Butler Library at Columbia University (Rangilo Gujarati/Wikimedia Commons)

Human Fundamentals

The case for great-books programs

 

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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.

Roosevelt Montás (Inbal Sivan)

The illusion that ancient Greek books are white belongs to the hocus-pocus of what the Fields sisters describe as racecraft. The spells of racecraft cut deep; their concrete effects are as real as life and death. Do we really want to suggest that the Constitution is white? In doing so, might we contribute to a habit of denying the constitutional rights of non-white immigrants?

The Indian philosopher Arudra Burra takes Montás’s point a step further. Burra also complains of the absurdity of having to justify studying Western books to his Indian contemporaries: “Is present-day New Delhi so much further removed from Plato’s Athens than, say, present-day New York?” In Burra’s view, anyone can read anything they might find illuminating. He cites Tagore: “Let us be rid of all false pride and rejoice at any lamp being lit at any corner of the world, knowing that it is a part of the common illumination of our house.”

The world of learning is simply the world of humanity. It is common property, a shared home. Readers of all locations, backgrounds, and walks of life are free agents, capable of creative engagement and repurposing such culture as they find for the needs they see for themselves. “Humanity” is not a piece of essentialism, as some of its critics claim. It is an aspiration, a dream shaped by all who share it, toward which we advance piecemeal and with difficulty.

The discussion of higher education has been distorted, inflated, used, and abused by virtually everyone with an objective that has nothing to do with education. Education, we are told, is for skills acquisition, for innovation, for free markets, or for social justice—for anything but the development of fuller human beings more capable of the various forms of flourishing. These non-educational agendas shape not only conversation, but daily life at every American educational institution, large or small, driving decisions at every level. The publication of Rescuing Socrates and its success are clear signs that the adults have entered the room.

By “the adults,” I mean most centrally teachers, the men and women who have spent decades in classrooms face-to-face with students and with books, stewarding the intellectual growth of the young, observing what works and what doesn’t. In this respect, Montás’s book joins Jonathan Marks’s recent defense of higher education against its conservative critics, Let’s Be Reasonable, and Scott Newstok’s How to Think like Shakespeare, another defense of classical education for progressive ends. These authors, all teachers, have something in common with one another and with this reviewer: transformed by our own liberal-arts education and devoted to our students, we watch the paths we traveled as young people disappear, leaving today’s youth lost and without resource. It is a matter of urgency to bring real education and its conditions back into public view.

In open conversation, slogans and buzzwords are abandoned or repossessed by living and active readers.

Secular great-books programs, like Columbia’s Core and the program at St. John’s College, where I teach, are relics of the great egalitarian movements of the early twentieth century.  They have a simple purpose: to facilitate encounters between human beings and books, sparking open-ended reflection. In such reflection, the participants remove words from their use in social competition and ask in honesty what they mean. In open conversation, slogans and buzzwords are abandoned or repossessed by living and active readers. Such encounters take center stage in Rescuing Socrates.

Montás undertakes his defense of the great books with simplicity and humility. He keeps the reader’s eye on the crucial, universal experience of those who work in great-books programs: these books change lives. The change comes not through grandiose reverence or civilizational jingoism, but because—however we understand the how and the why—these books constitute an education in human fundamentals.

Along the way, at every crucial stage of Montás’s journey, teachers appear, caring authority figures who take an interest in a young man toting around a volume of Plato’s dialogues. Liberal education happens between people. It is not a matter of the transmission of content. All the databases in the world are pointless without a human being doing some thinking. Unlike data sets, books have authors, resembling human teachers, companions on the journey. Montás limits himself in this book to reflections on four: Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi.

Montás avoids the false piety that sometimes attends talk of great books. Rather, he shares the reactions of the college freshman he was, asking “Why does Augustine hate babies so much?” and “How can Socrates abandon his family?” These questions are critical without being dismissive. They reflect the honest confrontation of modern adults, young and old, with books from various times and places, from various points of view.

Likewise, Montás chooses as case studies authors who not only changed the way he thought and lived, but whose thinking was integrated with their own real lives. Augustine was not merely a theologian, but a saint; Socrates not just a philosopher, but someone who died for philosophy and founded a way of life; Freud not just a theorist of the mind but a healer; Gandhi not an armchair activist, but someone who risked, and ultimately lost, his life for his ideals. With such examples, Montás cuts through the charge that these books are useless in the real world.

Benjamin Franklin once responded to a query about the uselessness of speculative study with a quip: “What’s the use of a baby?” The quip still stings. What is the point of a human life? Should we send our young people out to perform obscure tasks for obscure taskmasters, without having trained them to ask the question, without having given them some tools to try to answer it for themselves?

The way Montás made use of the great books is at first glance little more than a highbrow version of the American Dream, another legend of a self-made man. Such legends can constrain and obscure as much as they illuminate. Dan-el Padilla Peralta responds to the burden of the rags-to-riches narrative by making war on what he judges as white supremacy. Montás takes a low-key approach, marked by his characteristic subtlety and humility. He tells it like it is—or like it was—emphasizing his losses at least as much as his gains. His discussion of Augustine highlights his loss of youthful faith; of Plato, the loss of his father, who stayed behind in the Dominican Republic; of Freud, the end of his first marriage. Standing over all is Gandhi’s critique of Western materialism, materialism that shapes the fabric of American life at every level. Montás describes both his achievements and his ordeals in terms given to him by the great books, thus demonstrating the relevance of old texts to contemporary human life.

The stories of how the great books helped him handle loss and suffering are both moving and illuminating. The discussion of Freud in particular, perhaps the least popular of the four authors today, sparkles with clarity and insight. In the face of public conversations marked by fear, anger, and hostility, Montás chooses the path of vulnerability. In that, he shows the wisdom of a person who has navigated real conflict, away from the seminar table.

There is great strength in the simplicity of Montás’s personal approach to defending the great books. He offers his story with fearless respect for the reader’s ability to evaluate it. He does not over-generalize or dwell on questions outside of his experience. In this way, he shows his talents as a teacher. How we generalize and apply Montás’s story will be up to us. However, he does intend his story to be evaluated in one particular way: he uses it to argue, first, for a common core in undergraduate education and, second, for a common core consisting of great books.

The common core emphasizes that education in human fundamentals is necessary for any career and any walk of life. If we reserve such studies for budding humanities specialists, we force a brutal choice on young people whose priority must be to get out of poverty. By doing so, we reserve such study for the few and the rich—a reality that becomes more vivid and clear every day. 

Montás points out that the current hodge-podge of general education preferred by most universities is the product not of reason or choice, but of fear of conflict and dereliction of duty. Our course catalogs show the studied avoidance of basic questions like: Is there anything in particular that everyone should study?

Studying great books in general education brings all the human virtues of amateurism without compromising seriousness and rigor. Great books meet every reader where he or she stands. In great-books programs, we study philosophy not to become a professor of philosophy, but to feed the reflection and contemplation that crown any human life. Philosophy, literature, political theory—and I would add the classics of mathematics and science—bear on every career. The serious pursuit of human questions cannot be reserved for a small group of elites preparing for academic life.

 

Montás’s agenda resonates so deeply with my own that I have difficulty evaluating it. Yes, it is fear, not thinking or choice, that governs many of our institutional difficulties (a diagnosis echoed by Jonathan Marks). Yes, communities of learning must openly discuss and choose what is worth learning, and the decision cannot be shirked without consequences. Yes, such decision-making is ongoing and necessarily provisional. Yes, without the great books, we risk losing the arts and habits of self-knowledge and so the greatest riches of human development. Yes—most of all—the great books serve a liberating purpose in particular for the poor and the marginalized. They are for everyone.

Montás does risk a certain provincialism by defending great-books education for the sake of personal self-knowledge and personal autonomy.

Montás does risk a certain provincialism by defending great-books education for the sake of personal self-knowledge and personal autonomy. He comes across as a learned, thoughtful, compassionate person, stubborn and courageous, an exemplar of the liberty our liberal education seeks to cultivate. But there is more to learning than acquiring a good character or coming to know one’s self. Augustine sees the whole nature of the universe and its loving Creator; Plato the invisible structures of what is; Freud the nature of civilization; Gandhi the intersection of contemplation and action before God. Part of the splendor of the human intellectual endeavor is that visible and invisible worlds are open to it: mathematics, biology, and physics all fall under its purview. There is more to the humanities, and more to great-books programs, than heightened introspection.

Montás’s disciplined focus on the place and time whence he came threatens a different kind of provincialism, one that presents a problem for the reader who seeks to act on the ideals Montás celebrates. We all learn under certain material conditions—in particular spaces that can be crowded or spread out, among objects that may or may not strike the eye. I couldn’t help but notice how much of Montás’s development depended on the unique environment of New York City. Surely the new immigrant arrived in one of the very few places in this country where he might have been seen by a teacher for who he was, guided into the local Ivy League university, and launched into middle-class life without abandoning his community of origin.

Consider another material condition: the physical book. Our formative stories of the self-taught belong to an age of physical books—concrete objects that can be lost, found, thrown away; objects that are a sign to others of what is within. Both Montás and Padilla are seen reading, or aspiring to read, by key figures in their lives. (Of course, there is more aspiration than actual reading. As a teenager I carried around a copy of Plato’s Republic for a time, without ever cracking it open. It signaled an ambition, one might say a pretense, more than a reality. Yet far-fetched as the prospect was at the time, I did eventually become a scholar of classical philosophy, with special expertise on the Republic. On the one hand, this was more or less pure chance; on the other, perhaps we are too hard on pretense.)

The physical book goes into the trash, into the donation bin, into shared space; the PDF, the e-book, the audio file is kept behind a paywall that cannot be breached by a child or most anyone else. At the mercy of invisible overlords and blind mechanical principles, files disappear in the utmost privacy, unable to be rescued. Nor does the online resource advertise its value, like an old book suggesting a whole manner of life with a little leather and ink. These days one can find almost anything online with the right access codes—but how does one know what to look for? Educational technology risks being a mere convenience for the already equipped, while shutting out those who need equipment.

The loss of the physical book as a ubiquitous mode of instruction does not concern Montás directly in Rescuing Socrates. But the core concern here does: the fear that what is called the “crisis in the humanities” will damage beyond recognition a well-traveled path for the poor and the marginalized. That path leads not only to middle-class success, or to life as a professor, as Montás traveled it, but to the self-reflection and dignity that liberal education makes possible. May his book inspire many people, young and old, to choose that path for themselves.

Rescuing Socrates
How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

Roosevelt Montás
Princeton University Press
$24.95 | 248 pp.

Published in the June 2022 issue: 

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis and founder and president of the Catherine Project. She is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.

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