Montás: Why liberal education is the bedrock of modern-day democracy

In this conversation, hosted by RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Roosevelt Montás* discusses his recent book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation; why liberal education for citizens is vital in today’s world; how he moved on from his youthful crush on deconstruction and postmodernism and discovered the enduring importance of self-reflections by Plato, Saint Augustine, Sigmund Freud and Mahatma Gandhi; the key concepts behind Columbia University’s Core Curriculum; and how the Columbia liberal arts program may be adapted to different cultures around the world.

Ferenc Laczó: Your new book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation offers a discussion of the work of four very prominent authors, a meditation on how each has helped you make sense of your own life, and a critique of the practice of liberal education in the contemporary university. You write in the concluding part that – and I am quoting – “The animating argument of this book is for liberal education as the common education for all—not instead of a more practical education but as its prerequisite” and you also write that “One of the dangers facing American higher education—and American civic culture in general—is a return to a time when liberal education was the exclusive province of a social elite.” 

Early on in the book, you assert that general education curricula can “equip students for civic life and social agency” and you even state that “the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education.” Shall we begin our conversation there with the questions of why you think of liberal education as such a prerequisite for more practical forms of education, and why you claim that the possibility of democracy hinges on its success?

Roosevelt Montás: It’s an honor for me to be here with you and to be engaging in this very important conversation. I appreciate you inviting me, and the careful reading you have given my work. It’s flattering to have an attentive reader. I would begin by emphasizing the roots of liberal education. 

Liberal education is formulated in ancient Athens, in the democracy of Athens, and it is a contrast term. That is, it’s contrasted with slave education or with servile education, sometimes called vulgar education. It was an education for the elite, and by the elites I mean an education for the citizens of Athens. It is a direct democracy, so the citizens are involved in the creation of laws, in the formulation of foreign policy, in office holding, in serving on juries and in the army, and formulating strategy. Citizens are directly involved in all this. Then, there’s a huge non-citizen population made up mainly of slaves, but also foreigners and then, of course, women didn’t have full citizenship. 

In this complex society where one portion is engaged in the project of self-governance, of formulating every aspect of communal life, the question arose of what kind of education would prepare an individual for such roles, as opposed to the kind of education that would be offered to others.

That other kind of education would be specific to whatever function they played. If you’re a household servant who needs to know about economics, the market, and cooking, then your education would be about those. If you work in the fields, your education would be about that. But what about the education of the citizen who formulates laws, debates in courts and in parliament, and who weighs in on complex questions of social policy? That’s the origin of liberal education. 

In modernity, we aspire to a full democracy, even if it is a representative democracy rather than a direct one, and we have extended the duties of citizenship – we have extended the role of citizenship – to the universal population with few exceptions and most Western societies are committed to this idea of universal democracy, even if every country will have its own specific formulations of who qualifies for citizenship. With that aspiration and extension comes the idea of liberal education for all. The question remains about how to educate the population so that they can engage in the very amorphous, complex, nuanced, often messy process of thinking through social questions. How do we equip an individual to participate in our collective project of self-determination most fully, of shaping our collective future? 

It’s clear that an individual has to be prepared for that, as was the case in ancient Athens. They’re going to need to know something about history, about how we got here and how state actors have behaved in the past, and about how international relations work, and it’s clear this person is going to need to understand something about the economy. This person needs to understand a lot about science in our contemporary world, and the costs and benefits of different approaches to, say, global climate change, and this person is going to need to understand something about religion and psychology and philosophy. 

In fact, there is no area of human understanding and human learning that doesn’t concern the kind of education that is aimed at this broad capacity for self-governance.

There’s another aspect to that capacity of self-governance that has less to do with the collective than with the individual. When you are in a position of self-determination, when you get to determine for yourself your own conception of the good, when you get to organize your life according to your own vision of your goals and your own good – what will I study, where will I work, when will I get married, will I marry, what’s my sexual orientation, what music will I listen to, what will I eat, all these questions come with the territory of being free and nobody’s making those decisions for you – that’s another aspect of self-governance that requires the same kind of education. The question is also how you prepare an individual to most effectively navigate their own personal freedom? Liberal education addresses itself to the condition of the individual as an autonomous agent. 

There is, of course, a long philosophical tradition of debating to what extent we’re actually free, debating to what extent we have free will, or to what extent we are conditioned or determined or constrained by historical, social, even biological forces. Putting that debate aside, phenomenologically speaking we experience ourselves as free agents. 

We experience ourselves as self-determining individuals, and liberal education addresses itself to that condition, which is an existential condition. Therefore democracy, the possibility of our collective exercise of self-governance, depends on the preparation that individuals who are part of that collective and are engaged in that collective receive in order to fulfill that self-determination. 

On the question of liberal education being a basis, a foundation, and a prerequisite to other kinds of education: every profession, task, and occupation in our society involves human beings. Whether you’re an engineer, a doctor, a scientist, or a businessman or a politician, there is a fundamental basic human commonality. We all face the same kinds of existential, social, and psychological realities, and liberal education addresses itself to those first. Whether you are going to be a physician or an engineer or a politician or a businessman, having the kind of self-awareness and the kind of humanistic development and cultivation that centers you in your own human condition will make you a more effective, a more humane, a more skilled practitioner of whatever profession you determine.

One other thing I would add to that is that even in the United States, we have increasingly come to see college education, university education, as exclusively professionalizing. That is, the central, sometimes exclusive goal of university education is to equip you to fulfill a profession and do a career. That is a big mistake in part because it neglects the fundamental condition of the individual that goes into college. It is a lost opportunity.

My argument is that liberal education ought to be embedded into every career. That is, when you go to university, you should not have to choose between, say, being a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, or a software developer or studying liberal arts, but that the liberal arts should be embedded in the curriculum of every single career, every single profession. Beyond the professional capacity than an individual is to fulfill in society, there is a more basic citizenship role that an individual has to fulfill in society, and we ought to take that seriously and include it as part of the university education.

Your book tries to bring the reader closer to the experience of liberal education “through encounters with some of the human questions that lie at its heart.” You do this through intriguing discussions of four authors that have deeply influenced the way you think about such questions: Plato, Saint Augustine, Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi. Could I ask you why you chose to organize your book around the ideas and insights of these four authors, and what their joint discussion in the book is meant to add up to?

My book is in part a memoir: it is in part a reflection on my own life and on my own development. Part of the reason why I chose to write such a personal book in arguing for liberal education is that liberal education is rooted in the actual experiencing of the phenomenon. 

Imagine going to a concert, whether you like rock & roll or Beethoven, and you sit there for two hours and you experience the music, you experience the performance, you experience the reaction of the audience, you experience the moment. Then you go outside, and you can tell your partner and your friend “Oh, it was great! People clapped and were excited, people were moved and were in tears.” But that is nothing compared to the experience of the music. When the music unfolds in time, and what it does to you, is inseparable from the experience. The same happens with liberal education.

Books about liberal education or arguments about liberal education are like when you read the concert report in the newspaper the next day and it says that “it was a very nice concert, the conductor did this, the performer did that.” Such a report gives you some sense of it, but it doesn’t move you and doesn’t transform you. It doesn’t in any way replicate the experience. That is a challenge when you try to convey to people the value of liberal education and why liberal education is worth doing. 

One way that I tried to give a better taste, a better sense of the experience, is by drawing the reader into a personal narrative of what liberal education based on the study of great books did to me by giving them a taste of what studying those great books are like. What are the ideas in those great books that in my own particular case were transformative? How did they help me think about my particular life and my particular place in the world? 

These four thinkers – Saint Augustine, Plato, Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi – had a very profound impact in my development. In some ways, that is accidental. It’s my own particular life, and it’s about where I was developmentally when I encountered them, what I was grappling with, what I was thinking about, what I needed in my life. In a way, it is an idiosyncratic or arbitrary answer to why those four specifically. On the other hand, there is something about those four texts that brings them together, and this I’ve only come to think of in retrospect. After I wrote the book, when people asked me “why these four?” and I said, “you know, they just happened to be four authors who have had a big impact on me,” then it kind of became evident to me that one thing that characterizes those four thinkers is their commitment to self-examination.

Socrates is famous for saying “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and his practice of philosophy involved the examination of self and the examination of others. Saint Augustine’s Confessions is an autobiography; it’s a self-exploration of his inner life and his inner evolution towards God and Christianity. Of course, Sigmund Freud’s whole career is about understanding the mind and how the human psyche works. Mahatma Gandhi also dedicated his entire life to what he called spiritual realization; he called it the fulfillment of the highest spiritual ambition in his own life. It was a life of intense interiority, of meditation, of prayer and asceticism, without compromising his external commitments – which is mainly what we know him for. But it was an intensely introspective, meditative, contemplative life that Gandhi lived. 

All these four thinkers are remarkable for both their commitment to self-knowledge, but also their ability to open that process to an external reader. Their capacity to articulate the methods, the tools, the processes by which they explore themselves can give you a model and tools through which to engage in that same self-exploration. 

The liberal education that has shaped my life has been one with a strong emphasis on self-knowledge and self-examination and these texts are in some way particularly fertile, particularly rich sources of self-exploration.

A key part of the story you tell seems to be that you had what you call a crush on deconstruction and postmodernism during your early academic life and were intoxicated with the possibility of putting scholarship in the service of dismantling systems of injustice and reducing human suffering. However, nowadays you are highly critical towards such intellectual trends. You in fact view the dismantling of value-based judgments as impediments to a proper liberal arts education and even write in the book that the unmooring of human reason from the possibility of ultimate truth in effect undermines Western metaphysics, including its ethics and epistemology. Would you be willing to discuss your youthful crush on deconstruction and postmodernism, and how you came to be so disappointed by its objects? Why exactly do you consider their impact so problematic nowadays?

That’s a set of very penetrating and complex questions. First, let me say a few words regarding my very intense encounter with postmodernism and the construction while I was in college. I studied a lot of philosophy, both in the Columbia Core curriculum, which is the general education program that’s been most important in my formation, but also through courses in the Philosophy Department, and a lot of courses in literary theory in the Comparative Literature program. I majored in comparative literature as an undergraduate. There is an elegance and a beauty to deconstruction and postmodernism that’s quite intoxicating, as you said. There’s something intellectually very satisfying to be able to kind of crack the code. 

To take probably the central figure in deconstruction, Jacques Derrida – he’s not an easy writer. He’s a writer full of allusions, digressions, nonlinear thinking. There isn’t a great effort in such writers to make themselves clear. In fact, there is a suspicion of clarity, there’s a suspicion of logic. There’s a suspicion of the epistemological premises of rational argumentation. One of the things that led to – and which I continue to appreciate, and in many ways live by – is an exposure of the ways in which traditional values systems have provided cover and justification for various forms of exclusion, pressure, marginalization, and subjugation of others. It was kind of exhilarating for me to see philosophical, literary inquiry being turned toward exposing these systems. 

But, as you say, I eventually became disillusioned. There are two aspects to my disillusionment: one was the increasingly obscure, and ultimately vacuous or empty, rhetorical posture of many of the leading figures. In a writer like Derrida, you get a lot of difficulty, and that difficulty in part comes from how deeply he is questioning the premises of the kind of rhetorical assumptions, the metaphysical, epistemological assumptions of rational discourse. But then you have a lot of followers – and even Derrida himself gets very sloppy and self-indulgent at times – whose complicated and roundabout disquisitions in the end add up to either nonsense or trivial, obvious propositions. I began to grow impatient with that, and the more comfortable I felt in my rootedness in philosophy, in my understanding of the traditions they were discussing, in the language and categories and methods of deconstruction, the more I began to see how much of the fashionable, respected, even influential voices were actually quite empty. I became very disillusioned with how evasive they were and how cultish so much of it was.

There was another aspect that began to trouble me. Once you begin to question notions like truth, virtue, rights, even notions like justice, in the name of what do you do that? What are the ultimate values that you either defend or fight for? There weren’t good answers to those questions. 

Is there anything worth fighting for, or are we simply engaged in a power struggle where the ultimate goal and value simply comes from exercising or accumulating power? So much of the discourse these days ends up there; so much of the discourse reduces everything to a struggle for power. That did not satisfy me and did not feel either intellectually or psychologically sound to me either. I also began to see in time how that posture makes it impossible to pursue the project of liberal education I was talking about before – the project of cultivating a human being for the exercise of his or her own freedom. In my view, you cannot do that apart from a notion of the human good. 

In order to do it, you must be able to postulate, to theorize at least a provisional notion of the human good, and you must be able to theorize and aim at some notion of truth. The good of the intellect has to be some version of truth. If you undermined those notions, you are left kind of in the air. You’re left in a vacuum. 

That place of being in the air or vacuum has become quite dominant in the humanities in the academy, I find. It’s become a very dominant discourse and it’s become one of the ideological impediments to the practice of liberal education. In a nutshell, the trajectory and the critique of postmodernism and deconstruction that I lay out in the book is in some sense very much a part of my own evolution of my own formation. I kind of rejected or moved beyond deconstruction and postmodernism from the inside, rather than beginning my relationship with it antagonistically or seeing it as a threat or just as a fad. I actually was very much in there. My rejection of it, I feel, is an informed and awakened rejection, rather than a reflexive one.

You also formulate another critique in the book, arguing that the research ideal remains of limited value in undergraduate general education, and its dominance in the university and in academic career paths have been detrimental to liberal education. The existential and ethical questions and the cultivation of whole persons that liberal education is concerned about are only marginally susceptible to scientific investigation, you claim. The practice of liberal education in a context where education is understood in narrowly instrumental terms and often confused with training is pointedly countercultural, you underline in the book. May I ask how you view the role of liberal education at modern universities, and how the position of liberal education has evolved in the US in recent years? What makes liberal education countercultural in your view?

Another very rich and productive question. One way to think about it is to understand the rise of the research university – that modern, dominant institution in higher education. Its origins lie in the 19th century. Probably the most important figure is von Humboldt, who founded the University of Berlin as a research center. The idea of the research university is kind of straightforward: a research university is to be an institution that is dedicated to investigation, is dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. The emphasis on scientific inquiry and the scientific paradigm, what I call the “research ideal”, really dominates. 

If you take pretty much any of the natural sciences, biology, chemistry, physics, or cosmology, we know more today than we did before. Every generation absorbs the knowledge of the past and builds on it, so scientific knowledge tends to be cumulative. Of course, there are revolutions when paradigms are overturned, but the big arc is of improving and adding to an inherited stock of knowledge. That is the paradigm of scientific knowledge, and that’s obviously a very powerful paradigm. There are methods of investigation, replication, dissemination, and verification that underpin this very powerful system of knowledge. 

And that research ideal has become the leading ideal of the research university and it sets the tone for the whole of higher education. You could contrast that with medieval higher learning, going into the Renaissance, which was much more concerned with the cultivation of human beings and the cultivation of social elites in Europe. In the Anglo-American model, the institutions of higher education have their roots in religious institutions and the training of a clergy and of a social elite, with a kind of veneration for the past. The modern university tries to supersede and do better than the past, whereas the older university kind of revered and admired the past. 

What I call the “research ideal” has become so dominant in the university that even in the disciplines within the university that are concerned with human questions – the humanities, the arts – that notion that the discovery of new knowledge and the superseding of all previous knowledge is the central role of the university has become dominant. That’s why if you’re a professor in the humanities, for example, the way that you advance in your career is by publishing new research; it’s by investigating and adding to a body of scholarship that preceded you, whose mastery you demonstrate, and on whose boundaries you expand. That has meant a kind of specialization and a kind of conversation that humanists have only with each other. 

This is a kind of conversation that has moved far beyond questions that would be important, or even understandable to ordinary human beings, to people who are not embedded in a professional pursuit of humanistic scholarship. To a very large extent, this key trend has disconnected the humanities and the arts from the kinds of questions, condition, and issues that matter to, say, undergraduate students who come into college, many of whom are not going to be scholars, are not going to be professional literary critics or philosophers, but who are going to have their careers. What they find in general education or humanistic education is often this highly specialized approach to the study of liberal arts that’s unmoored and disconnected from fundamental questions. My position is that the research ideal has in a way robbed the energy and the significance of liberal education from the undergraduate curriculum. 

One other thing I would say is that the model of accumulation of knowledge doesn’t really apply to the fundamental questions of liberal education. 

We don’t know better what justice is, or what love is, or how we live with mortality, or how we organize our conflicting psychic inclinations. We don’t know better what my duty is to my neighbor simply is because we have studied and accumulated data on those questions. 

Humanistic knowledge, the kind of knowledge that liberal education promotes, does not proceed by accumulation, does not proceed by simple growth.

I sometimes point to the treatment in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War written in the 5th century BC. There’s a famous plague that hits Athens and there’s a very moving, detailed, and gripping account of what happens to the city under the plague. Then you have something like Giovanni Boccaccio’s description of the Black Death in Florence in the 13th century and what it did to the society, and it’s also gripping and profound. You have something like Albert Camus’ fiction on the plague, or you have José Saramago’s Blindness about a fictional plague: Camus is not better at understanding or illuminating the human experience than Boccaccio just because he lived later. You know, Rothko is not better than Monet, and John Cage is not better than Beethoven. Our humanistic questions do not proceed by improvements. Today’s technology: today’s radios are indeed better the ones we’ve had 10 years ago. 

My sense is that the institutionalization of the research ideal and its importation into the liberal arts and the humanities has been disastrous for the humanities in the academy, so that today we often speak about a crisis in the humanities. 

There is a crisis in the humanities, but I insist that it’s not really in the humanities. It’s much rather a crisis in the academy. It is an institutional, academic crisis; the academic humanities are in crisis. But go to the theater, go to a concert hall, walk down the street, turn on the radio, turn on the TV, and you will see that the humanities are in fact thriving and growing and exploding. They are as meaningful, as moving, as important in people’s lives as they have ever been. 

But go to the academy and it’s like walking into a funeral parlor. They are weathering and drying up there, and my sense is that a big reason for this is this dominance of the research ideal.

I wish to ask you about something you mention in a footnote. I realize this is not central to the argument of your book, but I though the subject might merit our attention. You state in the footnote I am referring to that “In recent decades, there has been a marked interest, from universities abroad, in the American liberal arts model. I have been fortunate to help launch three notable programs inspired by the Columbia Core Curriculum: the General Education Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and the Core Curriculum at Universidad Adolfo Ibañez in Santiago, Chile.” Could I ask you to tell a bit about your experiences with liberal arts across the globe and what you have learned about the ways the American model of liberal education has been adapted in various places? How does liberal education look in a Chinese, an Israeli, or a Latin American context as compared to the US and what might we learn from such adaptations?

It’s a little bit of a paradox. Even while the idea, the model of liberal education is under tremendous pressure and shrinking in the United States, it is growing in other parts of the world. I should qualify about the United States, because in the last 20 years there has been a lot of renewal and reinvigoration of liberal education in this country too. There’s a macrotrend that goes away from it, but there’s an important microtrend among institutions reviving a certain kind of liberal education. 

I think part of what has drawn the interest of universities around the world, and societies around the world, to the American liberal arts model is the success of the American higher education. 

American higher education is kind of the envy of the world. We have more Nobel Prizes, have more publications, have more discoveries. I think people who have looked to America want to find out what is the key ingredient to that and many of them have landed on this idea of liberal education: that in the United States almost every undergraduate degree includes a substantial number of courses in the humanities – in literature, in art, in philosophy and in history – that have nothing to do with professionalization. That’s a peculiarity of the American system and many governments have identified that as, possibly, a key to the success of American higher education.

Another prompt has been the increasing complexity of the world. I think, increasingly, people come to understand that individuals are going to hold not one job but many jobs. Not one career, not one specialty, but many specialties throughout their lives. So, the emphasis has begun to shift away from specific knowledge acquisition to competencies, to preparing an individual that can adapt, that can learn, that can excel at many different kinds of specialized tasks. That again hearkens to a more liberal approach to education. 

Questions of adaptation are important. I worked with this one school in particular, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but I’ve also spoken to many other representatives of many other institutions in China, both in Hong Kong and in mainland China. 

One of the great paradoxes that a society like China is caught in is that they want liberal education – they want their students to think creatively, to be innovative, to be breaking boundaries – but the kind of liberal education that cultivates those attitudes and those dispositions is politically threatening. 

That is, it is incompatible with certain aspects of the political structure in China. There is a very difficult problem of how to incorporate, how to educate individuals for the kind of liberal thinking that produces the most innovation and the most groundbreaking activity. How do you cultivate that while maintaining a fairly close political system? 

The school that I have worked most closely with is Universidad Adolfo Ibañez in Chile, which is in some ways like American society in that it is so strongly the product of European influence. Chile’s universities, its religion, and its politics have been so shaped by the Western European tradition that many of the traditional canonical texts that make up, say, Columbia’s Core Curriculum are equally relevant, equally important in understanding Chilean and Latin American society. At Universidad Adolfo Ibañez, they have put in place a program that very closely replicates the Columbia Core Curriculum. In Shalem College in Jerusalem, you have a whole different set of questions about how to incorporate a Judeo-Western tradition and the Muslim tradition into the study of undergraduate great books, and how that relates to questions of identity in the student. 

I should say those three schools are ones that I’ve worked with directly and personally. I visited all of them, I’ve worked with their faculty and their leadership. But there are many other liberal arts efforts in England, the Netherlands, and Germany, and in other places in Latin America that are capturing and recovering what is, in the end, a European tradition. The liberal arts are a European tradition. Many schools around the world are involved in the process of recuperating that tradition and bringing it back as an ingredient of higher education.

The Core Curriculum you appear to be very much in favor of consists of a set of courses in literary and philosophical classics—as well as art, music, and science—in which all students study and discuss a prescribed list of works that begins in antiquity and moves chronologically to the present. Such a curriculum offers “a considered view of just what aspects of our intellectual and cultural heritage are most worth their attention”, you argue, while using a remarkably ecumenical principle, namely that “a great book is one that has meaning and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.” 

You underline that there must be a judicious selection of books that is “sensitive to contemporary contexts and concerns.” You also insist that – and I am quoting again – “the criterion of democratic representation—appropriate for politics—is not appropriate for selecting common curricula; to adopt it as such is to abandon the very idea of education and to turn students into interest groups.” As a final question, and this is admittedly a large question, would you care to comment on how the Core Curriculum has evolved at Columbia in recent decades? And would you perhaps be willing to discuss some of the key principles of selection you would apply if you were completely free to design such a Core Curriculum?

It’s important in my view that faculty and university leadership give serious thought to organizing a view about our past and about what things are most worthwhile of students’ attention. We owe that to the students; it’s our responsibility to give the students that vision. It’s not an ultimate vision, it’s not the final vision. It is always a provisional vision that is open to revision. The student him or herself will question it, and revise it, and criticize it, but they need to have our best effort. The undergraduate student does not come in having read the canon. They do not come in with anything like a comprehensive overview of history, of philosophy, of the elements of thought. We the faculty, as a body, have that. 

I think it is our responsibility to come together and present something to the student which the student can again reject, accept, criticize, and revise, but that there is something there that we ourselves can reject, accept, criticize, and revise. What most schools have done is abandon that project. 

They have let individual faculty members create their own curricula, what they think is important, with no effort to achieve any kind of cohesive view, so that students who go to the same institution and get the same degree have a radically different education; they have a radically different sense of what is and what matters without truly common reference points. 

Columbia organizes its two big survey-type courses for first- and second-year students, one on literature and one on philosophy, around a common reading list of works. Every three years, the faculty gets together and revises this list and agrees on maybe 25 works that a student is going to see in a year. Some of the principles that govern that are as follows: one is that Columbia, and I support this, has a commitment to a chronological overview. That is, we’re going to present a course that begins as far back as we can go in antiquity. In the case of literature that usually means Homer. You might be able to go a little further back if you’re willing to consider fragments and less complete works. In the case of social and political thought, it’s usually Plato; you could also go back a little before, to the pre-Socratics. We’re going to go back there and then move chronologically forward. That is one commitment that organizes the curriculum. 

A second commitment in the Columbia program is that it’s Western. It is going to focus on the traditional form and debate and literature out of which contemporary European and American societies emerge. That’s left over in the Columbia program from the early 20th century when it was first formulated. That is a commitment that, if I were putting together a program today from scratch, I would not hold; I would take a more global approach. 

Another important commitment is to examine works of major cultural significance. That is, in some sense we’re going to choose works whose impact on the way we see the world is substantial. A fourth principle is that they should be works that are accessible to a student in the classroom. That is, they need to be works that are teachable. 

Let me give an example of this: say you’re going to teach Kant in a course like this, i.e., not in a philosophy course, but in a general course. You probably can’t do The Critique of Pure Reason, it’s too long and too complicated. You might have to do something like The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. You probably can’t do all of Dante’s Divine Comedy because it’s too large, too complex. You might have to choose “Inferno” or “Purgatorio”, or a selection from all three parts. One key criterion is teachability: works that have a functional capacity to be taught at this level of generality, because you’re not teaching experts. You are treating the text from a certain kind of generalist distance rather than from the scholarly viewpoint of a specialist. 

Another principle that I would apply is – and this goes more into the form than to the content – that the courses be taught in small, discussion-based settings. That is, that you read this text as a group, and you talk about them as a group, rather than the professor coming in and giving lectures about them. 

One other thing I would say is that, as you move closer to the contemporary world, it is worth making an effort to include voices that are traditionally excluded from the canon. I think that the thrust to inclusion and representation gain some validity as you come to the present, and more and more voices become part of the conversation.

* “Roosevelt Montás is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia University.  He holds a Ph.D. (2004) in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.  He was Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia College from 2008 to 2018.  Roosevelt specializes in Antebellum American literature and culture, with a particular interest in American citizenship.  His dissertation, Rethinking America: Abolitionism and the Antebellum Transformation of the Discourse of National Identity, won Columbia University’s 2004 Bancroft Award.  In 2000, he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student.  Roosevelt teaches “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West,” a year-long course on primary texts in moral and political thought, as well as seminars in American Studies including “Freedom and Citizenship in the United States.” He is Director of the Center for American Studies’ Freedom and Citizenship Program in collaboration with the Double Discovery Center.  He speaks and writes on the history, meaning, and future of liberal education and is author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton University Press, 2021).”


The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos.

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