Why the Classics: Roosevelt Montás on Rescuing Socrates
"The post-truth world, and the presentation of power and winning as the only value that matters, begins in the academy."
When Roosevelt Montás was growing up in Cabmita Garabitos, a town in the Dominican Republic he describes as “pre-industrial,” the life of an American public intellectual and Columbia University professor must have seemed very far away. Yet that’s just where Montás —the former director of Columbia University’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation—finds himself today. He’s also become one of the United States’ most incisive advocates of a liberal education based on classic works of philosophy and literature. Earlier this week, he spoke to Jonathan Tepperman, The Octavian Report’s editor-in-chief, about his book, his journey, why the liberal arts have become endangered, and what risks being lost if they continue to be marginalized.
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Octavian Report: Rescuing Socrates is part memoir, part polemic, and part seminar. Let’s start with the last of those first. In the book, you mount a defense of what you call a liberal education by marshaling four thinkers: St. Augustine, Socrates, Freud, and Gandhi. How did you pick those four?
Roosevelt Montás: Multiple vectors of reasoning led me there. One of them, the most obvious, is idiosyncratic and personal: the fact that these writers had a profound impact on me when I read them. But there is more than that. All four writers are especially apt examples of Socrates’ dictum about living an examined life. You start with Socrates and Plato—that’s where the model comes from. St. Augustine’s Confessions is also a profound self-examination. Freud does it from a 19th century scientific-medical approach, but he’s all about understanding and digging into the mind and the nature of subjectivity and consciousness; psychoanalysis is ultimately about self-knowledge. And Gandhi’s life is organized around the pursuit of truth.
One other aspect of the four explains their inclusion in this book: I am not an expert on any of them. I don’t have a scholarly background on them, I’ve never taken courses on them, I’ve never researched them in a scholarly setting, I don’t have access to the languages in which any of them wrote. So there is a way in which my engagement with them performs the kind of generalist reading that I advocate. I present them because of their suitability to non-expert engagement, and I try to model that non-expert engagement.
OR: Explain your argument that knowledge of the self is a precursor to all other forms of knowledge.
Montás: The premise of a liberal education is the human condition of freedom, in which every individual experiences him or herself as a self-determining agent, possesses a notion of the good, and organizes their lives in pursuit of that notion. To liberally educate is to take that condition seriously, and to look into yourself in order to understand the inner working and deliberative processes that go into enacting that freedom. So self-knowledge, in my view, is central and fundamental.
Now, I should say self-knowledge is to be distinguished from self-obsession, or neurotic, egocentric self-regard. It’s quite the opposite of that, in fact. With each of the thinkers I highlight in the book, you can see how the closer they look, the less solid the self becomes, the less constricted it becomes. Think of the Zen master Dogen, who says, “To study the Buddha dharma, the Buddha way, is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self, and to see the self in a myriad of things.” The study of the self involves a kind of dissolution of the ego, rather than a solidification of it.
OR: It’s easy to understand how, as the former Director of Columbia’s Center for Core Curriculum, the idea of a liberal arts education would be professionally important to you. But you also argue that it was personally important. How so?
Montás: This book emerged from the way my life has unfolded. That includes my intellectual development, but also my personal, emotional, and social development as an immigrant to New York in the 80s, not speaking English, and poor. It’s not a scholarly book. I don’t write about any of the figures that I have expertise on. This is not the kind of book that will advance me in my academic pigeonhole. It’s emphatically at cross-purposes with the university and the professionalization of academia.
I’ve had a very unorthodox career. I don’t have tenure at Columbia. I don’t belong to a department. I’m not on the typical ladder of professional academic ascent. Very early in my career, I realized that I did not want to devote the bulk of my energies to the narrow questions that humanities careers are built on. And this book reflects that. This is not a book for the English Department, or for scholars. This is a book for people interested in exploring the founding questions of liberal education, which in some ways means the fundamental questions of human existence.
OR: At one point in Rescuing Socrates, you tell the story of how, when you were in the 10th grade, you literally rescued Socrates: you found him in a pile of books on the street, started to read, and were captivated. What makes Plato and Socrates so appealing, especially to young people?
Montás: There is something archetypal about Socrates, and there are other figures whose lives fit into that mold. Probably the most famous of them is Jesus: a teacher who attracted young people, who the political establishment found threatening, who was then unjustly tried and executed, and whose disciples carried on the message. That’s Socrates and Jesus: figures who challenge perceived wisdom, who lacked any kind of personal ambition, who were simply motivated by a higher ideal, and whose whole schtick was to present the beauty and inherent worthiness of that ideal in a compelling, persuasive way.
I find that young people are especially hungry for this kind of vision of a life worth living, of what really matters. Which is why I think Socrates hit me so hard, and why he hits so many young people so hard. I see it every year. In the summers, I teach a course for rising high school seniors who are low-income and the first in their families who hope to go to college. We bring them to Columbia, where they spend a month living in the dorms and taking this class with me. We always begin by reading the dialogues of Plato. And every year I see the impact that Plato had on me being had on these students. Because young people are hungry for this type of clarity. It’s not true that young people just go to college because they want high-paying jobs. That’s what our whole society is signaling and prioritizing for them, yet they come with serious doubts about whether that is the way to go, and hungry for an alternative.
OR: You write at one point that Socrates is even more relevant today than he was in the 1980s, when you first discovered him. Why is that?
Montás: I think it’s because the quality of life and thinking that Socrates calls for is under even greater threat now; materialism, consumerism, and instant gratification have become even more ascendant. They are cultural forces of a magnitude that I think is quite unprecedented in human history. So it makes Socrates’ message event more relevant and more resonant.
OR: You also write early in the book that the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education. What do you mean?
Montás: There are two ideas here that might look contradictory. One is that liberal education is not pursued in the service of anything else; liberal education is pursued for the sake of itself, for the inherent value of human cultivation. That might seem to be in tension with another idea that I propose: that a democracy depends on liberal-educated subjects. But the way in which the two ideas fit together is that liberal education is not pursued in the service of shaping citizens, yet in order to be citizens, people must be shaped in this way.
Let me illustrate what I mean. In my view, a not-unprecedented outcome of liberal education is to lead you to opt out of political participation, to become a recluse or a monk. That is not a failure of liberal education, it is a legitimate outcome. In order to have a democracy, however, the people who are engaged in that project will need to be liberal-educated—that is, trained in the art of self-governance. I mean this both in the individual sense, in terms of organizing your drives and desires, and in the collective sense, in terms of having the tools of dialogue, of literacy and numeracy, of having the ability to digest and synthesize complex information. It’s a bit of a complex argument, but liberal education is absolutely required for a democracy—and yet democracy is not the goal of a liberal education.
OR: You argue that a liberal education has a special meaning for low-income students. How so, and how do you persuade low-income parents of this—especially when they’re making a huge sacrifice to send their kids to college, and may be depending on their kids to increase the family’s earnings?
Montás: There are a couple of things to say about that. One is that the most persuasive thing to do is to introduce them to the experience of liberal education, which is what I do in the summers. By the time I’m done—after I’ve spent a month with these low-income, first generation or immigrant students, reading Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Lincoln, and the U.S. Constitution—I don’t need to make the case for liberal education anymore. They have been awakened to a register of engagement with the world whose value is evident to them. There is no turning back.
I also sometimes point to the fact that the social elite, the people who have the information and the opportunity to do anything, tend to choose liberal education rather than applied education. So there’s a lesson there. And then there’s a lesson about what people who are liberal-educated go on to do with their education.
But there is one other structural fact that I insist on when I talk about this, which is that liberal education is not one path amongst several. It’s not liberal education versus practical education, or instead of a profitable education. Instead, liberal education should be the foundation of whatever practical or lucrative education you want to pursue. It’s not that I want all students to major in the liberal arts. What I am after is for the engineer, the lawyer, the scientist, the businessperson, and the coder to be liberal-educated.
Part of the problem today is that we have set up universities so that it’s often framed as a choice: you either study liberal arts or you study engineering; you either become a scholar or you become a businessperson. What we have to do is to reduce the opportunity costs of a liberal education. We cannot ask economically anxious families, who are looking to education as a way out of poverty and marginality, to do something that has no market value. We should not ask those students to major in the liberal arts. We should ask them to major in whatever they’re interested in, and also provide every student with a liberal education as the foundation to that specialization.
OR: Part of the threat to liberal education today is social and political, but is part of the problem with the way our universities today are structured?
Montás: The university today is dominated by what I call the research ideal. Beginning in the 19th century, universities began to transform themselves into centers of investigation, where the mode was to uncover new knowledge, then codify and expand on and disseminate that new knowledge. That’s become the paradigm, and that’s appropriate and right; it has delivered to us modernity and affluence and health and so on.
Yet there is another dimension of humanity that is not subject to this kind of cumulative growth of knowledge. That dimension involves the questions that ground our existence as human beings: What is justice? What is a meaningful life? What is my responsibility to my fellow? What is the nature of political power? What justifies political power? What is a just distribution of society’s resources? What is the relationship between freedom of the individual and collective responsibility?
Those questions are not subject to the research model of knowledge-accumulation. But because the university is organized around that paradigm, questions that are not subject to that process tend to be left aside. And that translates into a structural arrangement in the university where, even in the humanities, the professions have become oriented towards the generation, accumulation, and dissemination of new knowledge. So if you’re going to be an academic or a professional, the way to advance in your job is to add to this repository of knowledge. But that involves a mismatch of a model that doesn’t really apply to the humanistic questions. And what ends up being neglected is undergraduate education—that is, the education that takes an individual who’s not going to be a scholar and who may not want to be a specialist in the humanities, and introduces them to rigorous, rational investigation of these questions through general education. That has gotten lost, and is constantly under-resourced and marginalized, because that is not the business of knowledge production, but the business of people production
OR: You write at one point, “Today’s academic criticism bends towards moral reprimand. It doesn’t just illuminate, it burns. It doesn’t just judge, it condemns. It doesn’t just reject, it cancels.” After arguing that, you point out that this is why so much academic writing today is opaque and why so many scholars avoid revealing their own values and judgements: because they fear that if they do, they’ll open themselves up to attack and condemnation, especially for being complicit in the dominant power structure and all it excludes. I think that’s spot on, but I also think, as I suspect you do, that there’s something valuable about criticism that highlights how power does in fact run through many types of discourse—and that the problem today is with critics who argue that all that matters is power. Can you imagine a style of criticism that maintains the postmodern critique of imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, whatever, but does it in a way that doesn’t scare everyone into silence?
Montás: Absolutely. I cut my intellectual teeth in postmodernism and postcolonial theory and deconstruction, and the way I think about the world and the way that I read text and the way that I teach is profoundly informed by those ideas. My criticism is that much of the intellectual establishment has thrown out the baby with the bathwater: that the adoption of those insights has been, for the most part, shallow, superficial, and performative. That there has been a kind of posturing in the name of human rights and social justice progressivism that has taken those insights and made them into dogma. And that’s lamentable, because the academy is supposed to be the place where we’re alert to ideology and doctrinaire positions. But the people who run the academy are just as susceptible to narrow provincialism as other people. And I think that’s what you have in the academy today, a kind of fossilized ideal.
Octavian Report: This may sound bizarre, but can you draw a line from the academic questioners of truth—Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida—to Trump? Surely it’s not purely coincidental that what’s happening in the academy is also happening in our politics.
Montás: I do make a connection.
Octavian Report: Is it causal?
Montás: I think cultural evolution is not easily reduced to causality. There are all kinds of feedback loops and mechanisms and so I wouldn’t use the language of causality. But I will say that the post-truth world, and the presentation of power and winning as the only value that matters, begins in the academy, not in the political world.
Octavian Report: Does that mean that a liberal education, especially when focused on the classics, offers a potential fix to the terrible state of U.S. politics and society.
Montás: I think so. I think it is an antidote to the discursive disintegration that we are seeing in society. The university, the academy, can make an important contribution, and it’s an indictment of higher education that we have not contributed what is in our power to the discursive health of our society. I hope that my book makes a constructive contribution to that crisis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is a fascinating interview on a variety of levels, but Montas critique of the professoriate was particularly striking: "My criticism is that much of the intellectual establishment has thrown out the baby with the bathwater: that the adoption of those insights has been, for the most part, shallow, superficial, and performative. That there has been a kind of posturing in the name of human rights and social justice progressivism that has taken those insights and made them into dogma." I am left wondering what Montas' explanation is for this lamentable state of affairs is other than the fact that people are susceptible provincialism.
Full of thought-provoking nuggets: "The premise of a liberal education is the human condition of freedom, in which every individual experiences him or herself as a self-determining agent, possesses a notion of the good, and organizes their lives in pursuit of that notion." Plus, any "antidote to the discursive disintegration that we are seeing in society" is a welcome antidote.