The Arts of Free Men

The headmaster of my high school once offered some wise thoughts on a teacher who claimed he was reluctant to inflict his opinions on students. “What utter nonsense,” Mr. Jarvis hissed. He went on to explain that education by nature involves teachers inflicting their opinions on students, from their pedagogical methods to texts they choose. Thankfully, Roosevelt Montás is another educator who is not afraid to inflict his opinions on students. His new book, Rescuing Socrates (reviewed here earlier by Douglas Henry), offers a robust and unapologetic argument that liberal education, centered around the great books, should be the foundation of every university education. But that is where the infliction of opinions should end: true liberal education focuses on the personal and intellectual development of the students, not on their professors’ views. “I am not advocating for more students to major in the liberal arts,” he writes, “but for liberal education to serve as the foundation for every major.”     

Montás joins Anthony Kronman, Jonathan Marks, and Zena Hitz in defending liberal education as it faces challenges on multiple fronts. Like Hitz, he makes that case more persuasive by weaving in the story of his own encounter with great texts, and the impact they had on his life. But Montás’s background was quite different from that of his average reader. He tells of growing up in a rural part of the Dominican Republic, emigrating to the US and settling in Queens, then entering the world of elite higher education as a freshman at Columbia. When people ask about his childhood, he sometimes tells them he “grew up in the nineteenth century among people who had grown up in the eighteenth.” One day in Queens, he found some volumes of the Harvard Classics library waiting for the garbagemen by the side of the road. He took them home and discovered the dialogues from the end of Socrates’ life: “In ways I could not have understood, before me was the treasure I had come to America to find.”

Montás spends most of Rescuing Socrates discussing Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi, and the impact they had on his life. Along the way, he weaves their insights together into a vision for liberal education as self-reflection for the development of a student’s human capacities. Socrates made the case for living an examined life, but Augustine’s Confessions gave him a model and language for such a life. Montás writes: “In Augustine, I had seen the possibility of reconciling my deepest hunger for truth with my growing perception of its stubborn elusiveness. . . . [Augustine] affirmed my deepest impulses toward a life dedicated to the pursuit of an ultimate good.” This captures the tension at the heart of Montás’s view of liberal education. As he put it in a recent conversation at AEI, liberal education is about clarifying questions, not giving answers. It tells students that “the best life for a human being must include conscious reflection on the nature of the human good,” but it “does not specify the content of that good.” It assures them that the truth exists, and that self-reflection inspired by an encounter with great texts is the way to look for it, but it never proposes what the truth is that they should find. 

Practically speaking, Montás argues that liberal education should take place in small, discussion-based classes that are taught by instructors from various disciplines. Those instructors serve not as experts in a particular field, but as more experienced practitioners of the examined life. They need to become close with their students, and to care for them. As he said at AEI, liberal education requires love for students, and they must return that love. Such classes should serve as the foundation for all undergraduates, be they engineers or artists. 

The curriculum should focus on core texts that will facilitate students’ self-examination and show them the intellectual roots of the world around them. Different schools will therefore have different curricula based on their own history and that of their students. The “great books” can mean something different at an American university or a Japanese one, a Lutheran college or a historically black one. Indeed, even within a particular institution, their meaning is never settled; the reading lists of great books curricula remain contested and revised, sometimes from year to year.  

The primary impediment to programs of liberal education is the postmodern view that all value judgments are ultimately reducible to power.

This is emphatically not to say that a core curriculum is whimsical or arbitrary. A liberal education introduces students to texts renowned for their insights into human existence. These texts have formed the world around us. Montás acknowledges that for all its pluralism, America has a set of shared cultural values and institutions; a liberal education gives students from various backgrounds a common grounding in their roots: 

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. These institutions, norms, categories, and values have a history that, though riddled with debate, constitutes our shared heritage. 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. She is no closer to and no further from Homer and Socrates than I am or than our two-year-old son will grow up to be. For this reason, what is often identified as the Western tradition has a special claim in general education curricula in societies that have emerged from or have been strongly influenced by that tradition.

Giving students of various backgrounds a grounding in that tradition allows them to better claim that tradition as their own. They share it with their fellow students, and with millions of men and women around the world and across time. Contrary to the dominant view in much of the academy, the transmission of this tradition is an act of empowerment and liberation, not oppression.

Here and elsewhere Montás responds to those movements most harmful to liberal education. The primary impediment to programs of liberal education is the postmodern view that all value judgments are ultimately reducible to power. Like many graduate students, Montás once enjoyed the thrill of critique, tearing down established canons for the sake of unlocking new potential and dismantling structures of injustice. But, he writes, “I ran out of patience with the evasiveness, obfuscation, and intellectual vacuity of many of the leading voices in the field. I felt confident enough in my background in philosophy and theory to call bullshit where I saw it. And that’s mainly what I saw.”

If liberal education revolves around questions about the good life and human excellence, and if all claims about the human good are simply assertions of power, then liberal education is a game that the dominant play to disguise their oppression. One could defend liberal education by accepting the critics’ premise, and arguing that liberal education is the ultimate exercise in relativism and critique, poking holes in thinkers through the ages. 

That view, Montás argues, would effectively imply that the question of the human good cannot be asked. This assumption kills the activity at the heart of liberal education and leads to the mass exodus of students from the humanities. Instead, Montás urges his readers to reject the premises of critical theory, arguing that liberal education requires the view that inquiry into the good life “leads to a deeper self-understanding and, in this sense, a fuller life.” If you want to subvert hierarchies of privilege, you shouldn’t stop examining life. Instead, offer the examined life to all students regardless of their background.

When he arrived at Columbia, Montás had “aspects of identity foisted on me before I knew what they were.” He found it disorienting that his presence in the dining hall or seminar room as a poor person of color had a political meaning and symbolized the university’s commitment to diversity. He therefore encourages his fellow professors to shed preconceived ideas of what students’ identities should be and signify to them. Far from imposing white or Western ideas on him, Columbia’s Core gave him a richer sense of who he was:

As a young person trying to understand what it meant to be who I was and to be where I was, I found in Plato a genuine affirmation of my identity. 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. 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—a way of living that held out the possibility of absorbing the disparate parts of who I was into some kind of integrated whole.

Without brushing aside concerns about injustice, Montás proposes that beyond skin color, ethnic background, and sex, our deepest identity is found in our shared human nature and the desire to know and live the good. This refocuses the question of identity on what students share instead of what separates them. Students reflect on what it means to be a human being instead of focusing on what it is like to have certain bodily traits. 

No figure in Rescuing Socrates is more associated with the quest for social justice that drives concerns about identity than Gandhi. Yet it is striking that Montás presents him primarily as zealous and hungry for spiritual truth, a man for whom “spiritual realization is the consuming passion and organizing principle of his life.” Gandhi himself wrote that “nothing so describes my God as Truth.” And the question of truth leads to a way in which Montas’ view of liberal education is good, but ultimately incomplete.

If liberal education is to truly help students live a good life and work for a good society, it can’t just be about self-actualization and the open-ended search for the good.

Montás argues that the truths we seek through liberal education exist and are apprehensible. He also thinks that the truth is elusive and that perhaps our search for it is asymptotic, forever getting closer to touching it without attaining it completely. This is of course true. Professors should give students the space to wrestle with serious questions and truths without feeding them their preferred answers. They can refrain from proposing the content of the human good to their students to let them inquire on their own. And liberal education is excellent training for the continued examination of one’s settled convictions.

Montas may be too anxious, however, to urge teachers not to influence their students’ opinions. If intellectual inquiry is to be more than a fruitless quest, it must lead to an accurate—even if partial—apprehension of what is good and true. Students should by all means wrestle with Marx and Freud, but Marx and Freud were wrong about markets and human psychology in important respects, as specialists in those fields will readily admit. If students are to gain a more accurate perception of markets and psychology, they will need the help of professors who can point them to more reliable texts. This is all the more true of important aspects of the human good. The Columbia student who concludes that Nietzsche’s übermensch and Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction are the deepest truths about human life and society will not be a better citizen, or a better person, for it. It is part of the professor’s vocation to show him a more excellent way. 

If liberal education is to truly help students live a good life and work for a good society, it can’t just be about self-actualization and the open-ended search for the good. For example, Montás writes that the Confessions is the story of Augustine’s journey of becoming himself, his self-analysis. But the Confessions are also a confession of praise, and an analysis of the actions of a God who is really knowable but remains forever inscrutable. For Augustine, God is the ultimate object of human knowledge and therefore of study. We know ourselves as part of our quest for more knowledge of God—and it is imperative that that quest arrive at the correct conclusions. Liberal education inspired by Augustine can bracket certain metaphysical and moral questions, but it must acknowledge that there can be right and wrong answers to those questions. Some answers make better men and women, and better citizens, than others. Students still need to hear which answers to those questions are better, even if that happens in other classrooms or other spheres of university life.

That said, Rescuing Socrates makes a strong case for liberal education at a time when it needs ardent defenders. It also shows Montás himself to embody the gratitude, humility, and love for students and truth that liberal education requires. It reminds us that liberal education is tied to the deepest aspects of our humanity and that the examined life is well worth living.