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 11 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), Montas knew virtually no English. But thanks to a Higher Education Opportunity Program scholarship, he would eventually earn bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia University 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, 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 Joaquín Balaguer in the 1970s.
There is much to learn from that example.