by Roosevelt Montás (Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $24.95)
Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation
by Roosevelt Montás (Princeton University Press, 248pp., $24.95)
Strictly speaking, the word “infant” means lacking in speech. Babies express their will with greedy cries for milk until they acquire common language skills. An infant becomes vehemently indignant if he does not get his way, observes Saint Augustine in his Confessions. If the Saint’s evaluation of babies strikes you as a harsh one, you are not alone.
When Roosevelt Montás encountered Saint Augustine’s writing in 1992—his first year at Columbia University—Montás thought he knew babies pretty well. He was no stranger to spirituality, either. Throughout his new book Rescuing Socrates, the author recalls memories of the first twelve years of his life in the Dominican Republic. There was the smell of tar, hints of “backwoods Pentecostalism,” extended family, and babies galore. As a freshman enrolled in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, the young Montás puzzled to himself: Were Augustine’s descriptions motivated by blind commitment to the Christian doctrine that we are marred by sin from conception? Could it be that blind faith can turn even a “great” thinker into a simpleminded fanatic?
Among eighteen-year-olds, Montás’ instinct to probe the author is the exception, not the rule. And yet to form a sympathetic bond between the individual and the ideas at stake in the text is a key experience of liberal education. This experience can be engendered by teachers committed to animating what might be otherwise alien to the student. Now a senior lecturer at Columbia’s Center for American Studies and director of its Freedom and Citizenship Program, Montás has been reading and teaching Augustine for thirty years. He is a firm advocate for the legitimacy and importance of a liberal education based on the “simple but radical idea” that undergraduates benefit from an intensive, non-disciplinary course consisting of reading classic works of literature, philosophy, and history.
Liberal education got its start in Athens where, notes Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, it was given “not because it is useful or necessary but because it is suitable for a free person.” Back then, “free persons” were property-owning males with voting rights, whereas slaves were limited to technical training. So how did we get from ancient Greece to undergraduate education in the contemporary United States? The Great Books Movement of the 1950’s adopted the premise that the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education. Some institutions such as Columbia and St. John’s College, my own alma mater, have carried on this tradition. Luckily, today the opportunity for participation in democracy extends beyond property-owning males. Young citizens from all walks of life can benefit from a course of learning that looks beyond how to make a living, and instead asks what living is for. This is the case for which Montás advocates in Rescuing Socrates.
Montás showcases the writings of Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi, sharing meditations on how the texts can illuminate one’s own experience. Amidst these insightful anecdotes, he introduces poignant critiques of the practice of liberal education in the contemporary university. A common objection to the implementation of Great Books-style programs is that the classics are classist. How can books written by “dead white men” be relevant to students with diverse socio-economic backgrounds? The presumption is that young people ought to specialize, either in some field deemed friendly to the politics of their identities, or—better yet—in one deemed infallibly lucrative.
Montás pushes back against such a presumption. 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.” The strength of Montás’ argument lies in his acknowledgement of the power and responsibility of undergraduate education:
Τhe undergraduate college is a potent tool for counteracting the social and economic stratification that the American free-enterprise system generates. When a college doesn’t aggressively advance this mission, it becomes another mechanism for reproducing and reinforcing social privilege.
Underlying this reconciliatory mission is the fact that students of all backgrounds can and should experience a shared sense of belonging in their communities. Institutions have frequently sought to address this issue with programs that foster “inclusivity” for students with “marginalized identities.” Ironically, these well-intentioned attempts frequently produce the opposite effect. When Montás himself arrived at Columbia through a program designed for students with “financial need and academic under-preparedness,” he stuck out like a black tie at a toga party.
[...] Belonging is a funny thing. People don’t feel like they belong because they are told they belong. Belonging is among the things that must necessarily go without saying. Explicit institutional gestures at inclusion almost always backfire. Yet gestures must be made. Getting them right is no small challenge, but a challenge that must be met.
For Montás, the curriculum is the best chance we have for creating this shared sense. This is because, in America, there is a shared intellectual tradition that justifies common study. Montás became aware of this at an early age when he overcame a language barrier and, more significantly, a cultural one. The institutions, categories, and values that influence our daily interactions—whether or not we consciously identify them—have roots in a centuries-long debate constituting our shared heritage.
Like Augustine’s baby, we cannot ask for what we want without a common language for expression. The Saint, as it turns out, harbored no grudge against infants. Rather, he was commenting on the miracle of communication and the innate human capacity to learn language and to assert the will. In society, a citizen cannot make one particular voice heard without tapping into a source of universal understanding.
Montás notes that especially because “the West” is itself a porous and problematic category, a global culture arguably emerges from the Western canon. Montás points out, “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.’” Thanks to this study, Montás himself was able to come to terms with ideas that influenced his early informal education. He was able to recognize that his father’s Marxist-inspired political activity was steeped in “an intellectual tradition of which [his father] was only vaguely aware.” To identify the source of one’s own opinions is the first step in consciously forming independent thought—the key to intentional democratic participation.
My own experience with the Great Books at St. John’s College and beyond has helped me to identify strands of the philosophies that undergirded my upbringing. As the child of a Vietnamese émigré and a U.S. Marine, recognition of both Eastern and Western classics has taught me to take neither democracy nor the opportunity for education for granted. This self-reflective experience is what Montás, in Rescuing Socrates, offers as both a way of life and a tool for addressing social challenges in the coming generation.
Grace Phan Jones is an alumna of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. She is currently a master of arts candidate in political science at Boston College and a fellow at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
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