Dismantling Socrates: Why We Don’t Need a Required Great Books Curriculum
Roosevelt Montás’s Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (2021) is both a defense of the Columbia University general education program and a memoir recounting his interactions with writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Descartes, and Gandhi. John McWhorter (2021) calls it “a combination memoir and call to arms.” While I appreciate Montás’s commitment to the importance of the humanities and its role within higher education in the United States, I find his argument deeply troubling.
My objections to Montás’s argument differ a bit from those of Louis Menand, whose analysis in the New Yorker focuses on disdain for the way great books courses deemphasize the role of the academic specialist and who sees Montás as devaluing scientific learning. The generalist can bring much to the teaching of these texts. They are able to model for students how to approach a subject for themselves, and they can convey the joy and enthusiasm that is to be found in “reading for fun,” a point made by Leonard Cassuto (2022) in his commentary on the debate. My objections are to two beliefs that are embedded in defenses of the great books, including Montás’s’s: (1) that no one would read great books if universities didn’t make them and (2) that reading great books makes one a “better person” (the title of McWhorter’s piece is “Yes, the Great Books Make Us Better People”). Further, these defenses really seem to be defenses not of the books and ideas themselves but of the academic departments and humanities faculty who teach them. These defenses ignore that our approach to higher education must change significantly if we are going to prepare all of our students for their futures. We need a general education that helps to close graduation equity gaps and helps put all of our students on an equal footing to succeed as thoughtful members of our society. We need a general education that dismantles elite structures rather than encourages students to try to join them.
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against the classical texts of the Western tradition. Really. I minored in Latin and classics as an undergraduate and focused my PhD on 16th-century English literature. I’ve taught a heck of a lot of Shakespeare courses. I even spent three years as the coordinator of the great books program in an English department at a public university (back in the ’90s). Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, I can show my scars if I have to.
And yet, I have a visceral dislike for arguments about the importance of the great books as a foundation for general education. Montás argues that an education in the core texts should not be reserved solely for the well-heeled who attend elite institutions of higher education, but beneath that democratic statement seems to lie a desire to join that class. Not to raise one’s economic standing, but to become an elite. This attitude smacks of a vision of universities as finishing schools intended to give non-wealthy students the ability to blend in at cocktail parties and “network” on the golf course. It bespeaks a desire to use general education as a way to help students fit into elite structures and institutions.
I would rather that we refashion higher education to eliminate “elite institutions” than that we try to refashion general education into its model. As Cathy N. Davidson has pointed out: Why should we believe that our current structures of higher ed can be refashioned to become equitable and inclusive when that is not what they were intended to be and when 60 years of trying to tweak those structures has not created equity? So much more needs to be done to our universities to transform them into institutions that can deepen our students’ abilities for self-reflection and growth and prepare them for the lifelong learning they will need to develop financially as well as personally rewarding lives.
Montás’s own story reveals that it is not the texts themselves that matter but the caché that surrounds being able to discuss them at an elite university. As a teenager, Montás, a low-income immigrant from the Dominican Republic, found some discarded books that led him to read Plato and to find his way to Columbia University, where, as an undergraduate, he was motivated by the texts he read and nurtured by its general education program. He was able to extend that relationship into one that has taken him through graduate school and a professional career. (He began working with the Columbia Core Curriculum program as a work-study student and eventually became its director. He is now employed at Columbia as a senior lecturer in Columbia’s Center for American Studies.) What it seems that Montás found at Columbia was a community that would allow him to deepen his passion for books and ideas and let him remain to live a life on campus.
I suspect that Montás would have kept reading and thinking regardless of whether he attended college, and general education programs do not need to be designed for students like him. They need to be designed for those who plan to enter the world of work as well as those who hope to enter graduate or professional school. My experience as the director of a great books program demonstrated to me that no matter how rich the text or how well-designed the classroom discussion of it is, most students will just want to get the reading “out of the way” unless they can see a connection between the text and their own goals. And, frequently, complaining with their fellow students about what’s going on in their general education classes—whether the classes share a common set of readings or not—is sufficient to create an academic community and a sense of shared suffering.
My views on this subject come not just from my years teaching or directing a great books program, but they come from my personal history as well. While I am not a first-generation college student or recent immigrant, my father never attended college, and my mother completed her bachelor’s degree the same year my oldest brother graduated from high school. She earned her master’s degree the same year that same brother graduated from the University of Illinois. She became a teacher so that she could supplement the family income enough to send my two brothers and me to college. We applied only to the University of Illinois, knowing nothing about scholarships and never even thinking about the possibility of taking out loans to enable an education at a private university. My father, with his high school education, worked as a bookkeeper for a national drug store chain. We lived in a 1,000-square-foot house in a 1950s manufactured community in the far northwestern suburbs of Chicago, and my mom’s mother lived with us so that my mom could go back to school.
That cramped house contained the Harvard Classics five-foot wall of books that Montás references, and it contained many, many more books besides. (My parents believed in decorating with filled bookcases.) My parents read voraciously, and they taught us to read as well. My father, in particular, would pull down from the shelf books he thought I would enjoy—Dickens, Hemingway, Austen. The only memory I have of being read to as a child is of sitting in my father’s lap as he read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to me. This education was supplemented by encouragement to stay up late to watch the classic films WGN would show nightly at 10:30 p.m. (this was before cable). My mother made sure that when the radio was on, it was always tuned to WFMT, Chicago’s classical music station, and as the music played, she shared the anecdotes she knew about Heifetz or The Pearl Fishers or Mozart. My mother often said, “You don’t get an education to earn a living. You get an education to learn how to live.” We went to the public grade school and then to a Catholic high school that offered no advanced placement courses.
My point is that when I was growing up in Meadowdale, Illinois, education and economics were not linked. My parents made it clear that you did not need to attend a college to become someone who read deeply and widely and who reflected on the ideas those books contained. A college degree was important because of the economic opportunities that credential would create. My brothers and I were liberally educated in Montás’s sense, even if we lacked the social and economic capital that a core text–based general education curriculum aims to instill.
And maybe this is my objection to the core text approach to general education: it focuses less on the texts themselves than on the social capital that comes from completing university courses on them. It gives people a sense that they have learned something, and it encourages judgmentalism and pretention. It gives them license to think they are “better” people instead of more thoughtful or more empathetic people. It encourages them to feel they are elite.
A desire for a great books education springs from a longing to join the elites rather than a desire to dismantle elitism. It says, let’s make everyone educated like our fantasy of liberal education in the early to mid-20th century at liberal arts colleges, rather than asking why we would want to promulgate an educational system that took pride in who it excluded from its courses and with how many students it could flunk out of them. Further, the impulse to defend the great books curriculum springs from a concern over the viability of humanities departments and faculty jobs. It asserts the relevance of these programs by looking backward, not forward.
We don’t need to worry about Socrates as long as there are public libraries and resources such as Project Gutenberg. Rather than engaging in thehubris implicit in“rescuing” Socrates, I would rather we dismantle his power.
Cassuto, L. (2022, January 20). Great books, graduate students, and the value of fun in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/great-books-graduate-students-and-the-value-of-fun-in-higher-education
McWhorter, J. (2021, December 17). Yes, the great books make us better people. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/17/opinion/great-books-socrates.html
Menand, L. (2021, December 13). What’s so great about great-books courses? The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/12/20/whats-so-great-about-great-books-courses-roosevelt-montas-rescuing-socrates
Montás, R. (2021). Rescuing Socrates: How the great books changed my life and why they matter for a new generation. Princeton University Press.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.