Roosevelt Montás is the author of a powerful new book called Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, which is part memoir, part literary criticism, and fully a vivid defence of liberal education. When, as a child, Montás emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States, he barely spoke English. His family was poor, but he managed to get an undergraduate education at Columbia University thanks to a state support programme for low-income students. Even during his first year of college, he was still learning English. Yet today, he is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia, having previously served for a decade as the director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum.
As Montás explains, Columbia requires all its undergraduates to take “a set of courses in literary and philosophical classics—as well as art, music, and science—in which all students study and discuss a prescribed list of works that begins in antiquity and moves chronologically to the present.” This list is often collectively referred to as the great books—which are generally part of the so-called western canon. As Montás says, this requirement, once common, “stands as a kind of relic.”
The stereotype of a defender of the great books is a crusty old reactionary fulminating about the ignorance of the young and the decline of civilisation. The opposite stereotyped image is of a dumb, whining, entitled student who spends his or her time decrying the hetero-patriarchal-capitalist oppression laced throughout the writings of dead white men. Montás is both a defender of an education in the canon and a middle-aged political liberal, whose personal experience growing up as an impoverished immigrant informs his defence: he argues that the classics can hold great power among the young and that the legacy of western civilisation belongs to the entire world, not just to a small corner of it.
Rescuing Socrates, as Montás tells us, is not so much an abstract argument for a liberal education as an attempt to impart the feeling of one: “Rather than offer a battery of arguments, I try to bring the reader closer to the experience of liberal education through encounters with some of the human questions that lie at its heart.” With that aim in mind, Montás tells us much about his life and about how four great thinkers in particular have helped him to navigate it: namely, Augustine, Socrates, Freud and Gandhi.
As the inclusion of Gandhi in this list shows, liberal education might mostly concern itself with western texts, but not exclusively so. Besides, Gandhi himself was an admirer of Socrates and was heavily influenced by western antimaterialists like Henry David Thoreau.
According to Montás, the idea of a liberal education originated with the ancient Athenians and “looks to the meaning of a human life beyond the requirements of subsistence—instead of asking how to make a living, liberal education asks what living is for.” Thus, he maintains, a liberal education requires a study of the great books of (mostly) the western canon—because their authors have wrestled with this question since antiquity. The purpose of such an education is to introduce students to the eternally unfolding argument about what constitutes the good life, through an engagement with those thinkers whose ideas on that subject have been most influential. Unfortunately, in the US and, more acutely, elsewhere, such a generalist education, in which all students pursue a common core curriculum, barely exists anymore.
Some might respond that it is more important for students to acquire credentials and transferable skills that will enable them to make a good living after graduation than to engage in airy-fairy philosophizing—particularly for students from low-income or impoverished families: what use is Socrates in the job market? As Montás notes, many families—perhaps particularly low-income families—want their children to go to university primarily so that they can secure well-paying jobs after graduation. But Montás maintains that a liberal education is also immensely valuable in itself—perhaps especially for the poor and the marginalised, because it is one way in which social inequalities can be overcome:
When making the case for liberal education to low-income students and families, I often point out that there is a long tradition of steering working-class students toward an education in servitude, an education in obedience and docility, an education in not asking questions. The idea that liberal education is only for the already privileged, for the pampered elite, is a way of carrying on this odious tradition. It is a way of putting liberal education out of the reach of the people who would most benefit from it—precisely the people who have historically been denied the tools of political agency. I ask them to take a look at who sends their children to liberal arts colleges and at what liberal arts college graduates go on to do with their “useless” education. Far from a pointless indulgence for the elite, liberal education is, in fact, the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.
Montás’ teaching experience has shown him just how powerful a liberal education can be for “those who are down.” In addition to lecturing at his university, Montás teaches the classics in a special programme for low-income high school students—almost all of whom go on to college. He relates how one teenager, who had suffered abuse as a child and had been in foster care, “spoke movingly about how she saw herself in Socrates, how he spoke to her deepest sense of who she was.” She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, win prizes for her work, and spent time in South America learning Spanish. Montás observes, “Something about her encounter with Socrates had struck deeply and will probably continue to influence the shape of her life.”
Socrates left a deep impression on Montás himself, too. He first read Plato’s work after happening upon a collection of classics on the street, ready to be thrown away:
It is a strange stroke of fortune that Socrates should be the figure to arise from that pile of books on the sidewalk, like a genie rubbed out of a lamp. There’s probably no more accessible, compelling, and seminal point of entry to liberal education than Plato’s Socrates. He is the archetypal teacher, the archetypal free-thinker, the archetypal intellectual saint.
Montás was particularly struck by a passage in which Socrates—in prison and awaiting the death penalty imposed on him by the Athenian authorities for impiety—is visited by an old friend who tries to convince him to break out of prison and flee the city. This friend lambasts Socrates for choosing death over the family who still need him. Socrates replies that a higher ideal must take precedence: he will not shirk from facing the fate to which living a free intellectual life has led him.
In Socrates’ character, Montás recognized something of his own father: a Marxist and an opponent of the Dominican dictator Joaquín Balaguer who—some time after bringing Montás and his brother to the US to join their mother, who had previously emigrated there—abandoned them to return to the Dominican Republic and carry on the good fight. Although today, decades later, Montás and his father have a good relationship, Montás still can’t decide whether his father was right to do this—but he credits the story of Socrates with helping him better understand both his father’s choice and his own complex feelings about it: “A liberal education is one that takes the complicated condition of human freedom seriously and addresses itself to its dilemmas and to the urgency of its lived experience.”
Throughout the book, Montás interweaves his personal stories with observations about the historical and philosophical roots of liberal education, and engages in close readings of selected classic texts in order to point out similarities between some of the seemingly disparate figures he discusses.
For example, Montás notes that Socrates, in justifying his acceptance of the death penalty, anticipates what would, centuries later, come to be called social contract theory—which Montás defines as “an understanding of political association as involving an agreement among individuals to abide by mutually binding rules and conventions.” Socrates says that, because he consented to live in Athens, he must obey its laws, however unjust. In this, Montás points out, Socrates anticipates the arguments of Hobbes and Rousseau.
However, Montás argues that Socrates’ acquiescence to his fate is better understood, not as a straightforward expression of adherence to a social contract, but in the way Martin Luther King Jr. understood it: as “a highly advanced form of non-violent civil disobedience in order to highlight the difference between what is legal and what is just.” As Montás notes, Gandhi’s practice of civil disobedience was influenced by his reading of Socrates—and King’s practice of civil disobedience was, in turn, influenced by Gandhi’s example. Thus, Montás argues, Socrates’ “non-violent acceptance of the ultimate punishment is in effect the highest form of resistance, using what Mahatma Gandhi called ‘soul force’ to bring into relief the moral deficiency of the law.” The deftness with which Montás draws out connective threads like these between thinkers who span the millennia and who lived in vastly different social and political circumstances is a testament both to the insights that a liberal education can offer and to the universalist nature of the human experience.
But if the courses in literature and philosophy that Montás sees as fundamental to a liberal education are so beneficial, why does requiring students to study them need such a strong defence? Montás argues that it is because liberal education faces threats on many fronts—most importantly because market forces prioritize productivity over wisdom. But there are other threats, too, including the rise of wokeness—or Critical Social Justice ideology. Montás doesn’t use those terms, but much of the pushback against the core curriculum that he discusses is clearly grounded in that ideology: students object to being required to study the thoughts of those they label “dead white men”—and they advocate for ethnic and cultural diversity and inclusion in the authors they are required to study, over quality or relevance to the great philosophical questions—while complaining about the great writers whom they are already required to study on the basis of such shallow factors as their skin colour and sex.
Montás acknowledges that educators have a responsibility to justify their decisions and to regularly reassess what they include in the curriculum. Indeed, when he was in charge of Columbia’s Core Curriculum programme, he regularly consulted students and staff about its contents, and it was as a result of such discussions that Gandhi came to be included—not, Montás emphasises, to tick boxes, but because Gandhi has interesting things to say about politics, civilisation and the human condition, and has been a hugely influential figure. There is of course a difference between diversifying the canon by adding works from a wider variety of perspectives—which Montás supports—and diversifying it by eliminating classic texts based on the ethnic or cultural identity of their authors—which he opposes. (The difference between these two approaches is discussed at length in a 2021 Areo article by Matthew Stewart.)
Perhaps Montás is so sympathetic to students’ demands because he himself was once a fully paid-up believer in the postmodernist critique of the western canon. But being sympathetic doesn’t prevent him from being firm. Even as a graduate student, he was already “out of patience with the evasiveness, obfuscation, and intellectual vacuity of many of the leading voices in [deconstruction and postmodernism]. I felt confident enough in my background in philosophy and theory to call bullshit where I saw it. And that’s mainly what I saw.”
For Montás, the most noticeable effect of wokeness on liberal education has been a turn towards moralism. The traditional canon is no longer judged on its intellectual merits, but on whether studying it is ethically acceptable: “Today’s academic criticism bends toward moral reprimand: it doesn’t just illuminate, it burns; it doesn’t just judge, it condemns; it doesn’t just reject, it cancels.” And this, he posits, is why it is rare today for professors to encourage or require students to engage in a liberal education, as Montás understands it: why bother making students study a bunch of (mostly) pale, male and stale thinkers, given the dangers of provoking the activist minority?
Some opponents of teaching the western canon argue that it is nothing more than the inculcation of western values. Montás agrees that Columbia’s core curriculum should be expanded to include texts from a wider variety of perspectives. He also concedes that many of the ideas produced by western civilisation have been used to justify evils such as imperialism and oppression. But he maintains that there is good reason to focus on the classic texts produced by western civilisation: the debates and questions they raise “underpin much of the emerging global culture … Contemporary notions like human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity … and many others, cannot be adequately accounted for without studying the ‘Western tradition’.” Moreover, he argues, much depends on how one defines the term western civilisation:
A large and porous cultural configuration around the Mediterranean Sea, with strong Greco-Roman roots, that served as the historical seedbed for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and much of what is called “modernity.” While the European continent figures prominently, the tradition incorporates defining elements from non-European sources like the Arab world, ancient Egypt and north Africa, and even the Far East.
Used in this way, the term simply describes an integrated tradition of learning, debate, artistic expression, and political evolution. But while it is an integrated tradition, it is by no means a monolithic tradition—in fact, one of its hallmarks is its internal contentiousness. It is a tradition rife with fissures, where overturning the past is preferred to venerating it. Key aspects of the modern world emerge from this tradition of contest and debate, loose and fractured as it is. The case for its importance in understanding our emerging global culture is overwhelming. The tradition matters not because it is Western, but because of its contribution to human questions of the highest order. [Emphasis added.]
In this insistence on the importance of universalism and truth, Montás reminds me of the great Trinidadian Marxist historian C. L. R. James, who unabashedly celebrated the western tradition and who, as the writer Ralph Leonard has put it, “understood that the Enlightenment, though conceived and initiated (for historical reasons, not genetic ones) mainly by privileged white European men, is the common property of all of humanity.” I wish that more of those who today claim the mantle of radicalism were as wise as Montás and James. Perhaps then the so-called culture wars would be less noisy, destructive and vacuous. They would also be more truly radical, for universalism has always been a radical position for a narrow-minded and tribalistic species such as ours.
There is another danger to liberal education—one that Rescuing Socrates does not address: the threat to reasoned discourse from the modern political right. The conservative academic Jonathan Marks, in his 2021 book, Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education—which I reviewed for this magazine last year—laments that both the woke left and the catastrophising right seem determined to tear down the university system, to discredit Enlightenment values, and to rebuild society—each in keeping with its own narrow vision. The emergence of authoritarianism on both sides poses a serious threat to the pursuit of liberal education. In light of these threats, the recent defences of liberal education from such eloquent and intelligent champions as Marks and Montás are heartening.
I did take issue with some points in Rescuing Socrates. For instance, Gandhi, for all his importance and influence, was much more fanatical, hypocritical and misogynistic than Montás paints him. While Gandhi may have counted women as an integral part of the battle for Indian independence, the legacy of his religiously-inspired sexism has been overwhelmingly negative for Indian women, as Rita Banerji has argued convincingly. (As she says, Gandhi believed that “menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality.”) But such reservations do not diminish the effectiveness of Rescuing Socrates, which is Montás’ account of his personal engagement with the works of Gandhi and other thinkers—he succeeds marvellously in conveying the thrill that can be found in such encounters.
Montás’ viewpoint also reminds me of that of Ralph Ellison, who aimed to write a novel that was at once authentically black and American and yet universally human. In the 1981 introduction to his 1952 masterpiece, Invisible Man, Ellison writes:
If the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality—as it continues to do—there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the northerner and the southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft …
So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.
Ellison’s protagonist defies the stereotypes of his time: he is a black man with an independent and philosophical turn of mind who abhors sectarianism in all its forms, including the racial. Above all, he is an individual. Ellison and Montás share a commitment to universalism, freedom of intellect and the ideal that America represents to many. As Montás says:
I count the chance of becoming an American as among the greatest fortunes of my life. I doubt that there is any place on earth my mother could have taken me where I could construct a life as rich and broad as I have here, in the United States, in New York City. I cannot take lightly the opportunity Mom created for me of taking part in the collective self-governance of the most powerful nation in the world. A nation, as Lincoln put it, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and that has enshrined its basic commitment to human freedom in a Bill of Rights.
Never mind the failures of that nation to live up to those high ideals. They are still the ideals to which it is pledged, the ideals that I, too, pledged allegiance to in May 2000 when I took the oath of citizenship and registered to vote on that same day. The idea of America calls upon me to hold the nation accountable to those founding ideals, to denounce its failings to achieve them, and to struggle with all my might for their realization.
Rescuing Socrates is the best defence of a liberal education I have read. Authored by a politically progressive Dominican American immigrant, it is imbued with the spirit of a universalist American patriotism and dedicated to the proposition that every person has a right to the heritage of human civilisation—in all its forms, western or otherwise. Most importantly, Montás writes so movingly, and with such erudition, that he himself is the best advertisement for the liberal education he champions.