Living With the Questions: Roosevelt Montás and the Tricky Thing about Liberal Education

Roosevelt Montás. Photo: Susie Day.

Roosevelt Montás spent his first eleven years in a mountain town in the Dominican Republic. His father, a self-taught Marxist with a sixth-grade education, was dedicated to fighting the Balaguer regime, installed by a 1965 US-sponsored coup. “I understood early in life the realpolitik of American cold war policy, and how it was used to justify abuses in Latin America,” writes Roosevelt. “I saw Dad go to jail … el Yanqui Imperialismo was a norm of international relations with which I was well acquainted.”

Just before Roosevelt turned 12, he, with his father and brother, came to New York to live with the rest of their family. Like millions of immigrants, they simply wanted a better life. But life was hard and Roosevelt’s father, finding the Yanqui zeitgeist unbearable, went back home. Roosevelt, devastated, nevertheless hung on to his father’s sense of politics, which told him that “there was a world out there to be understood; that I belonged in the conversation.”

Roosevelt’s conversation can now be heard at Columbia University, where he is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English. He is all about liberal education and the Western tradition of “great books,” and he loves teaching them to underserved immigrant high school kids who want to go to college. Because he feels liberal education is currently endangered, he’s just published his first book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.

Rescuing Socrates hasn’t been translated into Spanish yet, so Roosevelt’s father hasn’t read it. But I have. And, since I may have more in common with his father than with Roosevelt, I wanted to know why he wrote this book. Here’s what happened.

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sd:  OK, Greek classics. You write that Aristotle sees education as “given not because it’s useful or necessary but because it is noble and suitable for a free person.” Doesn’t “free person” imply the reality that ancient Greece enslaved people? How, coming from your anti-imperialist background, are you able to countenance this?

RM:  Aristotle does not think people are equal. Even though he’s sympathetic to the idea of a form of government in which – among equals – there is democracy and rule by consent, he doesn’t think democracy should extend universally. For example, he thinks that women are not capable of the deliberative thinking that would make them fit citizens in a democracy. And he thinks that some people are, in fact, slaves by nature. We reject that; we believe that all people are, by right, free.

sd:  John Cleese, one of the Monty Python boys, tweeted during the protests following George Floyd’s murder, when statues of people like Robert E. Lee were being toppled, that, given the atrocity of slavery, shouldn’t we also be pulling down statues of Aristotle and Socrates?

RM:  It’s a complex question. I’m very happy with toppling statues of Robert E. Lee because of his defending the system of slavery militarily – tear that shit down. But Aristotle’s whole philosophy is not about supporting slavery. The contributions he’s made to our thinking and to the world are far from that. So where do you draw the line?

sd:  Draw it democratically? Isn’t ancient Athens supposed to be the birthplace of democracy?

RM:  Yeah, but pretty much all the ancient political theorists hate democracy, which they see as a degraded form of political organization – in part because of the experience of Athens, where Socrates and Plato lived. In Athens, democracy became imperial; democracy fought a bloody war against a despotic regime and lost; democracy murdered Socrates. There’s a line in Aquinas, where he says that democracy is a government in which the poor oppress the rich.

Plato’s Republic – the ideal society Plato imagines – is not a democracy; it’s a hierarchical society, the top being philosophers, the wisest people, who rule. Aristotle is much more sympathetic to a kind of direct – not representative – democracy. But as he says, democracy is rule among equals; not for people who are unequal.

sd:  I would think, given this mindset, that Martin Luther King’s statement, “No one is free until we’re all free” would be anathema to these guys.

RM:  Oh, absolutely.

sd:  So why teach these prejudiced texts written by privileged jerks?

RM:  We don’t teach their texts because they’re the highest repositories of truth and wisdom; we teach them as provocations for debate – to understand how our world has come to be as it is — the good and the bad. We certainly disagree with a lot of what they say, but the fact that we disagree with them is because they set the categories of the debate in the first place. To grapple with those fundamental questions, I think, is the most effective way of achieving a political education – again, looking at them as sources of provocation and debate.

sd:  Which is Socratic?

RM:  Exactly. Democracy doesn’t get any respect or consideration, really, until the Enlightenment. The idea that everybody is equal, everybody is fit for citizenship, will take 2,000 years to get traction in Western political thought.

I’m glad you bring up Martin Luther King. I wrote a piece in the Financial Times about the semester Dr. King spent as an adjunct professor at Morehouse. He taught this course called Social Philosophy, and it included Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, St. Augustine, Locke, Rousseau, all those old texts.

We read those texts because our own thinking about social justice, about the way society is organized, emerges from that tradition of thought and deliberation and debate. Our institutions, our values, our norms, our ideals, our prejudices all have a history. That history is nowhere traced more clearly than in the textual tradition we call the great books. Those texts speak to questions we continue to grapple with.

For example, Aristotle’s notion that we’re not equal? Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, says Aristotle was wrong; people are essentially the same and all our distinctions are just products of education. That’s an evolution of thought through a tradition of debate and change.

sd:  You say the Enlightenment ushered in a broader concept of democracy. But the Enlightenment occurred at the time of, was probably made possible by, colonialism and slavery.

RM:  Right. Slavery was at its peak. But the Enlightenment also gives birth to a critique of slavery, to its rejection, and eventually overturns it. I mean, we still have some slavery going on, but very few people now defend it.

That is to say, slavery has been the norm rather than the exception in human history. I think it’s some kind of achievement that in the last 300 years, during thecapitalist, industrial business of commercial exploitation, we’ve come to unambiguously consider it a fundamental violation of human dignity. It’s one of the good things about the Enlightenment.

When you look back, sometimes you imagine there’s only oppression and exploitation, but you can also see challenges to those systems. You see people arguing for new ways, Marx being a prominent example. But also Rousseau, who has these romantic ideas that have been used to justify colonial exploitation, but was a fierce arguer against slavery when it was normative and a big part of the European economy. So it’s a tradition with values we embrace and argue for, and values we condemn and reject.

sd:  The common perception of the “liberally educated” person, though, is pretty damning. You carry an NPR tote bag, you occasionally vote, but you don’t do much.

RM:  This person you’re describing as disaffected, go-along, status-quo-supporting is just the product of bourgeois culture – which works for people with and without liberal educations. Some of the most important activists, people we look up to, were liberally educated and put their liberal education to work.

sd:  Name names.

RM:  Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – self-educated but liberally educated, nonetheless. Franz Fanon. Karl Marx, of course – white guy from Germany and totally a Western philosopher; if you read the Western canon, you need to read Marx. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who are challenging racial understanding. Their writing employs the fruits of a liberal education.

sd:  But I don’t think most of them would sit down and quote Aristotle to you.

RM:  You’d be surprised, but that’s not what makes one liberally educated. You can get educated outside of that. You don’t even need to be literate, to get a liberal education.

sd:  What?

RM:  It’s possible that Socrates himself was illiterate. In Plato’s telling, he was definitely against the practice of writing. Books and institutions are useful to encourage and structure the reflection and free inquiry that constitute a liberal education, but they’re vehicles, not the thing itself.

sd:  Could you say, then, that liberal education is more a state of mind than actual knowledge of great books?

RM:  It’s a practice, not a state. A liberally educated person is such not because of the facts they know, but because of the way they think about their life and the world; the way they live what Socrates called “an examined life,” investigating the nature of the human good and what it means to live a good life. The political and literary tradition in great books, I think, is the best way to achieve that education in a college curriculum.

sd:  Going back to the ancients.

RM:  Yes, there’s tremendous value in encountering ancient figures. For one thing, it gives you a sense of the contingency of your own ideas. The way we understand those ancient writers as circumscribed and limited by the paradigms and cultural viewpoints in which they were immersed immediately implies that you are also in a cultural matrix.

You yourself are confined and delimited in particular ways that are not visible to you. That is extraordinarily powerful. Sometimes that happens with religious texts. Of course, the difference between a liberal and a religious education is that religion purports to give you the answers. A liberal education just gives you the questions.

sd:  If you’re asking us to examine root cultural assumptions, couldn’t this also be called radical education?

RM:  Right. “Radical,” emphasizing its engagement with the root questions, texts, debates, etc., that have shaped contemporary culture. And “liberal” education emphasizes its concern with human freedom.

sd:  What do you think a liberal/radical education should be today?

RM:  Based on a contemporary democratic vision, with our idea that everyone is equal, this education has to take in history and economics and science and religion and ethics – there’s no area of human life that lies outside the questions the mass of people should engage in. Debating policy in Ukraine; what to do about inflation, require a critical capacity that liberal education tries to deliver.

sd:  But because most of us aren’t allowed into these debates, some of us take to the streets. So pretend you’re talking to a roomful of activists who demand an overhaul of this incredibly unjust, racist system that’s destroying the planet. How would your great-books curriculum swing that?

RM:  First thing is, there are different spheres of action. If you want to organize around, say, changing environmental laws, then you should be getting signatures and lobbying, not reading philosophical texts.

Liberal education is politically transformative; it empowers people – especially marginalized people who have been out of political power, who don’t have a voice. But when you teach liberal education with an ideological end – when you think you know the answer, and you’re teaching the text to advance that – then you’re doing what religion does. Like, if you think you’ve figured out racism and you want to teach a curriculum to persuade people what the answers are, you’re not doing liberal education. Liberal education lives in the questions.

Questions like, Where did the idea of race come from; Why is society structured in this way; What are the antecedents to the ideology? If you want to fight for racial justice, for environmental justice, you’d be more effective with the tools a liberal education will give you. But I don’t think it can be subordinated to ideological agendas.

I should qualify that by saying that there are certain notions that have always been central to liberal education, like justice and equality. They pervade the tradition at such a deep level that you can’t do liberal education without implicitly promoting them. But they’re very general values.

That’s the tricky thing about liberal education; it doesn’t mix well with mass movements because of the almost inevitable reduction and simplification and sloganeering around which you need to organize masses of people. The intellectual is on the sidelines, asking the hard questions – and wary of mass certainty. Whether it’s the left, the right, or religion: mass movements don’t like liberal education.

sd:  I remember in your book, when you realized your dad’s political movements often became as corrupt and overbearing as the governments they fought –

RM:  Yeah, when some of them came into power, they’d end up doing the same oppressive things the earlier ones did.

sd:  Like in Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”

RM:  Right: “Underwear will be worn on the OUTSIDE!”

sd:  But at the same time, it’s not an argument to give up activism.

RM:  Exactly. Because we have to fight, to paraphrase Lincoln, for the right as we see it.

sd:  Besides your Columbia courses, you teach high school kids, immigrants, usually the first in their families to have a chance at college. What do you get from this?

RM:  Teaching them is what I live for. It’s like seeing the world open up in front of them in new ways. I know what this education did for me, and what it can do for people from backgrounds like mine. I know that in my bones.

Some of my students get turned on to politics. One, after we’d read Aristotle, was like, “I want to do this stuff, study and be a political animal.” He’s now the City Council representative for District Seven, Upper West Side of Manhattan. A lot of them go into teaching, into health service professions, activism, community organizing, nonprofits, all kinds of directions. But 99-point-something percent of our kids go on to college.

sd:  You write about teaching students of color: “we do them an unconscionable disservice when we steer them away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum.” But there’s an urgency from people who’ve been shut out of this system for their lives and cultures to be included. Don’t you think that’s legitimate?

RM:  Legitimate, but not instead of. What’s happened in general is that people have said: Pick one or the other. My wife is a white woman from the Midwest. The idea that Shakespeare is more relevant to her than to me – that somehow she has more connection to Elizabethan culture that I have – is outrageous and condescending. It’s easy to see the liberatory impulse of including what’s been excluded; it’s very hard to affirm and integrate that liberatory vision without losing the traditional one. That choice – restricting access to this cultural, social, philosophical, ethical, and intellectual capital – has been to the detriment of the very people we want to empower. We have to read contemporary texts in addition to, not instead of.

sd:  Speaking of addition, don’t you think part of the point of this liberatory movement is to include texts from ancient Africa and Asia and the Mideast in this so-called Western canon?

RM:  They’re extraordinarily valuable. I dedicate a chapter of my book to Gandhi, who comes from a nonwestern tradition, although he’s also a deep student of Western tradition. The big questions that animate the so-called great books are not Western questions; they’re just human questions.

I think, however, that if you’re doing liberal education in China or India or Africa, there’ll be a different lineage with a special relevance to the world in which you live, just as there is a centrality of the Western tradition in Western cultures. To be liberally educated is to engage in those traditions as well.

sd:  When you say “Western tradition,” do you mean essentially dead-white-male European?

RM:  The ancient Greeks certainly didn’t think of themselves as European; that category didn’t exist then. I think about it as a Mediterranean tradition, that is, the Mediterranean Sea, with Europe on one side and Africa on the other and the Middle East and Asia Minor – there’s a kind of cultural matrix there, of texts, wars, empire, trade – like one big conversation. It’s not monolithic; it’s very interconnected.

sd:  But within the realpolitik of liberal education, isn’t there an implicit power structure based on race, economics, the military, that doesn’t want to let go? The philosophers and thinkers you write about – whether they were actually white themselves – are identified by white people as theirs. For instance, white culture has made friends with Gandhi’s nonviolence movement, as long as it stays nonviolent and nonthreatening.

RM:  That’s right. But we have to wrest this tradition from those power interests, not cede it to them. It’s not that Gandhi and Martin Luther King aren’t radical thinkers; it’s that they can be appropriated for legitimating oppressive systems. Aristotle has been used to legitimate slavery, but we shouldn’t therefore cede Aristotle to the racists. There’s a lot in Aristotle that’s extraordinarily valuable for undoing those structures of oppression.

sd:  If Martin Luther King were alive today, how do you think he would upgrade his syllabus?

RM:  Self-criticism has been part of this tradition all along, so I think, if King were alive today, he’d be teaching contemporary texts like The 1619 Project, reevaluating the tradition from that critical perspective. His Morehouse syllabus only went to the 19th century, but I think he’d include what we’d call radical thinkers today, W.E.B. Du Bois, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault. On a more literary note, I would expect Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine…

sd:  I still have problems with calling this education liberal. I’m not a liberal – how can I be having this conversation?

RM:  That, you know, is a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s happened is that, because the left has been so suspicious, teaching the great books has been left to conservatives, to the political right. I think that’s a huge strategic mistake. One example I’m living with now is that every conservative publication is writing positive reviews of my book. This makes me nervous…

sd:  For those of us who don’t have much time to read, let alone take classes, how do we keep alive our learning and debate if we have jobs and kids, and society has taught us in various ways that we’re not capable of understanding great books in the first place?

RM:  I think more liberal education happens outside universities than in. Engagement with our social reality – whether you listen to the news or debate with your coworkers or family the issues in the national and international consciousness – is enormously important. That’s the activity of liberal education. Use the spaces you have. Follow your interests.

We didn’t talk about movies. Movies very much occupy the same space books used to. Seeing movies or watching TV – fiction or documentaries – offers material to debate and analyze; that’s a liberal education. If you have the room, read some of this old stuff with other people. If you’re interested in Marx, pick up the Communist Manifesto and get three friends to read it with you over dinner once a month – just talk about it.

One thing about liberal education is that it takes place in a little bubble that’s called leisure, right? A little bubble you set aside from the practicalities of making a living, doing the dishes, getting your kids to school, paying the bills, political activism. There’s this little thing over here that you do to shape your problem-solving mind – because it cultivates an aspect of your humanity that doesn’t have a utilitarian function.

Of course, part of our problem is that our economy and social structure condemn many people to very little, often none at all, of that space. But that’s where liberal education happens. It’s a space not in the service of anything else.

Note.

Roosevelt Montás, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 248 pp, hardcover 978-0691200392