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When Roosevelt Montás, a newly arrived immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was a sophomore in high school, he found a set of the Harvard Classics in the neighbor’s trash. He took home two volumes, including Plato’s dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates. This find set Montás on a journey that culminated in his attending Columbia University and cutting his intellectual teeth on the famous great-books program that constitutes its Core Curriculum. Today he teaches at Columbia, having spent ten years directing the Core. His book Rescuing Socrates—part memoir, part reflection, and part polemic—argues that general education in the great books is essential for social mobility and democracy.
Montás’s story of the found book echoes the memoir of another Dominican, Dan-el Padilla Peralta. In Undocumented, Padilla writes that when he was a child he found a book called How People Lived in Greece and Rome at the Bushwick homeless shelter where his family lived at the time. The book sparked an interest in Greek history that shaped his life. Padilla now teaches ancient history in the classics department at Princeton, and has become known for his charge that the field of classics is shot through with the ideology of white supremacy.
We may be puzzled that these two men, born ten years apart, with such similar trajectories, seem to take opposite sides in the campus culture wars. Yet both Padilla and Montás teach great books every summer in the same program for low-income high-school students. Perhaps we ought to wonder instead if the campus culture wars generate more heat than light. More to the point: we ought to wonder if there’s something to admire in an education that leaves the mind of the student free to choose different ways of living and imagining one’s life.
Stories of autodidacticism have a distinguished history in the United States. Frederick Douglass relates finding the Columbian Orator at the age of twelve, while still enslaved, and through it finding both his literacy and his identity as an abolitionist. Zora Neale Hurston found a copy of John Milton in a rubbish heap, not knowing the fame of the poet, and read it slowly while on breaks from work. A rebellious and disaffected Huey Newton, who finished high school virtually illiterate, found the remedy in reading and re-reading his brother’s copy of Plato’s Republic. Later in life, when he was falsely accused of murder, he told the jury how he saw in the famous image of the cave his own people, chained in the shadows, in need of liberation.
Having seen one of these stories, you start to see them everywhere: Malcolm X’s prison library; the books temporarily left aside by schoolchildren that Richard Wright could steal for a few minutes, squeezing out their words and wisdom; the wonderful memoirs of working-class self-educators collected in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. These stories, like Montás’s book, dispel the culture war and bring us into contact with the central reality it obscures: education through books is essential for self-determination and liberty.
Since the 1990s, it has been taken for granted in some academic circles that the great books are racist and sexist, instruments of patriarchy and white supremacy. Montás joins a growing number of people of color who testify to the value of classics and great books in their communities. His witness joins the work of educators Anika Prather and Angel Parham, who seek to teach the continuity between the Black American literary traditions and the Western canon.
Today’s renewal of the great-books movement holds out the prospect of an education based on shared humanity, and rejects the patronizing and demeaning division of curricula according to race or gender. Yet it keeps in view how this tradition has been taken up and adapted by the oppressed and the marginalized; it can hardly be accused of naïve absorption of the self-interested perspectives of the ruling class. We find in this newly visible group of educators a study of the past that is deeply humanistic, without being blind to the harsher realities of history.
Montás writes in a mild and understated style, but he calls bullshit when he sees it. Of the conventional wisdom that the great books are white, he writes:
My being a brown immigrant from the Dominican Republic does not make the Constitution less relevant to me than it is to my wife, a white woman born in rural Michigan. She is no closer and no further from Homer and Socrates than I am.