Why a Liberal Education Is Worth Defending

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I know of no more powerful, persuasive, or poignant defense of a liberal education than Roosevelt Montas’s forthcoming Rescuing Socrates:  How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.

Recent years have brought a succession of “apologies” for a liberal education, by such luminaries as Andrew Delbanco and Martha Nussbaum, David Denby, Anthony Kronman, and Fareed Zakaria.  Montas offers something quite different: Insights into the actual experience of grappling with particular thinkers and how this has contributed to his own development as an individual and a teacher.

Rather than a marathon run through the canon, Rescuing Socrates describes Montas’s encounter with four great minds — Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi –  to illustrate what genuine engagement with potent ideas, rendered provocatively, can be like and how this process can contribute to self-understanding.

A heartbreakingly honest immigrant tale of displacement, loss, wrenching readjustment, and self-discovery, this book also offers a gripping account of how participation in the great conversation over justice, ethics, citizenship, and the nature of the good life can subvert hierarchies of privilege, redeem lost souls, open minds, and transform lives.

Just eleven years old when he arrived at JFK from Cambita Garabitos, a rural town in the Dominican Republic, to join his mother (who had left for the United States two years earlier), he knew virtually no English.  But thanks to a Higher Education Opportunity Program scholarship, he would eventually earn a bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia, and subsequently become director of that institution’s core curriculum and founder of a Great Books program for low-income students.

This, however, is not a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale. Brutally honest, Montas describes, in wrenching detail, challenges he has had to come to terms with, including abandonment by his father and a broken marriage and the pains and complexities of leaving one social class and culture for another.  Fortuity, chance, and contingency, he acknowledges, played crucial roles in his own odyssey of discovery.

Montas’s defense of a liberal education is partly academic and intellectual, but also profoundly personal.  Even though his father had only a sixth grade education, the older Montas was steeped in an intellectual tradition, largely Marxist, that helped motivate his opposition to the Dominican strongman Joaquin Balaguer in the 1970s. 

There is much to learn from that example.

For far too long, he argues, the American educational system steered the working class toward a practical or vocational or technical education.  Working-class students learned, in countless ways, that a liberal education was only for the privileged and the pampered.   But, as he argues eloquently, to deny working-class students access to the canon is to deprive them of essential resources for political agency.  A liberal education, he insists “is the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.”

In addition to showing how engagement with great books helped him make sense of his own life, Montas offers a devastating critique of the practice of liberal education in the contemporary university and a critical analysis of the downsides of the triumph of the “research ideal.  As he puts it:  “Too often, professional practitioners of liberal education—professors and college administrators—have corrupted their activity by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic pursuits that only have meaning within their own institutional and career aspirations.”

He also wrestles with postmodern approaches to the canon, rejecting the idea that a liberal education ought to be, first and foremost, “fundamentally critical and deconstructive, aimed at puncturing the pretensions of power elites and exposing the complicity of traditional hierarchies of value in systems of oppression and subjugation.”  Rather than simply teaching students to see “the contingency and instrumentality of all value systems,” he wants them to use their interaction with classic texts to define their own value system.

In recent years, defenses of a liberal education have become ever more airy and abstract: That it provides transferrable skills or core competencies or 21st century literacies or simply the ability to think critically.  But, as Montas makes clear, none of these convey the central features of a liberal education, which entails making sense of one’s identity, delineating a set of values, and plotting a direction in life.

No portion of this book is likely to be more controversial than Montas’s heartfelt defense of the Eurocentricity of a Great Books curriculum (which, of course, isn’t as Eurocentric as many claim).  Here, in a nutshell, is the argument he advances:  “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.'”

Or as the great historical sociologist Orlando Patterson once suggested in a teacher seminar, you must know a culture from the inside if you hope to interrogate or critique that culture.

At a time when the traditional canon is often dismissed as an archaic and elitist relic of patriarchy and thinly veiled defense of colonialism, Rescuing Socrates demonstrates decisively how such works can help students mature morally, psychologically, and socially, overcome naiveté, innocence, and unsophistication, come to terms with life’s travails and disappointments, and take charge of their own direction in life.

I find it bitterly ironic that many of the staunchest advocates for a faster, cheaper education had, themselves, the benefits of a liberal education.  Now, in the name of access, affordability, and credential attainment, too many call for a cheaper, faster, career-focused education, dismissing a liberal education for the masses as a fool’s errand.  

Rescuing Socrates offers a vivid reminder that the purpose of a higher education is not simply to cultivate marketable skills or offer a useful credential, but to do what Ignacius meant by Cura Personalis or what Cicero called for when he described a humanistic education as a process and not a body of content or a mess of skills.

Transformation and growth – these are the twin goals of liberal education.  I can only hope that Rescuing Socrateswill help shift the direction of undergraduate education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.