interdisciplinary research in data science and expand research computing capacity.
It’s fall, and the academic year is about to start again, so it’s time for the annual bout of questioning and self-questioning that we teachers of the humanities engage in all the time, but especially now. What shall we teach our students and how shall we teach it? What texts shall we use? What questions will we ask? What will we hope our students gain from our classes?
I have been teaching humanities-based courses over the past 40 years, in high schools and universities, and I’m persuaded that right now the question it is most important to pose to our students (and also to ourselves) is the question of ideals. I ask (and hope that others will also ask) the students who take our classes where they stand on the question of the great ideals. This isn’t just an intellectually engaging question, though surely it is that. It is also a question about how the students, and their teacher, too, should lead their lives.
By posing the question of ideals, one will inevitably encounter some of the greatest writing we have: some of what Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” By reflecting on the ideals one can learn a great deal about the tactics of interpretation and the art of writing. But more than that, one can learn to know oneself and begin to think about how to live in the world.
The ancient world offers us three major ideals, which I call (using some shorthand) the ideals of courage, compassion and contemplation. Later in time, great artists have put forward the life of imagination as an ideal, though that ideal is less firmly established than the other three.
Where do you stand on the matter of ideals? To answer that question, you need to develop a sense of what ideals are. I turn to Homer and Virgil to understand the ideal of courage; to Plato to understand the contemplative ideal; and to Jesus, Buddha and Confucius to understand the ideal of compassion. I’m also open to the possibility that my students might want to reject ideals out of hand, or at least carefully modulate their engagement with the ideal (ideals are dangerous). So I expose them to a few writers who have affirmed a worldly but humane and decent way of life: I often use Freud, but George Orwell or Michel de Montaigne could do just as well.
So now we have our syllabus. What happens then? We’ll begin with the heroic ideal, the oldest in the world. We try to learn what exactly it means to be a hero, at least to Homer and Virgil. We reflect on Achilles, who fears nothing and wants to be the greatest warrior who ever lived. We think about the more humane Hector, who is the archetype of the citizen soldier, and who fights to defend his city. We consider Aeneas, the pious warrior who lives for his father, his son and his people -- and who, the story has it, leaves the ashes of the city that Hector has died defending and founds Rome.
We ask questions. Is Achilles really a hero, or is he simply a killing machine? Is Hector being a coward when he flees Achilles, running from him around the walls of Troy? Is Aeneas’s modesty really compatible with being a fierce warrior?
These questions involve careful reading and interpretation. The students write about who they think the heroes are and why they matter -- or do not. But I also ask the students if these heroic archetypes provide them with what the Harvard University philosopher William James called “living options.” How much do they want to emulate these heroes, if at all? What place does courage have in their daily lives and what part would they like it to have? What sort of courage would they want to emulate: that of Achilles, or of Hector, or of Aeneas -- or perhaps of some other figure they have encountered in literature or in life? Would any of them consider committing themselves to a life of martial valor, in which bravery and honor take a central place for them and become their ideal?
We interrogate the ideals. Teaching a liberal arts curriculum is about enquiry, not indoctrination. Is the heroic ideal too often based on vanity and the narcissistic belief that though others may perish we ourselves will never die? I want my students to think about Freud’s critique of honor and heroism, as well as the critique that’s implicit in Shakespeare, and particularly in the King Henry plays. “What is honor?” asks Falstaff -- and he answers himself (and maybe speaks for Shakespeare): honor is a mere word, nothing special. More recent critiques of male violence and male bonding from the feminist perspective also come into play here and allow the students, male and female, to think twice and twice again about the heroic ideal.
Skepticism about ideals -- yes, to be sure: that’s part of the course. But I want to do what James hoped his teaching would do: open up possibilities for life. I also want students to be exposed to the life of compassion through study of Jesus and the Buddha and Confucius and to the life of thought through Plato. I don’t want this to happen uncritically -- even Plato has his detractors, though to be sure all philosophy is a footnote to his work. Yet still, I want my students to be open to the possibility of being influenced by the great ideals -- in small and measured ways, yes. But also in larger ways, too: they should have the chance to consider organizing their lives around the pursuit of an ideal.
Though the earliest promulgators of the great ideals may be male, they are there to be engaged by men and women and people of all races and origins. (If there is a culture in the world that does not revere bravery and wisdom and courage, I have not come across it.) What is feminism, what is egalitarian thinking, if not a call for equal access to the fruits of the best that has been thought and said?
I think that the enquiry into ideals is of particular importance now. This is because students at present often seem to feel that they are facing two options in life. They can pursue what I call the life of the self: they can try to succeed and prosper and live a measured, humane life. Or they can reject this life as sterile and selfish. Most of my students don’t see any other possibility: they can conform, or they can quit. The life of pragmatic success and the pursuit of middle-class happiness seem all there is, and they can take it or they can leave it.
But there is another kind of life: the life devoted in large measure to the ideal. Those who have followed the ideal path have often lived hard lives and met harsh ends. Think of Socrates; think of the martyred saints; think of the aspiring heroes who have died young. But many men and women have also found that commitment to the ideal fills life with meaning and intensity and even sometimes with joy. Those men and women may be wrong. All the defenders of worldliness and practicality may be right. But students should be allowed to hear both sides of the debate and to decide for themselves.
This is not a chance conversation, says Socrates, but a dialogue about the way we ought to live our lives.
Federal agencies are planning next week to propose new rules for research involving human subjects. Several research organizations said that they were studying the planned notice. Existing rules have been criticized by some for not sufficiently protecting human subjects, while many scientists say that the process of complying has become too complex. Further, many social scientists have pushed for change, arguing that the current system is designed for medical research and needlessly delays important social science work.