Column on event paying tribute to essayist George Scialabba

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!

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Essay says start of academic year is time to focus on teaching ideals

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.

Teach the ideals!

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His new book, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, is just out from Harvard University Press.

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Analysis considers contradictions in high school and college students' interest in humanities

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New analysis seeks to explain the declining interest of high school students in studying the humanities in college, and a reversal once they arrive.

Essay on the experience of teaching 'Fun Home,' and why the graphic novel is ideal for college students

Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home has received critical raves. A musical adaptation has become a Broadway smash. Despite these successes, some students in Duke University’s incoming class refused to read Fun Home when it was placed on their recommended summer reading list. Citing the book’s acceptance of lesbian identity, these students said they believe that exposing themselves to Bechdel’s story will violate their Christian morals.

As a professor who has taught Fun Home in his classes for years, I would advise these students to rethink their positions. Most of my students who have engaged with Fun Home find many connections to Bechdel’s autobiography and are moved by it. Although her story may be unfamiliar, her work has much to offer, both emotionally and educationally.

Fun Home is on the syllabus of a course titled the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where I teach. All our first-year students take the course simultaneously, grouped into classes of approximately 16, each group with a different professor. They read the same books at the same time, write papers with the same deadlines and so on. The course provides students the opportunity to explore the human experience from a myriad of perspectives. In their first semester, they read work by authors such as Plato, Galileo and Descartes. Students ponder and discuss the course’s three main questions from the perspectives of these different authors: (1) What does it mean to be human? (2) What is the universe and how do we fit into it? (3) How should we live our lives? The college is rightly proud of this course, as it is a fine example of a liberal arts education, and I am happy to be a participant in it.

Fun Home is the first text of the second semester, a semester that also includes Freud, Marx and the Declaration of Independence. Bechdel’s book focuses on the author’s coming to terms with being a lesbian, dealing with the revelation of her father’s homosexuality and discovering the true nature of their “entwined stories.” It gives the second semester of the course a contemporary start and allows the students to view the CIE questions in fresh ways. The course is discussion based and students are encouraged to debate opposing viewpoints respectfully, to shape reasoned arguments with strong points of view and to learn from diversity of opinion. Fun Home provides excellent material for the students to talk about themes of identity, family, home and growing up.

Fun Home, as a college text, has experienced controversy even before the Duke students’ rejection. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut funding to the College of Charleston because of its plan to place Bechdel’s book on a freshmen recommended reading list. State Representative Garry R. Smith said he believes that the memoir is inappropriate for students because it “graphically shows lesbian acts” and is “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

I am proud that Ursinus chose Fun Home as a central text for our common course and that we did not shy away from it because of its controversial history in academia. In my experience, working with the text in the classroom has been educative and productive. The character of Alison, as presented in Bechdel’s witty and distinctive illustrations, starts as naïve and feeling limited. As she matures, she forges her identity, diverges from her parents and makes her mark in the world. Our 18-year-old students grapple with similar issues. They easily relate to Alison in a variety of ways. Many of the students at Ursinus come from small communities in Pennsylvania, just like Alison Bechdel. They read about a young woman whose world is increasingly becoming wider and more varied at just the moment when the same is happening to them. The author’s themes resonate with all the students regardless of their sexuality, religion or cultural background. Bechdel is a canny writer whose specific experiences translate well to a universal audience.

I have prepared myself each semester for student objections. There is a controversial panel in the book which depicts an intimate sexual moment from Bechdel’s college days. Instead of ignoring it, I have met the subject head-on and asked my students, “Do you believe, in context, that this illustration is pornographic?” In the multiple times I have raised this question, not one student has been offended by the image. These are 18-year-olds. Burgeoning sexuality is nothing new to them. Bechdel shares her story from a young person’s perspective and the students easily relate to her personal sexual explorations.

If students in my class were to refuse to read the book altogether, I would urge them to reconsider. Yes, they may find the story alien and opposed to their morality, but, as college students, they should embrace these differing views. Exposure will help them to understand the world better and to strengthen their own opinions. As a college community, we should not shy away from difficult or complex points of view. Ursinus’s CIE students have read sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, objectionable by anyone’s standards. Being shielded from offensive or outrageous material does not make it disappear. If students want to navigate the world after graduation, they need to expose themselves to the variety of human experience while in the safety of their college campus.

Objectors to Fun Home are being reductive when they focus solely on the memoir’s frank presentation of sexuality. Fun Home is so much more. In the right atmosphere, this book allows young people to open up about their own lives and to share their struggles. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? These questions go from the abstract to the relevant when our CIE students discuss Fun Home in the classroom.

Alison Bechdel’s story will resonate with anyone who is grown up or is growing up. It is my sincere hope that the controversies surrounding the book will not stop it from being included on college reading lists. As our Ursinus students know, Bechdel is a wise teacher with much to teach all of us.

Domenick Scudera is professor of theater at Ursinus College.

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University of Hull demonstrates pedagogical potential of world-building game

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University of Hull demonstrates pedagogical potential of world-building game.

Article defending writing program association infuriates many of its members

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Essay defending association is denounced as belittling diversity concerns and promoting stereotypes.

Essay urges grad students to adopt new persona on the job market

When it's time for a job search, Ph.D. candidates need to drop these behaviors, writes Karen Kelsky.

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Article on Mark Zborowski, scholar and spy

Among the passengers disembarking from a ship from that reached Philadelphia in the final days of December 1941 was one Mark Zborowski -- a Ukrainian-born intellectual who grew up in Poland. He had lived in Paris for most of the previous decade, studying at the Sorbonne. He was detained by the authorities for a while (the U.S. had declared war on the Axis powers just three weeks earlier, so his visa must have been triple-checked) and then released.

Zborowski's fluency in several languages was a definite asset. By 1944 he was working for the U.S. Army on a Russian-English dictionary; after that that he joined the staff of the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, serving as a librarian. And from there the émigré’s career took off on an impressive if not meteoric course.

He joined the Research in Contemporary Culture Project at Columbia University, launched just after World War II by the prominent anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead with support from the Office of Naval Research. Zborowski oversaw an ethnographic study of Central and Eastern European Jewish culture, based on interviews with refugees. It yielded Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, a book he co-authored in 1952. Drawing on Zborowski’s childhood memories more than he acknowledged and written in a popularizing style, it sold well and remained in print for decades.

The volume’s reputation has taken some hits over the years -- one scholar dubs it “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other” – but Zborowski enjoyed the unusual distinction of influencing a Broadway musical: the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof was inspired, in part, by a passage in Life Is With People. He later turned to research on cultural differences in how pain is experienced and expressed, culminating in his book People in Pain (1969). Once again his published work got mixed reviews in the professional journals, while the author himself enjoyed a kind of influence that citation statistics do not measure: a generation of medical anthropologists studied with him at the Pain Institute of Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He died in 1990.

If the details just given represented an honest account of Mark Zborowski’s life, he would now be remembered by scarcely anyone except specialists working in his fields of interest. The narrative above is all factually correct, to the best of my knowledge. But it omits an abundance of secrets. Some were revealed during his lifetime, but even they come wrapped in the mystery of his motives.

The fullest account now available is “Mark ‘Etienne’ Zborowski: Portrait of Deception” by Susan Weissman, a two-part study appearing in the journal Critique. Weissman, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., published the first half in 2011 and expected the second to follow shortly, though in fact it will appear in print only later this year. (Both can be downloaded in PDF from her page at

Etienne was the name Zborowski used while infiltrating anti-Stalinist radical circles in France for the GPU and the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) during the 1930s, and he continued surveillance on opponents of the Soviet Union during his first few years in the United States.

“He is remembered by his students and colleagues as warm, generous and erudite,” writes Weissman. “Personally he neither stole documents nor directly assassinated people, but he informed Stalin’s teams of thugs where to find the documents or the people they sought. Zborowski infiltrated small leftist circles, made friends with its cadres and then reported on them. He always ratted on his ‘supposed’ friends. He saw [one woman] daily for nearly five years, and she helped him in countless ways. What did he give her in return? Only her survival, something not afforded to other Zborowski ‘friends.’ Once his orders switched and he no longer needed to report on her activities (or that of her husband), Zborowski simply stopped calling this constant friend, who defended him, gave him money and helped him with that precious commodity denied to so many, the visa to the United States.”

Weissman chronicles Etienne’s destructive role among the anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in Europe while also showing that his precise degree of culpability in some operations remains difficult to assess. Important missions were sometimes “nearly sabotaged by conflicting aims and lack of coordination between Soviet espionage teams.” And spy craft is not immune to a kind of office politics: reports to “the center” (intelligence headquarters) were not always accurate so much as aspirational or prudent.

Overviews of Zborowski’s covert life have been available for some time – among them, his own testimony to a Senate subcommittee on internal security, which was not especially candid. Weissman’s study draws on earlier treatments but handles them critically, and in the light of a wider range of sources than have been brought to bear on his case until now.

Besides material from Stalin-era archives (consulted when she was in Russia during the 1990s) and the decoded Venona intercepts of Soviet cable communications from the 1940s, Weissman obtained court transcripts from Zborowski’s trials for perjuring himself before Congress. (He received a retrial after appealing his first conviction, but lost and served four years in prison.)

She also used the Freedom of Information Act to request the pertinent files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were surveillance reports, of course, and interviews conducted by FBI agents -- with some pages all but entirely blacked out -- but also a piece of evidence about Zborowski that has been hiding in plain sight for 50 years.

The Feb. 28, 1965, issue of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times contained an article called “The Prison ‘Culture’ -- From the Inside.” The author identified himself as an anthropologist (“and as far as I know the first member of my profession to study a prison culture from the inside”) and used the pseudonym “M. Arc.” They seem like pretty clear hints to his identity, but no one seems to have made the connection until Weismann opened the dossier.

“The article is a scholarly, well-written account of life inside,” she notes, “with a critical look at the criminal justice system … and [it] has been widely cited and reprinted in prison sociology texts.”

Part of his hidden curriculum vitae, then. “True to form,” Weismann writes, “Zborowski put the focus entirely on the subject at hand, revealing virtually nothing of himself.”

And that really is the mystery within the mystery here. It’s difficult to square Professor Zborowski (amiable, conscientious, a little bland, perhaps) with the sinister career of Etienne, a man who made himself the closest friend of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov and quite possibly set him up for murder. (Afterward he tried to wrangle an invitation to the Russian revolutionary’s compound in Mexico, but another assassin got there first.)

In a conversation with Weissman by phone, I mentioned being both fascinated by her research (mention Trotsky in something and I’ll probably read it) and left puzzled by the figure she portrayed. And puzzled in a troubling way, with no sense of his intentions -- of how he had understood his own actions, whether while carrying them out or across the long years he had to reflect on them.

“While in prison,” she told me, “he kept insisting to the FBI that he was good citizen. He never expressed remorse. There’s nothing in his papers about his politics, nothing about his own beliefs.” The reader perplexed by Weissman's “portrait of deception” is in the same position as the scholar who investigated him: “He’s a puzzle I couldn’t solve.”

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Mark Zborowski

Scholar will live for a year as David Bowie to study the singer

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Professor at Britain's Kingston University plans to dress and live as the singer for a year in new style of immersive research.

Essay on advice for academics starting their careers

Philip Nel has some ideas for those seeking to land on the tenure track.

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