Roosevelt Montás seems like a man from another era. Having emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City in 1985 at the age of 12, Montás actually remembers the first time running water came to his small village and when his community shared one telephone. He experienced life with no stove, no refrigerator, and no television. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the message of Montás’s new book, Rescuing Socrates, also seems to hail from another time.
Montás, who served as the director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum for a decade, tries to explain why the texts of Western Civilization are still relevant. He believes that higher education is undergoing a crisis, albeit not a completely new one. He writes: “Liberal education has always been a hard sell. People fortunate enough to have had it often describe it as a life-altering experience. But those who haven’t had it don’t usually feel that their lives are less rich or less fulfilling or lacking it. With higher education increasingly seen in transactional terms—with students paying exorbitant amounts of money to gain a leg up in a fiercely competitive environment—it’s easy to see how liberal arts education might be regarded as a waste of time.”
The problem is worse than that now. First, today’s most fortunate students are rarely getting an actual liberal arts education. Second, when that education is offered to them, they spend a lot of time protesting its bias and its irrelevance. And finally, the students who are not fortunate enough to have experienced what’s popularly thought of as liberal education often feel as if they’re the only sane ones left in the country.
Montás recounts his own inspiring encounters with four of the authors taught in the Core program at Columbia—Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi. He shows how each one not only made him a more educated person but helped him answer the question: What is the good life? This is a question he has helped hundreds of young people think about by means of a program in which his university brings underprivileged students to campus over a summer to read and discuss these texts. “Every year, I witness Socrates bringing students to serious contemplation of the ultimately existential issues his philosophy demands we grapple with,” he writes. “My students from low-income households do not take this sort of thinking to be the exclusive privilege of a social elite. In fact, they find in it a vision of dignity and excellence that is not constrained by material limitations.”
But Montás himself came to this project with certain advantages, if not material ones. For one thing, he was from an immigrant family in which doing well in school and listening to authority figures were values reinforced at home. Even at a large urban public school, he had teachers who took a particular interest in developing his curiosity. And he was not weighed down by the idea that he was a victim because of his racial or economic background. He also credits his religious upbringing with putting him in the correct frame of mind for this kind of learning.
Reading Socrates, “what I was gleaning from the text was not about Ancient Greece or about philosophy, but about how I was to live my life,” he says. “I was reading Socrates the same way I was reading the Bible.” This is probably one of the less remarked upon aspects of why so many students are unprepared for liberal education. While their professors are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to talk them out of—or mock—traditional religious belief, fewer and fewer students are even exposed to its basic tenets.
But Montás was able to make this leap: “As a young person trying to understand what it meant to be who I was and to be where I was, I found Plato a genuine affirmation of my identity.” What an extraordinary sentiment to hear today. But Montás insists, “It was not my identity as a Dominican immigrant that Socrates affirmed, but something more fundamental, an identity that cut me loose from the assumptions of my peers at Columbia as much as it did from the expectations of my Dominican community.”
Montás took Plato personally: “I took to heart Socrates’s innocent and saccharine admonitions. They pointed toward what felt like the most worthwhile way of living for me. Here was a sort of identity that felt true to my deepest self. Here was the life of the mind.”
It is this feeling that the great philosophers of the West are speaking to him directly that leads him to take offense when people assume that because he is an academic, he “must be the resident expert on Latino Studies.” In fact, he tells them, “no, my doctoral work was on the New England Transcendentalists and the abolitionist movement.”
Montás is not oblivious to the reasons that core curricula cannot be maintained in most modern universities. “The tendency is to focus on competencies rather than on knowledge and on ways of knowing rather than things to be known,” he writes. Some of this is clearly laziness. College professors, even if they believe that there are important things students should know, don’t want to be in the business of defending such a position. Especially these days, suggesting that all students read Plato or Augustine could get you branded a racist. He describes speaking to college presidents who vigorously defend their decision to have no requirements at all. “Why not let students pick for themselves what they find most relevant or appealing?” they ask.
But as someone who began as an outsider to American culture and the ideas of Western Civilization, Montás finds these arguments disingenuous at best and dangerous to the future of our republic, at worst.
“The claim that in today’s America there is no sufficiently shared intellectual and cultural heritage to justify common study is disproven by the fact that public life is transacted through a range of shared institutions, norms, categories, and values in which we all participate and in which we all have a stake,” he says. This argument, which echoes E.D. Hirsh’s justification for a core curriculum in the elementary and secondary grades, is often dismissed by today’s elites. They complain on the one hand about all of the cultural knowledge that elites seem to possess but that the less advantaged do not—as David Brooks did when he wrote a column about taking a friend with only a high-school degree to lunch only to realize that she didn’t understand the ingredients on the menu at the gourmet sandwich shop. But why are elites unwilling to acknowledge all of the history and literature and philosophy we could be giving them from an early age?
Montás emphasizes that these institutions and norms make up our “history that, though riddled with debate, constitutes our shared heritage.” He goes on: “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.”
Indeed, Montás argues that it is his knowledge of the values of Western Civilization and the ideas developed in it that are “the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.” He also notes that “contemporary notions like human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity, the free market, equality before the law, and many others cannot be adequately accounted for without studying the ‘Western tradition.’”
Of course, Montás is right about this, but perhaps it says something about our fractured intellectual culture that I wonder who the intended audience for these words are. Will any student currently in our higher-education system read them and question whether in fact dead white men have some responsibility for these ideas or consider that those men have relevance in our debates today? Will any faculty members? I hope so, but I’m starting to doubt it. Perhaps students will see Montás’s biography, be willing to humor him, and start this intellectual journey for themselves. But it is also easy to see how he will be dismissed as some kind of tool of the white-supremacist power structure.
Montás offers suggestions for how these Core text programs can revitalize the humanities and universities more generally. But he acknowledges that so many of the problems are created by the structure and incentives of universities themselves. Rewarding academic publication and overspecialization does not create a class of professors who want to teach a course that goes from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr. And few professors want to sacrifice their own career either to teach these introductory courses or to defend the need for them.
But at least there is Roosevelt Montás, an Ivy League professor who is willing to write, “I count the chance of becoming an American as among the greatest fortunes of my life.” Not just because of the freedom or the economic opportunity, he writes. But because he has the chance to “take part in the collective self-governance of the most powerful nation in the world.” One can only hope that Rescuing Socrates rescues others as well.