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Eight years after retiring from his 35-year position as a Harvard building manager, George Scialabba ’69 released his latest essay collection, “Only a Voice,” to examine the pressing cultural debates and ideological tensions of western societies. Scialabba centers most of his essays around famous, historical thinkers — ranging from novelists, philosophers, and historians — and uses their personal experiences and values as lenses to address the question of whether to embrace modernity or uphold tradition. With a structure accessible to readers and room for sincere, critical contemplation, “Only a Voice” successfully compels readers to consider the nuances of every situation rather than simply resorting to popular opinion; yet, when inspecting whose voices are actually featured in this work, the collection still leaves much to be desired.
Scialabba is well-versed in the art of critique after decades of authoring essays and book reviews, many of which are featured in publications such as The Baffler, The Boston Globe, The Dissent, and The Nation. In this collection of essays, Scialabba is able to infuse character into his steady prose, achieving a conversational tone that depreciates American exceptionalism, impassions at the death of individuality amidst massification, and promotes the optimistic idea that progress is possible. Thus, despite the daunting nature of intellectual theory he discusses, Scialabba offers accessibility.
The first half of the collection, entitled “The Problem with Progress,” deals with the “antimodernist left,” who generally resist the rationalism, individualism, and technologies of Enlightenment and emphasize more traditional ideals of family, metaphysical knowledge, and religion. The latter half is divided into “The Left,” where the modernists take the stage, and “The Role of the Critic,” which allows readers to adopt a reflexive view when conceptualizing social change in order to ask themselves where they fit in. Scialabba introduces new scholars and thinkers in each essay to confront new outlooks, amend misinterpretation, and recontextualize the question of “progress” that arises today.
This centralization around individual thinkers undoubtedly has utility. There is the opportunity to parse through their claims and showcase their merits and pitfalls. Perhaps most importantly, this focus allows readers to tackle daunting intellectual theory, even without prior knowledge of said thinkers. For example, by explaining Christopher Lasch’s criticisms of the capitalist geographic mobility that “uprooted families from kin communities,” Scialabba equips readers with the tools to interpret Ellen Willis, a thinker who proposed mobility as granting means of choice.
Yet, readers must keep in mind that the versions of the concepts presented by Scialabba are bite-sized and filtered. Granted, Scialabba guides his audience through these vast collections of knowledge, often instilling a sense of curiosity that can motivate readers to pursue more of these thinkers outside of this collection; still, a mediator like Scialabba may not be most representative of a scholar’s actual experience and philosophy. Indeed, Scialabba presents somewhat of a biased interpretation, lending an inherent sense of skepticism toward his claims.
The stark lack of diversity among the thinkers that Scialabba presents proves to be an even greater detriment to the effectiveness of his claims. Of the 27 thinkers that Scialabba delves into in “Only a Voice,” 25 are white men — and the other two are white women. The reason for this may align with Scialabba’s belief that “explicitly political considerations” of contemporary institutions, including academia, have “generated a staggering amount of mediocre and tendentious work” and “make for less effective citizens.” Even if inclusivity is not the explicit goal of Scialabba’s analyses, there are still implications in only appealing to the theories of white thinkers when reflecting on modern society. Indeed, any effort to adopt nuance and duality without diverse representation is only half-hearted at best.
“Confusingly, there is no longer a one-to-one correspondence between embracing science and progress, on the one hand,” writes Scialabba, “and humane, democratic values on the other.” Scialabba’s collection begs readers to determine where that gap — that fracture in principle — lies for themselves.
—Staff writer Emma H. Lu can be reached at email@example.com
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