Bonfire of the Humanities
Liberal education needs a better champion than Louis Menand. It can find one in Roosevelt Montás.
Rescuing Socrates is a good title for a book, as it will always remain relevant. Socrates needs rescuing in every age because he irritates people, especially powerful ones. Though the author of the book, Roosevelt Montás, would never compare himself to his hero, he has followed in his footsteps in irritating some powerful people.
Socrates is annoying because he asks the question of how to live, holds himself to the standards his investigation implies, and argues for his way of life to others. People in all times and places find this obnoxious.
And yet the logic of the Socratic approach is straightforward. When we discover the question of how to live, we naturally seek to answer it. Indeed, we answer it whether we seek to or not, for the way we spend our finite lives reveals what we most care about. If our way of life results from rational reflection on what would make us happy, the honest and generous thing to do is to offer to others the reasons that have persuaded us, as Socrates does.
Teachers, in particular, have an obligation to give an account of themselves and exemplify the way of life for which they argue. For teachers put themselves in front of others daily, and cannot help being taken for role models.
Since the time of Gorgias, however, some teachers have sought to duck this obligation, pleading that they need not defend their lives as choiceworthy, but merely as excusable. One sees a version of this argument in Harvard Professor Louis Menand’s critique of Montás in the pages of the New Yorker. From reading Montás, he writes,
you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not. We are not better or worse than anyone else. I have read and taught hundreds of books, including most of the books in the Columbia Core.… I don’t think I’m a better person.
Menand seems to hope that such self-effacement will prove winsome. Undercutting any claims to special importance for his own discipline, he protests, “A class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel.” He asks only for the tolerance democracy affords to many different pursuits.
But Menand misunderstands the kind of justification his position requires. Someone enjoying so exalted a place cannot give an account of his existence by asking for mere tolerance. After all, a Harvard English professor lives on today’s equivalent of the publicly-provided free lunch Socrates asked for from his jury. His position is special, and vested with influence, prestige, and wealth far beyond what ordinary democratic citizens enjoy. It must be justified as distinctively worthwhile.
Roosevelt Montás knows the difference between the tolerable and the choiceworthy from experience. As a poor young immigrant in Queens, he wondered at American trash piles, overflowing with perfectly good stuff. Though he does not admire the American habit of throwing useful things away, he doesn’t suggest there should be a law against it. In fact, in one such trash pile he found a copy of Plato’s dialogues, which would prove for him a pearl of great price. Amid the vast, superfluous bounty produced by a commercial democracy, in which treasures intermingle with trash, he found something truly choiceworthy.
The students Montás teaches at Columbia are like his younger self, rooting around campus in search of a way of life worth choosing. As he writes,
I find my classrooms populated with young people of real depth and earnestness who, like me at their age, are racked with existential anxiety and are struggling with the threat of meaninglessness. They are obsessed with moral questions and wonder whether the frantic pursuit of success, wealth, and status will actually satisfy their deepest thirst.
In Rescuing Socrates, Montás defends education that takes students and their questions seriously, and introduces the young to the authors that can help them think those questions through. He effectively parries the charge that the great books are instruments of White supremacy, arguing that people like Socrates and Gandhi ask questions such as “What is justice?” that matter to every human life, irrespective of race, sex, class, time, or place. As he reports, the poor and minority New York high school students he teaches as part of Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship Program “react to Socrates in the same way I did: they take his words seriously and personally.”
When critics of the great books get their way, as Thomas Chatterton Williams highlights, it is precisely such students who are the first to be deprived of an encounter with the humanizing questions those books contain. They are thereby stripped of the opportunity to gain the self-knowledge that comes through a firsthand encounter with the ideas that have shaped our culture, both for good and for ill.
Montás’ defense of the great books is both disarming and brave. In his zeal to defend such education from its campus critics, however, one wonders if he sometimes concedes too much to their prejudices. When he describes the liberal arts as “the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege,” he is putting a common trope of the college classroom in service of his distinctive argument. But such blanket critiques of hierarchy leave some obvious questions unanswered: Has there ever been a society without hierarchies? Are not many forms of hierarchy both just and necessary—for the wiser to rule the more foolish, the upright to constrain the devious? Is not the question of the choiceworthy, so central to Montás’ book, inseparable from the question of which qualities a good society should honor with praise, position, and power?
Four years in classrooms saturated by such critiques of hierarchy, moreover, do not noticeably restrain the desire of the students who pass through them to ascend the ranks of class, affluence, and clout. The experience often just leaves them embarrassed by their successes, and susceptible to thinking that the best they can say for themselves is that they live excusable lives.
The people and institutions at the top of American higher education often seek to hide such embarrassment by making much of their commitment to equality, in everything from their curricula to their admissions policies. But no institution with a multibillion-dollar endowment or a single-digit admissions rate can plausibly fly the flag of equality.
Ivy League universities and their faculties would be better off if they stopped pretending that they advance egalitarianism. Instead, they should justify themselves in the only honest way they can: by better fulfilling the distinctive task their society asks of them. That task is the education of a wiser, more honest, and more competent elite—an elite that feels less guilty about its privileges, because it is worthy of them.
They might find a model of what they seek to do in Roosevelt Montás, who did not inherit his privilege, but earned it; who did not let the identity politics that pervades our campuses tell him what to study, how to vote, or whom to befriend; whose work consists in sharing what he learned from the books he cares about with poor and rich alike; and who has the guts to defend real education against its professorial critics.
Benjamin and Jenna Storey are visiting fellows in social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They teach political philosophy at Furman University and direct Furman’s Tocqueville Program.
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