The highlight of my freshman year in college was a double-credit course where we read three books a week, starting with the ancient Greeks and ending with Virginia Woolf, for two whole semesters. It transformed my life for the better. I’d come to campus with a self-imposed mission to learn how to be a writer by becoming well-read; I left it a fanatic for a particular idea of what reading really means. All of who I am today is bound up with my unreconstructed belief that experiencing and discussing literature, philosophy, history, art and politics are part of what it means to lead a fully human existence.
Why is it, then, that when I encounter defenses for the value of a humanistic education today, I can’t help but find the resulting arguments reductive, opportunistic, mealy-mouthed—and above all, weak?
They always start with a dirge. The humanities, as everyone knows, are in crisis—whether you measure it in plummeting enrollments; the virtual disappearance of tenure-track jobs in philosophy, history and literary studies; or the shuttering of once-venerated programs like Howard’s classics department. The intellectual press issues think pieces effusing upon these facts with monomaniacal regularity, perhaps because its writers are themselves professors and grad students who sense that with economic collapse has come a decline in their own social prestige. What results is a string of unconvincing attempts at self-justification. The humanities, we’re told, provide students with transferable skills—critical thinking! communication!—that they can use to sell themselves on the labor market. Or else they provide a valuable space outside the imperatives of business efficiency, which could help future corporate leaders be more in touch with their human side. Or maybe they can help fix the world by exposing people to art and ideas from different times, places and identity groups. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum famously argued that the study of great literature makes us better people by cultivating our capacity for empathy and compassion—though this notion was just as famously rebuked by George Steiner, for whom the danger was that Beethoven sounds no less beautiful played by Nazis as the trains carrying people to the death camps rattle on by.
This is all well-meaning enough. Regardless, it never measures up to the grandeur of what’s being defended. In particularly bad moods I’ll spiral into a sort of Nietzschean contempt—if this is really the best that literary intellectuals can do, then maybe the academic humanities deserve the lonely death being planned for them by their administrative gravediggers.
My pessimism was nevertheless tested by an especially charming recent entry into the defense-of-the-humanities genre: Rescuing Socrates by Roosevelt Montás. Montás is a senior lecturer in Columbia’s departments of American studies and English; for a decade he directed its Core Curriculum (the equivalent of the Great Books class I took at Princeton). He’s also a Dominican immigrant who moved with his mother and siblings to Queens as a teenager under precarious circumstances—his was an unlikely path to becoming a professor, by way of a number of well-placed social programs, good friends and lucky breaks. Thus we shouldn’t be too surprised to find he’s also the director of the Freedom and Citizenship Program, which brings low-income high schoolers to Columbia’s campus to read classics of political philosophy and get help with college apps.
A series of essays on Montás’s favorite canonical writers—Augustine, Plato, Freud, Gandhi—Rescuing Socrates intersperses close readings of key passages in the books with stories of Montás’s experiences in childhood, college and young adulthood. The heart of the book is in its breezy discussions of Western classics, and nestled within these are many curious little gems. Take Montás’s pointed examination of how the research university (whose ideal is the production of scientific knowledge) muscled out the college (whose purpose is to cultivate undergraduate souls via a general education). Or consider the lovely debate he stages between Gandhi and Nietzsche on the nature of truth. I found Montás’s account of discovering his unconscious mind by reading Freud to be particularly moving. “Sometimes new and unsuspected reasons would come into view,” he writes of his own thoughts, “like the silhouette of objects emerging from darkness at daybreak.” In an age when writers of color feel pressured to become human chatbots performing the same fashionable talking points in response to the same discursive inputs, it’s refreshing to hear a writer who looks like me discussing the mystery of their own motives, their ambivalence toward their own people-pleasing public persona and other grown-up subjects.
Alas, as the writer of a crisis-of-the-humanities book, Montás is also contractually obligated to address the existential question. Justify thyself, shout the university administrators, waving about their spreadsheets! And not only them, to be fair: If the humanities are no good for getting you a job or producing good citizens, then why should the public care about them either?
Montás isn’t without answers to these questions, as we’ll see. And yet I find myself offended on his behalf that our culture seems to require such evidence in the first place. Why? Well, there’s capitalism of course, with its hollowing out of the humanities through the rise of the corporate university. And then there’s the crust that forms upon this mantle—American popular culture, with its cults of earnings and expertise. But by themselves such explanations are incomplete. They ignore a rot that set in within humanistic discourse itself at the end of the last century, a decay of our own making that left us ill-equipped to defend ourselves against these structural forces.
I refer of course to the question of the canon, and how it was resolved—or more precisely, how it wasn’t. After all, wars were fought within the university in the Eighties and Nineties over exactly what a “liberal education” ought to mean. The kind I got was of an extremely old-fogey variety, a parade of dead white guys held to be the apex of human culture. This view rightfully came in for a drubbing from poststructuralists, postcolonialists, feminists and other critical theorists.
But what came out of this postmodern wave in the end was not a resolution but a self-undermining stalemate. On the supposed left you had people whose misguided attempts at sympathy for the oppressed led them to conclude that any universal curriculum in the humanities was itself a form of oppression, a broad liberal education nothing more than a status symbol. On the right you had reactionaries whose idolatry toward dead authors was all too often a pretense for defending Western chauvinism in the past and the misrule of elites in the present. One side uses the old canon as a punching bag and a scapegoat for all the evil -isms that afflict us; the other, as a monument to national glories and an erstwhile set of commandments issued from on high. In the university, the result was the self-segregation of each faction into their own departments, leaving each more exposed to the axe of the budget-trimming administrator. In society at large, it has led to culture wars where the books themselves are more often revered or reviled than actually read. Most crucially, it has facilitated a broad decline in the public’s faith that a humanistic education has any necessary connection to a life that is happy, just or free.
Montás occupies an unusual position in this debate. He’s a steadfast believer in expanding access to liberal education, which he treats, refreshingly, as a universal public good. At the same time, he largely agrees with those who blame the current stalemate on the “crisis of consensus” inaugurated by postmodern critiques of the old curriculum, calling the resulting relativism “probably the main intellectual impediment to the kind of liberal arts education” he prefers. On one level, you can see where he’s coming from, even if it does make him sound at times like the Blooms (Allan and Harold) or Camille Paglia. Regardless of how one judges their politics—my own verdict should be fairly obvious—at least they’ll stick up for the kind of canon-oriented teaching that so deeply transformed both Montás’s life and my own. Who else does? With each passing year, fewer schools require or even offer such courses at all.
Too often we’re told this means the postmodernists won: extremists have butchered our common heritage, the standards of civilization have been exploded, chaos reigns. But from where I’m standing, the critical theorists’ attacks on a canon narrowly focused on a white, male, European tradition were hardly misguided. The problem isn’t that they went too far. It would be better to say they stopped too soon. Having punched a canon-shaped hole into the heart of the humanities, the postmodern professors too often proceeded to retreat into their area specialties or their identitarianism, there to think small thoughts and ask petty questions—and this, at precisely the moment when what was called for was an enormous act of creation. What had to be done, but wasn’t, was to develop a truly global canon—one that could transcend the provincialism of the so-called Western mind and yet remain faithful to that aspiration, integral to the greatest of the old Great Books programs, of rooting a democratic culture in what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said.”
In the absence of this global canon, we’re left only with a false choice between two impossible options: to resume treating as the world’s sole inheritance traditions whose claim to universalism we know is false, or to live—if it can be called living—without any deep connection to the past that created us.
The unfulfilled task of building a third, better option is one of my generation’s greatest intellectual challenges. After all, a global canon can’t just be a list of books hastily thrown together. For starters, it would take synthesizing decades of specialist work in various area studies just to figure out what’s most important. New teaching methods would have to be developed to cultivate interdisciplinary understanding and critical thinking among students, beyond the regurgitation of political dogmas. The goal would be to produce intellectuals who are at once more aristocratic (in the breadth of their reading) and more democratic (in their origins, commitments and teaching practices) than we ever dared to be. Meanwhile, to ensure support for such ideas in the broader culture would require action outside the university: translating global literatures to and from dozens of languages, financing cheap editions with good prefaces, organizing local reading clubs, assembling free libraries online and off, maybe even shortening the workday to make more time for proper self-cultivation.
And that’s the real challenge, isn’t it? Today’s humanists are intimidated by what it would take to really overcome what they have called, inadequately, the crisis of their disciplines. To accomplish practically any one of these feats would require an ambition, a ruthlessness, and a will that our university training has hardly cultivated in us. To accomplish them all would mean to have begun a cultural renaissance.
Even to get such a project going, however, will require a certain provisional consensus, though it isn’t quite the sort—about exactly which books to read—that Montás most worries about. Before the hard work of building the global canon can begin, the partisans of a humanistic education must agree about something much simpler: that their main task is no longer, if it ever was, one of self-justification. And here, too, Rescuing Socrates can provide some guidance.
To be sure, Montás offers some of his own arguments on behalf of humanistic education. At one point he compares Augustine’s theory of language with Chomsky’s, despite their millennia of separation, to show that great books are often part of a genealogy leading to today’s ideas. Elsewhere he makes a case for humanism’s therapeutic function, for the ability of these novels and philosophical treatises to help us cope with the “fact of our mortality.”
But, for the most part, Montás doesn’t dwell on arguments justifying the humanities at all. Or at any rate his strongest argument turns out to be an implicit one, something he prefers to demonstrate not by discourse but by example. Writing about his summer program, Montás notes miserably that even his low-income students come into his class thinking of their education in instrumental terms—and hence of the humanities with suspicion. He worries there’s no way to persuade them otherwise via argument. It’s “almost impossible.” Then he says:
But what works with everyone else is what works with low-income high school students: doing liberal education. Contagion is the only effective method of communicating its value. The process is one of transmission rather than instruction. After three weeks in which we meet for two hours each day to discuss ancient, Enlightenment, and contemporary philosophical texts, I don’t have to tell these “disadvantaged” students about the value of a liberal education. They know…They have certainly acquired new skills and accumulated a lot of new knowledge, but more importantly, they have tapped into inner capacities that have bearing on their entire lives—not only what they learn and what they do, but who they become.
What are a thousand think pieces compared to this passage? What is the point of writing a schematic apology for humanistic thinking, when you could instead just do what is being done in this simple description? This is what Montás makes clear: to feel any need to justify the liberal arts with arguments is already to have lost. The value of the humanities is, upon exposure to real humanistic practice, self-evident.
I would go further: a society that acts as if this were not true, that threatens artists and philosophers and poets with oblivion or obscurity if they cannot justify their existence, is a profoundly sick culture. I suppose these must seem like outlandish claims to many Americans, but if I had to justify myself, I’d begin with a slogan: art is just what people do when they’re free. That, in fact, is what art is—nothing more. But also nothing less.
This assertion is not, of course, original to me. Just ask Montás: “Liberal education, in Aristotle’s view, can simply be defined as that education which is appropriate for a free individual.” Don’t mistake Aristotle’s meaning here: he’s talking about aristocrats. He doesn’t believe in democracy—the utterance about freedom comes from the Politics, the same book where he matter-of-factly states that some are born natural slaves. Yet the concept is hardly useless to democratic thinkers; it just suggests a different course of action than what occurred to Aristotle. If you believe in democracy, and at the same time in an account of virtue where real excellence is only achievable when one is freed from the constant requirement to toil for the benefit of somebody else, then it follows that we have simply not yet attained democracy; that a democracy run virtuously is impossible, in fact, until every child is immersed in the nourishing womb of a liberal education and every adult has the leisure to pursue it as they please.
Montás alludes to (but doesn’t quite explore) the truly radical nature of this idea when he quotes W. E. B. Du Bois’s argument that black intellectuals ought to receive a liberal, and not merely a practical, education: “The true college will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” These words are all the more impressive when you realize they were set to paper mere decades after Emancipation. They speak to the fundamental connection that has always existed, and must always exist, between the cultivation of the mind and the power to self-govern.
Because of course our masters don’t want us getting a master’s education. How could it be otherwise? “To know the end and aim” of life, may as well be to invent it—for oneself, or for society at large. No true revival of the liberal arts can begin without the shared understanding that the project of winning our freedom and that of expanding humanistic practice are one and the same.
Art credit: William Henry Fox Talbot. A Scene in a Library, salted paper print from paper negative, 1844. Gilman Collection, Gift of the Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.