The Classics are for Everyone
Roosevelt Montás and Yascha Mounk discuss the universal appeal of great books.
Roosevelt Montás is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia University, where he was Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum from 2008 to 2018. He is the author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.
In this week’s conversation, Roosevelt Montás and Yascha Mounk discuss how a copy of Plato he found atop a pile of trash as a child unlocked his future, the drawbacks of exclusively teaching material that is "culturally responsive," and how to put the ideals of liberal education into practice.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You tell this moving story of how a set of books instead of offers changed your life. Tell us a little bit about your childhood and how you first came into contact with these books.
Roosevelt Montás: I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to New York in the mid 80s, as sort of the earlier part of a huge wave of emigration from the Dominican Republic that's still going strong, all kind of built on the legal infrastructure of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. I was two days shy of my 12th birthday. I came to Queens not speaking English, and under severe resource constraints—I guess that's another way of saying very poor. I grew up in a small, rural village. Sometimes I said that I grew up in the 19th century because we didn't have many of the amenities of modern life like appliances, TV or telephone or stove, refrigerator, paved roads. It was really kind of a little agricultural society, our town.
Mounk: Coming to New York wasn't just a cultural and linguistic shock, but it really was an economic shock. You were suddenly in a huge city with all of the excitement and all of the things that might be scary as a kid when you first arrived, coming from a village.
Montás: Exactly. There was a kind of profound cultural abrading that anybody who goes from one society to another experiences, that was compounded by the fact that I didn't have the language, that I was 12 years old (that's a hard age for anybody), and that we lived in a very precarious situation; my mother had a minimum wage job in a garment factory, which she lost shortly after my brother and I joined her. So we spent some years on the margins and on the edge, without a sense of what would happen next. My family didn't go to college—my mother didn't finish high school, my father didn't even attend high school. We didn't have a good way to orient ourselves here.
That is, in some ways, typical of many of my acquaintances and relatives and fellow Dominican immigrants. That immigration wave I described was largely a wave of poor immigrants—in some sense, economic exiles—fleeing the corruption and disorder of Dominican society after a period where the doors were closed. Once the doors to immigration opened up, there was this huge flow. So, in some ways, my journey was not atypical. But it certainly was not easy. It was a series of great fortunes that landed me where I live today. One episode that I relate in the book was finding this volume of Plato's dialogues in a garbage pile out next to my house. Reading that book both awakened me to the life of the mind, the possibilities of an intellectual life and of a kind of source of meaning and existential, philosophical orientation that was, in some ways, a refuge for me. And that book also initiated a relationship in my high school with a teacher that turned out to be very important to me.
Mounk: What was that experience like in school?
Montás: I went to the local middle school, I.S. 61 in Queens, and it was in some ways a typical school in that it was overcrowded and overburdened. I was in the bilingual program, which is probably even less well-resourced and overcrowded than other parts of the school. Bilingual education in New York City means primarily that you're educated in your native language—in this case, Spanish—in a very large and robust bilingual education program with intense English instruction. Your main subjects, math and science and history etc, are done primarily in Spanish with a lot of reinforcement of key vocabulary in English, and in very intensive ESL (English as a second language instruction).
That worked very well for me. I learned English fairly quickly and effectively. But it doesn't work for a lot of people. There is a kind of a pattern where people who enter the bilingual education program never leave it. Or their language instruction comes at the expense of moving forward in their academic subjects. And indeed, I quickly became a translator for my family—not just linguistically, but navigating the bureaucracies of New York City and the culture of the United States. I remember endless hours of various kinds of social service and agencies, welfare applications, housing assistance, food stamps and healthcare at the hospitals; just grueling. One of the lessons I draw from that experience is just how humiliating it is to depend and to go through the bureaucracies for public assistance. I know them first-hand in New York City. I don't imagine that they are extraordinarily different elsewhere, but they are just personally degrading in a very scandalous way that any group of people who are socially empowered would not tolerate. But it does take advantage of the helplessness of people who seek those services.
You can see aspects of this in the public school system. And one of the reasons why the public school system so often fails is because students don't feel themselves to be treated with the dignity that they know they deserve. So they turn against schooling and instruction and develop a kind of adversarial, hostile attitude to the entire project. It's kind of criminal that we do that. And again, this is not just specifically New York City. I am the product of New York City public education and feel extraordinarily grateful for the possibilities that it opened for me. Nonetheless, there is much about the system that is predictably designed for failure.
Mounk: Was there a recognition by teachers that you're smart and engaged and talented, and did they try to push you and give you opportunities? Or were you mostly ignored in the classroom by teachers who figured, “We don't have to worry about him, he seems to be getting on fine”? What did your intellectual development look like up until the moment when you found this book?
Montás: It is something of a combination of both. On the one hand, you want to not be noticed, to be lost in the crowd, which was very easy to do. You don't want to stick out. But then there were some individuals that—I sometimes describe it by saying that I felt seen by them, the individual teachers who went over and above the requirements of their teaching; who notice you and find a way to acknowledge and cultivate something that they recognize in you. I should say that I was not a standout student. I was not a star. I was a good student, but I was not at the top of my class. I was near the top. But there were a handful of students that were better than I was, that got better grades and were more dedicated. I was intellectually curious, I cared about big ideas, I was in some ways a misfit, a nerd, kind of socially insoluble in the environment, and in the long run that ended up being helpful to me: I think that there were distractions and social outlets that I didn't have, which then focused my energies on books, learning, and a kind of self cultivation. But I do like to emphasize the fact that it was not my extraordinariness that accounts for the kind of life I had lived. And I feel that if the right encouragement, conditions and opportunities were made available to dozens of my peers, they would have had careers as intellectually expansive and accomplished, in many different ways, as I did. As we all know, success is something that is built on a whole series of social conditions and encouragement. I happened to find those in kind of idiosyncratic ways that were not necessarily built into the system.
Mounk: You said that you discovered some dialogues by Plato and that really got you engaged and led to a relationship with a teacher who encouraged you. You saw this book on a dumpster. What made you pick it up?
Montás: I should mention that I think there was one important condition from my childhood. I grew up in the Dominican Republic with a father who was politically active in a Marxist, left wing, armed resistance to the strong man in the Dominican Republic, Joaquín Balaguer. And I grew up surrounded by ideas and debates. My father was always reading. He’s a great self-taught intellectual. So I had an orientation towards books and ideas, I sort of knew that there was an answer there, a path to social relevance.
One thing I point out in my book is that Americans throw away a lot of perfectly good stuff. And it's something that is kind of legendary in the Dominican Republic, that New York is a place where we can just walk the streets and look at the garbage piles and find all kinds of perfectly good things, you know, furniture and appliances and clothing. Well, there were just these large piles of books, some of the books were quite beautiful, and I only picked up two volumes. My English wasn't good enough really, and I wasn't a reader. But these were volumes that were, as it turns out, part of a series called the Harvard Universal Classics. They are leather bound, with gilded edged pages, and were clearly published to be placed on pretentious bookshelves to give an air of learning and scholarship.
That set that I found dumped there—I'm sure that many have eventually been purged this way. But that really caught my attention. So I brought them home, and started reading Plato's dialogues, and the dialogues contained there included the Apology of Socrates and the Crito, where Socrates turns down an invitation to flee his prison and escape the death sentence he has been given—extraordinarily compelling stuff. And I use those dialogues today to teach summer high school students who are kind of like me—low income, mainly immigrants, first generation college-bound—and I see the students experience something like what I experienced, being captivated by this figure and invited into a way of thinking about the world, politics, and their social reality, that in many cases is new and extraordinarily empowering.
So, haltingly, I started reading this book, and a teacher at school saw me in the hallway reading it and approached me. He got very excited. He was Greek himself and had a classical education at Princeton, and ended up teaching high school after retiring from a career in business, kind of driven by a sense of mission. And so often it happens that it's individuals like this that make the difference in one's life, whether you are someone like me who didn't have access to many resources, or someone who has access to every kind of resource. It's still individuals that tend to do that profound work of reorienting or of impacting you.
Mounk: And what was most important in the role that he played? Was it just having somebody to talk to about those ideas and somebody who perhaps could help you place them in context a little bit and tell you a little bit more about them? Or was it the practical advice that he may have had: how can you think about setting your ambitions to get into a good college?
Montás: A lot of it was simply the relationship. He was never my teacher. I never had a class with him. But we would often stay after school. And I remember when I was in high school, one of the things that was going on was the First Gulf War, after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. I remember digesting the news and understanding the geopolitics and what NATO was. And so we would just have these very extraordinarily rich conversations, kind of philosophical, political, historical. And part of what it did was to provide a kind of emotional support, a sense of: “I have here access to a different kind of world, someone who cares about me and is processing my world with me.”
It seems to me that a lot of it was this emotionally nourishing space that he gave me. The fact that there is an adult who pays attention to you, who seems to see you, to care and mind you as an individual. And then there were some practical things. He was the person who encouraged me to apply to Columbia. He was the only person to read my personal statement. I applied to college entirely on my own and, first of all, did not know that a personal statement is something that you should really pore over and work very hard on. He read one draft and improved it a lot by his comments, but that was it, that one reading. That was all the intervention I got, but it made a huge difference.
Mounk: When did you start thinking of that as a real option for what to do with life? Which is to say: I think even a lot of people who come from material security—who know they're never going to have to worry too much about money, whose parents may have gone to grad school, and so on—often don't think they could go and be a college professor, and make their life about ideas in a profound way. Clearly you realized at some point, “Hey, I'm pretty good at this. I love these ideas, and this can actually be my life.”
Montás: It began to come into view quite early. That is, I wanted to find a way to make a living by thinking, reading, and talking about what I was reading. I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know if that meant being a professor or a writer, or even some kind of lawyer or a reporter. As I approached the end of college, it was very clear to me that I wasn't done, that I had begun my education and was not prepared to stop. I was not prepared to go and find a job. And in this sense, having grown up poor was a bit of an advantage, because having a work-study job (which I did all through college, 20 hours a week), I was making more money and was living more comfortably. I had health insurance, I had a meal plan, and I did not feel the ambition to go out and start making money, or to go and get a job. I was perfectly fine continuing that relative student poverty, which felt like quite an achievement to me as it was.
So when I was approaching graduation, I decided to apply to graduate schools, not really thinking necessarily of a life as a professor. I understood enough about what life in academia meant, and I felt very committed to living in New York City. I couldn't emotionally or psychologically handle the idea of moving to some place that I had no reason to be except that I had a job there. So I went to graduate school because I wanted to think, I wanted to read, I wanted to write, and then I would figure out how I would make a living, including possibly being a professor, but not necessarily. And that actually lifted a huge burden off my time in graduate school. Sometimes I think that I was the only happy graduate student of my cohort, because everybody was just angling to find one of the few jobs in the humanities that there could be. Everything they read and what they wrote and who they talked to, and what conferences they went to, was organized around attaining this fairly narrow and rare prize that most people were not going to attain. I was kind of liberated from all of that. That wasn't what I was there to do.
And that has meant that even though I'm an academic, I've had a very unconventional career. I don't have tenure at Columbia. I've just published this book that doesn't engage with my real academic specialty (I'm an Americanist, I do American political thought.) But this book I just wrote talks about Plato and Augustine and Freud and Gandhi. So the life of thinking and writing and talking about ideas came into view fairly early on, but not this particular path. It's still quite under construction, as it were. It's not clear to me where I'm gonna be five or ten years from now.
Mounk: It’s the great tragedy of a lot of intellectual talent in the United States, and probably universities around the world, that they pursue a PhD because they are excited about ideas and questions in the world, and then they become professionalized. Perhaps you’re interested in X and think about it in this way; but to get a job, you really should be studying Y and doing it in that way. And I think that the promise of tenure is really pernicious in that way. For reasons of academic freedom I support tenure, but I feel very ambivalent about it. You’re in the desert, and there’s this oasis of absolute security and absolute freedom that you're always looking at and working towards. But given the timescales involved, by the time you get there, you’re usually 40 years old or something like that; seven or eight years of grad school, and three years of postdoc, and seven years of the tenure clock, so let's say 15 to 20 years doing the work you're supposed to do rather than the work you're really excited by. You're not suddenly going to turn around and pursue your real interests once you have tenure.
Montás: You’re already invested in a professional identity with colleagues and publications and institutional structures. And that's why I see one justification for tenure. And it's the one you said; it's academic freedom. And that often means that the tenure protections allow you to raise uncomfortable questions, especially about the institution you're in. And I think that's hugely important and ought to be protected. But it's very seldom used in that way. That is, it's rare that even a tenured professor would raise these uncomfortable questions to the administration, to the governance of the university.
The downsides of tenure are quite significant. And it is not to me a perfectly obvious conclusion that the tenure system as we have it today is worth the costs. It seems to me that there are real ways to ensure academic freedom that might evade some of the negative aspects of the existing tenure system. But I guess that would be another conversation.
Mounk: There is a strong pedagogical ideology at the moment of culturally responsive teaching, where the idea is that you want to make the material you teach relevant to the cultures—particularly the identities—of the people you're teaching. I think there are versions of that which I find perfectly sensible and appropriate, but often, the implicit assumption is, to put it starkly, that a poor boy from the Dominican Republic whose parents didn't have a lot of education is just not going to be interested in Plato or Gandhi or Augustine. So let's give them some contemporary anime set in the Dominican Republic, and they'll be able to relate to it. And there may be wonderful contemporary anime set in the Dominican Republic! If they’re of a high literary quality, I have no problem with that. How do you feel about this way of thinking of what and how you should teach?
Montás: As with many other kinds of pedagogical theories, you often begin with an important insight and then you formalize it into a curriculum or a pedagogical ideology (sometimes this becomes political, a kind of a policy question), and then you end up doing a complete disservice to the students. I believe this idea of culturally responsive teaching to be an extreme kind of fraud. Yes, you should take into account the kind of the cultural wealth and knowledge and richness of your pupil in organizing how you will present the information, and draw and build on that. When it's done well and thoughtfully, it’s entirely beneficial, appropriate and overall, a good thing. A very powerful thing. But that so easily devolves into a stereotyped kind of cardboard cutout of what this culture is, or what is culturally relevant. I often hear people say, “Oh, in the Dominican Republic, if you go to a lunch and somebody gives you a plate of food and you don't eat at all, that is going to be offensive to the host” —as if the person who’s serving your dinner will not realize that you're an American, that you don't understand the culture, and will just interpret your behavior to this very rigid cultural paradigm. There are all kinds of caricatures that easily play into that, by sometimes well meaning thinkers or practitioners.
Then there is this other aspect of it that is very dangerous. You alluded to this condescending notion that people who are from certain cultures, or certain racial or ethnic minorities, somehow don't have the human apparatus to connect to big fundamental questions that some other student or individual does. My wife is an American white woman, and this culturally responsive approach to teaching easily falls into something like the idea that Dante is appropriate for her, but not for me. You know, “Give Roosevelt Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Junot Diaz, and give Leigh Plato and Aristotle.” There is a reductionist and narrowness and ultimately a condescension to that attitude that pervades education. I think we have done more damage than good by incorporating that type of thinking into our curriculum. I, as a high school student, found Plato to be very affirming. I found that Plato affirmed the deepest aspects of my identity. By Plato I mean Socrates, really—at least the figure that Plato gives us of Socrates. That had nothing to do with my ethnicity and with my language and with my culture; it had something to do more fundamentally with my sense of self, with the possibilities of living in a society. This happens over and over again—I see students are able to connect with, say, Dante, not because Dante is Italian and because it's rooted in medieval Catholic theology; there's something else in Dante, a point of connection that makes Dante no closer to an Italian American than to a Dominican American.
Mounk: One of the things that I find weird about this, as you're saying, is that the logical implication of “Only Spanish or Latino literature will appeal to somebody from the Dominican Republic,” is that only English people are truly going to get Shakespeare, which is deeply offensive. Though, when it comes to somebody like Socrates, it's also the weird metaphysics that's going on. Socrates lived so long ago, in a society that was so different from either the New York of 1985 or the Dominican Republic of 1985. Which of those two societies was closer to Socrates? I have no way to begin to answer that question. So there's an odd idea, when you think about transhistorical white identity, where suddenly, the kid with roots that are not at all in Greece, living in a highly technologically, economically complex and diverse society in the 21st century, somehow is supposed to be just like Socrates. It's just such a weird way of thinking about what it is to be human and how our contemporary identities map onto the past.
Montás: And the sad thing is that it involves a certain kind of reductionism and essentialism that was invented, historically, as a tool of oppression. This notion of whiteness and blackness and this cultural essentialism develops in the service of racial supremacism, exploitation, enslavement, and absolute dehumanization of the other. Today, the logic is adopted so easily into a discourse that poses itself as progressive, anti-racist, and social justice-oriented. I don't really question the intentions of people who advance this, but I do think that they are making a fundamental mistake and reproducing the categories that are the exact same tools that produce the oppression that they're fighting.
Mounk: I've been doing a lot of reading to understand the identity-based ideology which has become so powerful today. And I think one of the crucial hinge points in this is actually a colleague of yours at Columbia—Gayatri Spivak’s notion of strategic essentialism, which she sort of throws out there in an interview in the 1980s. She's been critical about how it's been used, so I don't want to put it on her exactly. But there’s a characteristic move today where somebody who's “woke” will say, “We understand that all of these identities are socially constructed, we always emphasize that they are socially constructed. But people are oppressed along the lines of these identities. And therefore to fight back, it's really important that they organize around these identities: to all intents and purposes, we treat these identities as if the essentialist account of them were right”—as though there is this transhistorical whiteness which somehow connects Socrates to somebody who comes from a WASP family in the United States, but not to you.
I love it when I have students who come from all kinds of different backgrounds and have different life experiences which they can bring in. That is an enrichment of the classroom, absolutely. Clearly, your story informs who you are and how you see the world, but it doesn't limit it. How do we combine this appreciation for where people come from—what their story is and how it informs them—with a rejection of the kind of essentialism that would say, “Socrates is not for you”?
Montás: Gayatri Spivak is a friend and someone who I respect. And I think there is a very rarefied, theoretical, heady world that understands what strategic essentialism is, and uses it self-consciously as a strategy. But when you get down to mass organizing, and mass movement, and the discursive regime that increasingly dominates our public sphere, nobody knows what strategic essentialism is and nobody thinks in those terms (the kind of nuance that says, “we will provisionally strategically organize around this category in order to mobilize mass movements and get something done, while remembering that it is a kind of a fiction.”) What we have today is essentialism without the strategy. Contemporary social justice warriors, by and large, believe the essentialism and are not using it strategically, but are fully committed to this essentialist notion of identity.
Mounk: My sense is: What we have is essentialism combined with lip service to its socially constructed nature. You may hear in those kinds of progressive spaces, “Race is socially constructed.” But that's nearly like a sort of mantra that then gets ignored for practical purposes.
Montás: There's another aspect to the ideological posture that pays lip service to strategic essentialism, which is a posture that says that all that matters is power. That is, that you have no standard of truth, goodness, virtue or justice to refer to; that all there is is a contest for power and anything that allows you to exercise or to obtain power is fair game. So, whether we are essentializing and dehumanizing, if we do it in the service of acquiring power, then it's fair game because all it boils down to in the end is power. I think that that is in some way an adoption of the kind of ideological premise that develops in the context of oppression, subjugation, and exploitation, and that has been just kind of ingested and deployed by the very people who were the primary victims of that type of thinking.
Mounk: You led the core curriculum at Columbia University for a long time. You are a defender of the relevance of the ideas of people like Socrates and Augustine and Gandhi to a young, very diverse generation of Americans. How should we be defending the relevance of these ideas, and what does that mean for how universities, and how all of us, should act?
Montás: One can begin by recognizing that the present has a past; that the categories, the institutions, the ethical norms, political procedures, economic structures of society—all of that has a history. And understanding that history is the most empowering kind of education if you want to alter, to intervene in, to adapt the current world. To understand that past means looking at its sources, and its sources are sometimes called “the classics,” sometimes called “great books.” This doesn't only mean poetry—it also means documents, debates, and philosophical treatises. But there is a whole kind of humanist tradition of debate, expression, and artistic exploration that lies at the foundation of our society. The best way to educate a human being to be a conscious, effective agent in our society, is to acquaint them with that history, and there are no better tools than the tradition that's associated with classics. Now, it's a tradition that we're always revising, we're always discovering new classics and we're always finding new ways of reading them. We're always discovering new questions and new information that contextualize what they mean. All of that is salutary and necessary and part of what the classics, in fact, prompt and give an occasion for.
Defending the classics means defending a kind of education that takes seriously the idea that the present has emerged from the past. I don't think we need very elaborate and theoretically complex arguments to see that. Now, the most important and powerful way to do that, beyond arguing, is to expose students to it. That is, if you put this history, if you put these texts before students and get them to talk about them, and you talk about them, their power and their relevance becomes quite evident and quite obvious.
I always say that the most effective way of arguing for liberal education is to do liberal education. It is an experiential thing. You don’t get the power of a novel by reading the plot summary, you just have to read the novel. And the same goes with liberal education. If we in higher education—of course, a lot of my book is concerned with this question of universities' failure to educate students in this tradition of learning of humanist thought—put that in front of our students, the work, in some ways, happens on its own. If we get students reading these texts and talking about them in small discussion-based seminars, that process triggers the work of transformation. I see it happening in my classroom with high school students from low income backgrounds. I see it happening in my college classes with Columbia students, some of whom are low income, some of whom are as high income as you can get. Engaging in the kinds of human conversations that pertain to us and matter to us by virtue of that shared humanity, and doing so with texts that have a proven record of stimulating and capturing this kind of thought: that does it. That really does it.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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