Book review: Kalman Silvert

I recently returned from the Latin American Studies Association conference. It was a landmark event for LASA — the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding, the largest and most international conference ever, and a return to New York after decades away. One of the benefits of LASA, particularly now that I am living in the UK, is the opportunity to catch up with many of my past professors and mentors.

A new book on Kalman Silvert, edited by Abraham F. Lowenthal and Martin Weinstein, who like most of the contributors were former students, colleagues, and mentees of Silvert.

One of them, Louis Goodman, former dean of the School of International Service, gave me a copy of a book, Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy, shortly before the conference (published by Lynne Rienner). The volume, to which Goodman contributed, was compiled and edited by Abraham Lowenthal and Martin Weinstein. Before getting the book, I knew Silvert’s name in large part because LASA’s highest prize is named after him. I would have been hard pressed to tell you too much more. As the book itself notes, Silvert’s contributions have somewhat faded from view. His writings are not widely cited. He is well remembered by a senior generation, but largely unknown to my own generation.

Silvert was a founder and the first president of LASA. He was a professor at Tulane, University of Buenos Aires, Dartmouth, and NYU. He also was a senior advisor for the Ford Foundation’s programs in the social science, with a focus on Latin America during a crucial time. He worked to support social scientists living and working in repressive regimes in the 1960s until his death in 1976. Support from Ford helped numerous institutions in Latin America provide a venue for independent social science under trying circumstances. Through his scholarship, teaching, and development of professional networks, Silvert pressed for individual rights, education, democracy, and better relations between the United States and Latin America. He was deeply involved in the creation of many institutions that for my generation have always formed the professional landscape of Latin American studies.

The book offers an excellent introduction to Silvert’s life and work. Chapters offer an overview of his major works, contributions on mentoring, through philanthropic organizations, as a public intellectual, and engagement with U.S. policy–particularly through the Commission on United States – Latin American Relations, often known as “the Linowitz Commission,” which had a major influence on the Carter Administration’s approaches to Latin America.

The book is also a wonderful reminder that so much of what we do goes beyond our writings. Most of the chapters are contributed by Silvert’s former students or by scholars he worked with closely across Latin America, though especially in Argentina and Chile. The chapters weave together many interlocking aspect’s of Silvert’s life and work, and they also serve as a wonderful reminder that the social sciences are social in more ways than one. These personal relationships are, of course, important to how we build knowledge, but they are usually invisible in our published work. This is an excellent corrective.

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