The Left Should Defend Classical Education

The great books aren’t just a collection of “dead white males,” and teaching or reading them isn’t elitist or Eurocentric. On the contrary, they are a treasure that should be made available and accessible to working-class people everywhere.

Statue of Aristotle at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. (salut_rai / Wikimedia Commons)

“Fuck George Orwell,” the student was saying. “And fuck his middle-class, British values.”

Teaching political writing at Brooklyn College, I’d (unoriginally) assigned Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” The student was incensed by Orwell’s hostility to words and expressions with Greek and Latin roots, which the twentieth-century English writer considered pretentious. For Orwell, such language was clutter crying out for Marie Kondo–like simplification. My student begged to differ.

“I took a class in classical literature,” he said.

He tallied up for us, per credit, exactly how much tuition money that course had cost him. Reading those books had taken time and effort, too, yet he’d done it. Like many of my Brooklyn College students, this young man sometimes missed class or assignment deadlines due to a sudden shift change at his retail job.

“And I’m really fucking proud that I know the meaning of ‘Achilles’ heel’ and where it comes from,” he fumed. “I want to show that off!”

Teachers live for moments like this, when students use what they’ve learned to show us a whole new way of looking at things. That student’s outburst gave me a fresh reading of the text I’d assigned, and I now think of him every time I teach it. Unwittingly, he also reminded me not to take my own classical education for granted.

Yet among noble causes, the “great books” seem to have the worst adherents. Generally, people defending this type of liberal education have a pseudo-intellectual right-wing agenda. Allan Bloom, in his 1987 polemic, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, saw the classics as a counter to the 1960s radicalism he believed was still pervasive on college campuses (even deep into the Reagan Revolution). Today, the idea of a “Western” canon has some fascistic appeal to the far-right desktop warriors defending white civilization from the global majority. Contemporary conservatives see classical education as a counter to “critical race theory,” a nebulously defined bugbear of the Right and a dog whistle to racist voters.

That’s why the perspective of Roosevelt Montás, author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, is so badly needed. Montás is as passionate about the great books as Allan Bloom and his present-day intellectual descendants, but there’s an important difference: For Montás, the classical curriculum isn’t part of a proxy war against egalitarian politics. In this part memoir, part call to action, Montás argues that reading great literature and philosophy can make working-class people’s lives more meaningful and that everyone should have the opportunity to read great books. Instead of ceding this issue to the Right, as we often do, the Left should heed his arguments.

A Left Tradition

Montás was born in a small village in the Dominican Republic, where, he writes, his liberal education began with his father’s Marxist-inspired activism. A committed opponent of Joaquín Balaguer, the United States–backed, right-wing, authoritarian president of the Dominican Republic at the time, Montás’s father had only a sixth-grade education, but his left-wing political activism placed him within a venerable intellectual tradition, which was, for his son, a lifelong gift. Montás immigrated to Queens at the age of twelve, a rough transition for him as well as for his impoverished family. He first encountered classical literature when he rescued a Harvard Classics volume of Plato’s Crito — dialogues with Socrates in the last days before his execution — from a pile of trash on his block. Later, he studied the famous Core Curriculum as a student at Columbia University, where he fell in love with the classics and never left: After directing Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum for a decade, he now runs its Freedom and Citizenship program, which introduces low-income high school students to foundational canonical texts.

Rescuing Socrates chronicles Montás’s search for truth and meaning as a young man. He describes how the Great Books have helped him thrive and make sense of difficult challenges in his life: recovering from childhood traumas (poverty, abandonment, and immigration itself), alienation among rich kids at Columbia, loss of his evangelical Christian faith, and the dissolution of his first marriage. He’s infectiously passionate about making liberal education available to all, not just wealthy Ivy Leaguers confident about their comfortable futures.

Montás goes beyond the usual human capital arguments — reading Plato will help you get promoted at McKinsey! — making the case that college is not just about making a living, but also making life worth living. In advocating the canon for all, Montás is arguing for a more egalitarian model of schooling than our current one, which too often reserves liberal arts as a luxury for the few, while the working class is supposed to be grateful for a vocational education and a pile of debt. (Let them eat STEM!) Montás argues that the great books should be incorporated into every course of study, even the preprofessional.

Montás is a voice in an ideological wilderness here: We don’t see many on the Left making the case for classical education. On campus, the student left tends to oppose these kinds of core courses as a stance against Eurocentrism, patriarchy, and racism, and much of the academic left agrees. But there is no reason why great books courses can’t be diverse; Montás devotes chapters in his book to African (St Augustine) as well as Indian (Mohandas Gandhi) thinkers. In any case, it’s anti-intellectual to reject “dead white men”; we would miss out on thousands of years of literature and philosophy, and thus, centuries of truth-seeking and inquiry. As my Brooklyn College student was suggesting, too, the culture we live in today has been formed by these works (without them, we don’t even know what an Achilles’ heel is). College administrators often reject great books programs to avoid the culture wars they inspire and out of professed commitment to “student choice,” which sounds progressive but is just another way of reducing education to customer service.

As early as 2003, a student editorialist for the Harvard Crimson complained that it was possible to graduate from that august institution without reading Aristotle or William Shakespeare. True, students bothered by this tend to be conservative little shits — but they are right to complain. More important than the decline of Harvard, however, is the need to address the structural barriers to great books for regular people, through free higher education, more equitable college preparation in K-12 schools, and a far less cutthroat economic system, in which survival is a human right and everyone has leisure time.

Encouragingly, some institutions are trying to democratize liberal education. Montás’s own program sounds commendable, and he points to others, including the Columbia Core Curriculum at Hostos Community College, a public institution in the South Bronx. Montás rightly envisions a decommodified education, in which not everything you learn increases your earning power and the customer is not always right — but your life will be better and more meaningful.

Rescuing Socrates is long overdue. It has been predictably well-received by right-wing outlets like the Wall Street Journal — but I hope Jacobin readers will embrace it, too.