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Rescuing Great Books from the Elites

A liberal arts education is about more than preparing students with skills in demand in the marketplace. Author Roosevelt Montás explains how studying "the classics" can change lives and matter more than ever.

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(Flickr/franceheart)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.


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Roosevelt Montás of Columbia University and author of Rescuing Socrates. (@rooseveltmontas)
It was in May of 1985 that young Roosevelt Montás emigrated from the Dominican Republic to Queens, N.Y. He arrived in America in time to celebrate his 12th birthday. The plane trip, the first of the boy’s life, took only three and a half hours, but the figurative distance he traveled was immeasurable. The boy landed in the United States poor and disoriented and infested with head lice. He spoke no English. His mother, who’d made the move two years earlier, worked a minimum-wage job in a garment factory. By his own admission, Montás was a highly unlikely candidate for an Ivy League education.

Six years later, however, with two years of bilingual education and four years of local public high school behind him, Montás entered the “unimaginably strange life” of a Columbia University freshman. His liberal education began when he discovered the university’s celebrated Core Curriculum, a communal learning experience that includes courses in literature and philosophy from antiquity to the present. The experience would change his life and shape his career. Montás would go on to earn his Ph.D., direct Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum for 10 years, and start a Great Books program for low-income high school students.
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Montás' new book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Princeton University Press, November 2021.


Now, in a new book – Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My life and Why They Matter for a New Generation – Montás shares those experiences through a blend of memoir and literary reflection. He revisits his encounters in the Core Curriculum with the work of four authors – Plato, Augustine, Freud and Gandhi – to illustrate the transformative possibilities of a liberal education, particularly for the working and lower-middle class, and to make the case for liberal education as indispensable for democracy. Montás recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson about his life, his book and his unwavering belief that teaching the classics remains as important as ever.

This interview has been edited for both clarity and length.

Governing: You had only been in the United States for six years when you enrolled in the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, where you were exposed for the first time to some of history’s great discourse. What was that first year like, and how did it inform your 10-year tenure as director of the program?

Roosevelt Montás: An intellectual acculturation happens in that first year. You absorb the modes of inquiry, the norms of debate, the deep categories in imagery, in stories, in arguments, in ethical norms, that have shaped the contemporary world and that give us the deep structure of our culture. It comes slowly and unconsciously, almost subliminally. It happens more like the dawning of a day than the flipping of a switch. It’s a slow, cumulative, ruminative process that depends more on conversations between students and faculty than any knowledge that the faculty delivers. I remember as a freshman at Columbia encountering debates about why the Core Curriculum was so focused on the Western tradition? Why was it dominated by white males? What about racism? What about patriarchy?
Young people are really driven ... by a thirst for justice, a thirst for rectification of what's wrong, a kind of idealism, and thank God for that.
Later, when I became director of the center, I would have these same conversations year after year. A student would come in and speak as if he or she was the first to have these realizations, the first to possess the fervor and the passion and the dedication to fix the problem. I realized, “Oh my goodness, this is part of the education that the Core delivers. I have to take the student seriously. I have to put out of my head the fact that I've been having the same conversation for 20 years, and really engage this in terms that are fresh and legitimate for the student.” Young people are really driven in these conversations by a thirst for justice, a thirst for rectification of what's wrong, a kind of idealism, and thank God for that. It's the zeal of the new convert, the zeal that comes with seeing something for the first time. And it's a challenge to the faculty and to the families to metabolize that energy and channel it in constructive directions. That’s what renews our democracy and fuels social change.

From Poverty to Privilege


Governing: You characterize Rescuing Socrates in its introduction as both a personal and a polemical book. It’s a memoir of your own path, but you don’t become complacent about the privilege you’ve enjoyed. The real story, it seems, is about people climbing out of poverty. It’s about disadvantage, and it’s about privilege.

Roosevelt Montás: Absolutely. Because I know what a liberal education has done for my own life, I see what it can do for others. And I see the ways in which particularly lower-class non-elites are systematically shunted away from access to such an education. Admittedly this is sometimes done in well-meaning ways, as when the educational system in New York City picks out the serious students and channels them into STEM fields.
Not until the middle of the 20th century did a college education become something that a working-class person could aspire to.

A Liberal Education in an Illiberal Time


But I've seen that happen again and again, and my personal experiences allow me to feel the injustice and the loss of opportunity in that. The people who stand to gain the most benefit from this kind of education are the people who are least encouraged to do it. Education, not just liberal education but college education, has traditionally been for the social elite. Not until the middle of the 20th century did a college education become something that a working-class person could aspire to. We need to be mindful and explicit in fighting a return to that traditional association of elitism with higher education and liberal education.

Governing: In trying to communicate how a liberal education transformed your life, you chose to wrap your discussions around four authors: Augustine, Plato, Freud and Gandhi. You could just as easily have chosen Aeschylus and Marx and Martin Luther King. How did you settle on these four?

Roosevelt Montás: It was hard narrowing down. There are other figures that have had profound impacts on the way I see the world, the way I navigate my reality, but there was something idiosyncratic about these four figures. I looked at what was going on for me developmentally at the point in my life when I encountered them. These four were major decisive figures in my life, not because they're the best or the most important ones, but because they happen to have had this impact on me. And even there, I could have chosen six or eight or 10. In retrospect, however, I see that what brought these four to the top of my list was their absolute dedication to introspection and self-knowledge, their quest for understanding themselves.

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Confessions of St. Augustine, widely regarded as the first western autobiography ever written. Paris, 1637.
Saint Augustine's Confessions is a kind of a self-analysis. There's a telling of the story of how he came to Christianity, this inner journey of trying to understand himself. With Plato we have Socrates, and the unexamined life as not worth living. His whole life was about examining his own life through conversations with others. As for Freud, little needs to be said about his interest in self-exploration and understanding the workings of the mind and the unconscious. And Gandhi, who took it in a spiritual direction and dedicated his life to achieving what he called self-realization, ultimate spiritual fulfillment. All of these writers are absolutely committed to the project of self-investigation and self-knowledge. I didn't set out to pick four that stood out in that way, but they turned out to have that in common, making them exemplary figures for illustrating the value of liberal education.

Governing: How do you make the case to a 19-year-old who says, "What is Plato to me?"
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Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, lived in the 5th century B.C.E. (Source: upenn.edu)
Roosevelt Montás: One approach is presented in my book, where I reflect on the way that liberal education has helped me make sense of my own life. This is an important part of how you make the case. You take people whose lives have been transformed by the experience, and you have them reflect on how that happened. Another important tool is to liken the experience of liberal education to reading a great novel, where the power it has to transform or illuminate or enrich your life has to do with experiencing the narrative, the gradations, the inner thoughts, the developments, the conflicts. Being with the character for page after page is what does that. It can't be done by a plot summary. It can't be done by someone extracting the meaning of the novel and delivering it to you. The same goes with liberal education. You cannot abstract the final analysis. Its value is experiential. We have to put students in that experience. Students don't know that they want or need that experience, and they cannot be told what that experience is. It’s our responsibility as institutions to structure our curriculum in such a way that people have that experience.
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Former Senator and Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum on CNN. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Governing: There’s a widespread view in the heartland that our universities are doing a disservice to their students by filling them with doubt and skepticism. Rick Santorum famously said on CNN that we send our children off to college and they're taught to hate America.

Roosevelt Montás: Universities have an image problem in broad America. There is in much of America a triumphalist, mythological, rose-colored view of our national history that is profoundly inaccurate. There have been all kinds of problems, whether it's our history of slavery, our history of racial oppression and subjugation, or our history of international venturing gone wrong. If you go into higher education with just that uncomplicated, heroic, triumphalist picture, you're in for a rude awakening, and you or your family may come away thinking that you’ve been corrupted in some way. A legitimate function of education has to do with puncturing happy narratives and myths, and complicating our sense of moral flawlessness. On the other hand, thinking and teaching about America as the great purveyor of injustice and oppression is also inaccurate.
Universities have an image problem in ... America.

Governing: Another challenge to the liberal education is the growing emphasis in American higher education on workforce training and transactional and instrumental education. The liberal arts don’t seem essential to the parents paying for these educations.

Roosevelt Montás: That’s a dangerous trend. Part of the danger is that there’s a bifurcation happening where the economic and cultural elite still believe in liberal education and still say, "It's worth sending my child to Bryn Mawr to major in art history." The working and lower-middle classes, however, are being steered toward a more practical career education. The danger is not so much an existential threat to liberal education as it is a return of liberal education to the province of a cultural elite. It seems legitimate and justified and understandable, especially for economically anxious families, to see the exorbitant costs of higher education as an investment that needs a return. It is the work of education to say, "Yes, we are going to do that in the university, but there is this other thing that a higher education means. We’re going to make sure that even if you’re an engineering or nursing student or a pre-finance major, your education also includes this broadening exposure that speaks to you not as a professional in the making, but as a citizen in the making, that addresses needs in a human being that go beyond material security and material well-being, that addresses something more basic and fundamental about our humanity." It is the responsibility of universities to do that.





You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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