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Solid at the Core

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books and culture

Solid at the Core

A Columbia professor defends the value of a truly liberal education. November 5, 2021
Education
The Social Order

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, by Roosevelt Montás (Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $24.95)

Rescuing Socrates, Roosevelt Montás’s memoir-cum-paean to the classics, is a timely and much-needed book. Montás directed Columbia’s Core Curriculum program for a decade. In an era when dismissing the canon signals a concern for the less privileged, Montás argues that restoring the great writers and thinkers to the pantheon is critical. “Far from a pointless indulgence for the elite,” he writes, “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.”

At the root of the decline of the liberal arts, Montás sees “a crisis of consensus among academic humanists about what things are most worth knowing.” He blames university leaders, “reluctant to reveal the values [they] hold” for fear of being judged “morally corrupt” or “complicit in larger systems of exclusion or exploitation” for failing their students. He acknowledges that “dead white men” influence the humanities but properly notes “the problems of representation . . . must be solved by means other than the abandonment of the textual traditions that underpin contemporary life.”

“Free” is at the root of the Latin word liber in liberal arts. You can’t define the liberal arts with a bumper sticker, but for Montás, his freedom certainly wasn’t free. He arrived in New York as a 12-year-old, joining his mother, who earned $3.36 an hour at a garment factory in Brooklyn. He moved frequently, used savings from his summer job to help pay the security deposit on their home, and treasured a gold-leafed copy of Plato’s Dialogues he found in the garbage next to his Queens apartment. Six years after leaving a rural town in the Dominican Republic, speaking not a word of English, Montás found himself standing before Columbia’s majestic Low Memorial Library, at the start of his freshman year.

I hadn’t gone far from my home—I could get on the subway and go back to Queens at any time. And yet . . . I felt as if I had leapt into an abyss. . . . If there had been cell phones back then, I might well have called my brother to come back and get me.

The memoir of a Berber monk living in Milan, far from his home in what we now call Algeria, guided this lonely, overwhelmed teenager through an alien land. As part of “The Core,” all Columbia students, fair skinned or dark, rich or poor, read Augustine’s Confessions, as well as Socrates, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi. Montás was embarrassed when a professor called his freshman essay on Augustine “cocky” because he didn’t know what the word meant. For students from less privileged backgrounds, gaining access to the broader world could be “humiliating” at times. “The world ahead of us would be a test of our capacity to endure the psychic pain of social dislocation,” he writes. Looking back on an experience that some today might call traumatizing, he acknowledges that there exist “no easy solutions.”

While conservatives despair at Shakespeare’s cancellation and progressives demand ever-more gender- and race-based studies, Columbia University remains a bastion of liberal arts education, requiring four liberal arts classes grounded in the Western tradition, regardless of a student’s major, social status, or race. Whether they hope to become physicists or poets, students must share the experience of struggling with life’s fundamental questions, gaining an understanding of how writers from the ancient past to the present have been in dialogue with each other, pushing society to define a life worth living. Leading the class he once took, Montás now asks his students to consider, like Socrates, if there is an idea for which they are willing to die. That’s a question that shouldn’t be confined to classrooms.

To their shame, most colleges have responded to calls for greater representation and diversity by ducking the idea of defining a curriculum—in effect, punting on the question of whether anything is worth knowing. Selecting a common curriculum democratically, Montás believes, turns “students into interest groups, each lobbying for their own special curricular accommodations.” At Columbia, the Core evolves—slowly, by the consensus of all its teachers.

Montás doesn’t fault his students, who aren’t “snowflakes,” he says, and are quite conscious of their elite position. He finds his “classrooms populated with young people of real depth and earnestness . . . racked with existential anxiety . . . struggling with the threat of meaninglessness.” Earning his Ph.D. in comparative literature in an era when deconstructionists were ascendent, Montás has “run out of patience with the . . . intellectual vacuity of many of the leading voices” in academia.

Apart from leading the Core, Montás has directed programs that recruit high school students who share backgrounds similar to his own to spend a summer at Columbia reading and discussing great books. Having started a charter elementary school dedicated to similar ideals, I know that parents are desperate for their children to receive this kind of education, which Montás sees as a “critical tool for addressing social stratification.” I agree with him that “we should be ashamed of the failing of our public school system to live up to the values of equal opportunity and fairness that we claim to stand for.”

New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams, who has noted how badly our schools fail to teach black boys to read, might consider paying Montás a visit. One thing Adams could learn from Columbia’s Core for literary instruction is the importance of internal coherence—all art, music, and literature is a reaction of the present generation to the ones that preceded it. Too often, our current curricula pretend that one story is just as good as another, failing to build students’ background knowledge and worsening the comprehension challenges for less privileged kids.

Ten years ago, I was reading to my then-nine-year-old daughter about an evil, one-eyed creature in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories when she interrupted me and said, “wait, you mean Rushdie read The Odyssey too?” Literary conversations across time are central not only to understanding an author’s intent but also to seeing the common aspects of our humanity. In 1963, a different kind of “woke” was ascendent when James Baldwin told Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

It is a mark of some progress that Montás expresses sentiments similar to Baldwin’s from a position of relative power rather than self-imposed, partial, exile from a society that refuses to understand him. If administrators and education advocates take the message of Rescuing Socrates to heart, then our students, our schools, and our nation might yet see a brighter future.

Photo by Lauree Feldman/Getty Images

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