A New Book Makes the Case for the Importance of the Humanities
What is the value of a liberal education? Traditionally characterized by a rigorous engagement with the classics of Western thought and literature, this approach to education has largely been replaced in American higher education by flexible distribution requirements and ever-narrower academic specialization. Many academics attack the idea of a Western canon as chauvinistic, while the general public increasingly doubts the value of the humanities.
In his new book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Roosevelt Montás, director of Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship Program and a senior lecturer in American Studies and English, tells the story of how a liberal education transformed his life, and offers an intimate account of the relevance of the great books today, especially to members of historically marginalized communities. Rescuing Socrates describes how four authors—Plato, Augustine, Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi—had a profound impact on Montás’s life. In doing so, the book drives home what it’s like to experience a liberal education—and why it can still remake lives.
Montás discusses the book with Columbia News, as well as why he returns continually to the works of James Baldwin, and who he would consider to be ideal dinner companions.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A. When I finished my PhD in English at Columbia, my dissertation on how transcendentalists and abolitionists reconsidered the meaning of America won the Bancroft Prize for a dissertation in American history. The award carries with it a grant for the publication of the dissertation as a book. For complicated reasons, this recognition felt more like a prison sentence than an honor—an entailment on my future that I resented. So I did all I could to forget my dissertation, and immediately started wondering about a different kind of book, one that would grapple with more personal, urgent questions than the ones I had pursued in my doctoral work.
At the time, I felt that any serious writing I did could not just be concerned with the questions that preoccupied scholars in my field. I took to heart the injunction of one of my intellectual heroes, Henry David Thoreau—a man famous for his irregular occupations—that “you must get your living by loving, or at least half your life is a failure.” I decided to do what I was most passionate about, which was teaching in the Core Curriculum, and promoting the kind of liberal education that had changed my own life. That’s how I ended up directing the Center for the Core Curriculum for 10 years, which was the gestation period for the book.
Peter Dougherty of Princeton University Press had heard some of the talks about liberal education I had been giving around the country, and proposed the book. I sat down to write, and an essay tumbled out of me about the impact that reading St. Augustine’s Confessions had had on me as a Columbia freshman. Dougherty read it, and told me that if I could do something similar with another writer or two, we’d have a book. In the end, I wrote about three others: Plato, Freud, and Gandhi.
Q. What was it like to weave together memoir and literary reflection on such august writers?
A. I had never written or spoken publicly in a register as personal as the one in which I wrote this book. What surprised me was how natural it felt, and how organically the three genres of the book—memoir, critique, and literary analysis—blended together. I suppose that this synthesis reflects the way my life has unfolded. The books I write about are not just books I teach, but books I live with; the arguments I make emerge not just from my professional expertise, but from the life I have lived.
Perhaps the thing that unites the four writers is their relentless pursuit of self-knowledge. From Socrates’ declaration to an Athenian jury that "the unexamined life is not worth living," to St. Augustine’s self-analysis in the Confessions, Freud’s theories of the mind, and Gandhi’s life-defining pursuit of moksha (“self-realization"), these writers give us models for how to pursue our own projects of self-knowledge. And this is why they are also such valuable writings in the context of a liberal education.
Q. Considering that Columbia's Core Curriculum is one of the last remaining great books university programs in this country, what do you think this means for the future of a liberal arts education and the humanities?
A. In the last 20 years, there has actually been something of a revival in what used to be called great books curricula. For sure, it’s not the grand plans that characterized those of the early 20th century, when the likes of Columbia, the University of Chicago, and many other institutions launched massive, ambitious undergraduate great books programs. Today’s efforts are more contained, reflecting the institutional complexities of the modern university as well as the fragmentation of knowledge that has characterized the humanities and humanistic social sciences. You’ll find a new required first- or second-year seminar here, an elective great books program there, an honors college somewhere else. After some decades of rather precipitous decline, the idea of undergraduate general education based on the study of great, foundational, core, transformative, or simply important books is actually gaining ground.
But this trend is occurring in the context of a much larger and troubling macro-trend—the retrenching of liberal education as a privilege for the social and economic elite. By various means—some institutional and some broadly cultural—working-class and first-generation college students are being steered to career, preprofessional, and vocational education, much of it online. This is one of the acute and catastrophic manifestations of our growing inequality, and its implications for the health of our democracy are dire.
Q. What are some books you've read recently that you would recommend, and why?
A. The philosopher Zena Hitz, who teaches at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, published a wonderful book in 2020 called Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. It is a beautiful argument about the pursuit of learning for its own sake as an antidote to the degrading striving and competition that permeate our contemporary lives. It’s the most compelling case I know for the innate dignity of the life of the mind.
In this time of heightened awareness of the racial injustices that persist in our society—and the ensuing fervor on both ends of the political spectrum—I have found great wisdom and balance in James Baldwin’s writing. Everyone should stop what they are doing and read, or re-read, The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son.
For months, I have been reading and re-reading The Way of Chuang Tzu, as rendered by Thomas Merton. I seem unable to put it down. I am continually struck by how the ancients described the human experience with a clarity and directness that is impossible to find in contemporary thought.
Finally, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a work of fiction that will deepen the experience of your own humanity.
Q. What are you teaching this semester, and in the spring?
A. I am on leave this semester. In the spring, I will be co-teaching Introduction to American Studies, and a new seminar, Innovation in American Culture.
Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three scholars or academics, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?
A. Gandhi, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herman Melville. To my mind, they are some of the most profound theologians the world has produced. I have some issues I’d like to put before them.