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tv   Roosevelt Montas Rescuing Socrates  CSPAN  February 14, 2022 2:00am-3:01am EST

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definitely inform who i am and why i entered medicine and my understanding of public health, but our stories that i actually had not previously shared prior to lifelines. find the rest of dr. lena wen's discussion online at use the box at the top of the page to search her name or the title of her book lifelines. hello and welcome to this aei book forum with roosevelt montes about his new book rescuing socrates how the great books changed my life and why they matter for a new generation. i'm benjamin story and i'm gonna be joined in this conversation with roosevelt montes today by my wife and co-author jenna silver story. we're both visiting fellows in the social cultural and constitutional studies division of the american enterprise institute, and we're also both professors at furman university where we direct furman's tocqueville program. today's event is part of aei's
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edward and helen hints book forum series these forms provide a platform to host prominent authors for discussion of new books on issues of national significance. we're very grateful to edward and helen hence for their tremendous support of aei and deep commitment to our mission. at the end of today's station will have some time for your questions. you can email those questions at any time during the conversation to jackson walford at jackson walford at you can see the email address at the bottom of your screen there or you can tweet them to us at our hashtag rescuing socrates. aei. our guest today is roosevelt montes he's a senior lecture in american studies in english columbia university, and he's the director of columbia's freedom and citizenship program. for 10 years professor montes served as director of the center for the core curriculum, which
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oversees columbia's famous great books program. roosevelt well montes welcome to aei. thank you. it's a real pleasure to be here with both of you. rescuing is is a defense of the kind of education offered? in colombia's core curriculum and that form of education as you point out is embattled now and in fact has always been a battled the since the it's it's very invention. so it the book is also an autobiography. and tells the story of how your own life was inflected. by the kind of education that colombia's core that columbia's columbia's corps offers and it's worth noting here that you're not only on the faculty at columbia. that is the institution at which you got both your your and your graduate education. so why don't we begin? by just considering what it is that you mean?
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by great books education what is it? what purpose does it serve? thank you. you know that very category great books has become contested. and it's a to a layperson may seem remarkable thing that many maybe the dominant opinion of literature professors is that there is no such thing as a great book. but that phrase also has a kind of a kind of history. there is a there was a great books movement there. there are that self-identify as offering great books curricula um, but loosely speaking great books is one way of naming works from our past that have had a an outsized influence on the way. the world is today. that is works in literature
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philosophy other forms of art visual arts music works that have impacted the world in such a way that we can trace their their influence. we can see the ways in which they have put into circulation debates categories questions. positions that have have shaped the world today. um, will you typically that category great books overlap significantly with with what people call the classics sometimes it they simply call them the canon often it's associated with the west because the west has from very early on engaged in various intellectual projects to form cannons to to select and curate bodies of knowledge as embodied in text that have particular authority.
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and of course the salient example of this is the biblical canon which collects a set of texts that are given special authority. so that's sort of the model that that comes to shape the the idea of great books. but today we simply an i simply think of great books as works from the past that command our attention work from the past who study and consideration sheds special light on the world is today and shed special light on questions that are perennial in the human experience. so when did this great books? style of education as it's come to be practiced here in the united states. when did it come into existence and why? columbia gets gets a lot of the credit. so and and it's it's an interesting and peculiar institutional history columbia college, which obviously remains
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to this day and is the original college founded in 1754 funded as a as an anglican kind of sectarian school about eventually evolves through the colonial period into independence and by the time you get to the 19th century the research universities emerging and around columbia college. they're emerged of different faculties and a whole large institution that's devoted to the research model and columbia's president nicholas andre butler comes in at the very beginning of the 20th century to with within really explicit vision of turning colombian to a research colossus and the college begins to be very much neglected and nicholas mary butler and as well as many other university leaders in fact it to to eliminate to abolish the college turn it into some kind of pre-professional feeder
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for the graduate school, and it was in response to a kind of institutional marginalization that columbia college. embraced and and an emphasize it's kind of double down in its. liberal mission in its non-professionalizing mission it kind of put down stakes as a school that was going to focus on the cultivation and maturation of individuals without a professional and to this day columbia college is not give bachelor's science degrees all the degrees. it gives our bachelors of arts at the center of that vision of that commitment of the college to the individual student rather than to the research disciplines that were arising at the center of that was the core curriculum was this initially a course offered called general honors that proposed then radical idea. this is 1919.
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we're talking 1920 proposing the radical idea that undergraduates read one great work in translation every week and treated like if it was a work that had just recently been published treated as a kind of you know, the latest the latest novel or the latest work in the culture and and talk about it. think about it. critique it with the same kind of freshness and relevance and that that idea was radical then and it continues to be radical but but that course first offered as a as an advanced seminar by the mid 30s became the required seminar for all first-year students beginning with homer's iliad and moving chronologically through roughly speaking the western canon to contemporary to contemporary works. so and why don't you tell us a little bit about how you first encountered this form of education and and how it's come to inflect your life.
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now i arrived at columbia as a first year student. i went there for college and and i arrived there with a kind of pretty thorough naivete to put it. mildly or more directly of saying it would be ignorance about about college life about curricula about liberal education. i did not know what the core curriculum was this program that that was there waiting for me. i did have a very decisive encounter with what we would call a great book with with the a fixture of the great book canon while in high school i had immigrated from the dominican republic new york city. shortly before i was 12, i didn't speak english lived with with my mother and brothers a single mother very very difficult kind of material
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conditions struggling as many other poor immigrants. have done and do and i came across a book that my next-door neighbors have thrown out. they threw out because did some some kind of house cleaning and rid themselves of a lot of books among which was a volume. i picked up of plato's dialogues surrounding the trial and death of socrates and i started reading that in a kind of earnest in without with a kind of intensity and that book mediated a very important relationship in my high school. um, social studies teacher was greek himself had been an immigrant himself had a classical education on princeton. so i mean the whole way reading this book and invited me to come after school and and talk to him about it and that began a mentorship that has been one of the most important relationships in my life. he continues to be one of my closest friends, so when i got
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to colombia i had had already this encounter with great books, but i had no clue about what liberal education or just a general education broadly speaking. focused on the study of such books would mean and just to to add one other. one other aspect to to my relationship when i arrived at columbia had been in the united states six years. my english was barely good enough to be admitted to colombia my my sense of fluency in the social norms in the kind of culture youth culture broader american culture was sorely surely deficient and that first year colombia was a very difficult time. i've beenwildering time a disorienting time and reading those books beginning with the iliad and the odyssey and sophocles. you repeat it and facilities and herodotus and dante and shakespeare and don quixote
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reading those books was the primary way through which i began to orient myself visa with this world that i was encountering and vis-à-vis my own development. this will be my own coming of age my own sense of myself as a as an individual as an agent as a member of american society as a member of democratic society so i for a sense of myself and and kind of saw my way through what seemed an impenetrable maze drawing on those books, you know in a quite decisive and indispensable way. hmm. that's what i quickly comment that for those who haven't read the book. it's it really is this wonderful mix of philosophic meditation and memoir and in particular the story of young roosevelt montes finding this coffee of plato's dialogues it a trash pile. it's as you tell the story there this was part of the famous five foot shelf of books published by
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charles elliott and you describe how this is a good business venture it, you know, it's a lot of copies, but i thought you know and many of which were never read. of course. they don't sat on the shelves and wealthy people including the ones that picked up they had clearly never been opened. this finds never cracked. i have a few of those i've never cracked but i read paperbacks, but the but that's story of you finding plato in the trash pile. it's like yeah makes the whole thing worthwhile the whole enterprise of publishing these these five foot shelf. that's what it's that's what it's for. thank you. i i remark in the book that one of the things back into dominican republic that you hear about about new york and most especially back in the 80s most immigrants to the united states from the dominican republic came to new york. and in fact the dominican republic nuevajol, new york just stands for the whole country, you know people live in california and they say they live in new york. just all of the united states just get just gets identified as
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much old but one of the amazing things that people will return from new york saying is that people americans throw away perfectly good stuff all the time. you can pick up tvs dressers beds air conditioners all kinds of things that you can pick up from the street is treasure some of which might require some minor repair, but but it was you could kind of live off just picking up good stuff that people throw away and you know when i when i encountered that those books that it has turned out that that was that was the treasure that i um came to america to find my my mother sacrifice. very profoundly her life her her independence or agency. her relationships or family to dominican republic to come here. with one single purpose with just to open away from my brother and i to have a shot. at growing up and living in the united states and as it turns
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out that thing that the treasure that that sacrifice ended up leading me to what's contained between those covers in that book and and the world that reading that book engaging with those ideas initiating the the development inner and outed outer development that that book initiated that turned out to be worth all the sacrifice. good. well, i think i'll ask one more question about your personal story before we turn to other things as you describe your first as you were describing your first days at columbia. i was wondering what? advice you would give to a young person in the situation like you were in when you were starting out in this university where so much was new to you confusing to you. what do you know now that you wish you knew then? i think what i would put where i
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would direct a student kind of in my situation immediately is to find people. with whom they have a connection that is to seek out mentors and people who have a personal. interest in them and this is i guess i should i should preface out with saying this is assuming you're in a liberal arts context so that that would be the first thing if i get to speak to them before they arrive in college, i would steer them towards either a university or a college of that has a commitment to liberal education because liberal education is about the cultivation of individuals liberal education takes the individual in his or her existential condition as a development developing unfolding growing organic agent and attends to that liberal education concerns itself not
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returning this individual into a scholar into a professional but simply cultivating those human capacities that are innate in the individual so liberal education is premised on unrelationship liberal education is something that happens between people that's something that happens between between and books so i would say um i have a clear a vision that you're education. your liberal education is going to be funneled through relationships and seek out those relationships so find the people that that resonate with you. go to the go to office hours seek out those those relationships. okay. thank you. all right, so as my husband mentioned your book is a very complex interweaving of your of your personal story and also a polemical critique of what's going wrong with education today. so what would you say is is the
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main thrust of that political critique. what is the main object? one way to put it would be that the dominance of disciplinary research and study in the university has squeezed out general education and has squished out this traditional purpose of the university that had to do with the cultivation of human beings even places that call themselves liberal education that the call himself liberal arts colleges and that do liberal education in so many of those places. what what is meant by liberal education is introduction to the liberal arts disciplines. so introduction to literature or art history or philosophy history music, but an introduction that is already so bound inside disciplinary specialization inside specialized questions specialized vocabulary scholarly elaborations within those disciplines and that that has actually obviated that has
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undermined in some way. what a liberal education means a liberal education is decidedly non-disciplinary, but a liberal education concerns our condition as free self-determining individuals a liberal education is not subjected to a scholarly even a research goal, but simply to the full development of human capacities inherent in every individual and that's why liberal education is appropriate. as a foundation for any profession so one of the one of the features of this squeezing out of liberal of true liberal education from from the dominance of by the dominance of disciplinary specialization one of the features of that is that today, we often think that in order to get a liberal education. you have to major in the liberal arts so that people think of well, you're either going to be an art historian or an engineer. you're going to be a literary critic or a struggling academic
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or a computer programmer. so that liberal education has come to be offered as a as one among many specialties, but that is an oxymoron liberal education is in fact that fundamental type of cultivation and education that equips you to fulfill any particular professional role to its maximum potential. so to be the best engineer or the best businessman or the best doctor the best scientists there is a kind of human cultivation a kind of human formation that forms the basis of that of that specialization the framing of the question a grounding of what those endeavors mean in the broader social context. so a liberal education ought to be the foundation for every profession. than one particular track, you can follow so to kind of circle back to to the beginning of my answer one way to summarize the critique i make of the contemporary university. is that the dominance of
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disciplinary specialization has in fact undermined the practice of liberal education. okay, that's that's very interesting. i think your book has been received in a way that indicates that that was part of your polemic, but another angle that has been picked up i think involves your potential response to the critique that the study of great books is not really as you say a way to fundamentally equip all sorts of people for lives of meaning and excellence, right but a tool of a tool of a particular culture that aims to place certain people on top generally white wealthy people and to keep others down right so i think a lot of the way that your book has been received has started an interesting argument and that domain i'd like to ask you to talk a little bit more about that potential political angle of your book.
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thank you. yes. well, you know there is a historical association between higher education and an elitism higher education and the maintenance of hierarchical structures of domination subordination exploitation higher education has been for most of its existence the province of a social and cultural elite one of the great achievements of america has been the democratization of higher education and that's something that really begins. um pretty late in the in the kind of inklings of it in the 20th century, but really gets going after the second world war with passage of the of the gi bill even you know, sometimes i i recall moby -- published in 1850 where when ishmael it's about to board. the b quad on to go on this wailing voyage and he meets the
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owners of the pequod and they kind of are ready to sign him up and they say, you know, have you heard of this this captain runs this ship ahab and ishmael's never heard of him, but they say of ahab as a way of pointing to his peculiarity. his strange. is this unusual enigmatic character is that he has been to colleges as well as among the savages. it's like going to college was probably as weird as living among the savages, right? so so there is this this exclusivity about about college education and college education until the rise of the research university was very much something like liberal education was very much an education in classical learning oftenham of an emphasizing the classical languages. so there is this historical association between liberal education and elite forms of social power today the whole thrust of higher education is
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it's a democratizing one it is that no longer. are we going to use higher education as a kind of as a kind of sieve as a kind of selection and cultivation of a social elite, but we in fact are going to do our very best to universalize that experience and and that is that is really deeply embedded in the whole idea of a democratic society democratic society requires participants who have the tools with which to engage in self-governance. so the liberal education that was once for the social elite for the people who ran the society much today be general universal education to the extent that we aspire to it to be in a democracy. we must aspire to liberal education for all. so i argue that. instead of it of liberal education being a tool for elitism instead of liberal education being a tool for the
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preservation of a certain kind of hierarchical form of domination liberal education is the most powerful tool that we have to equip people who have been marginalized or groups or individuals that have been exploited or have been in some way excluded from the mainstream. it is the most powerful tool. we have to subvert the hierarchies of power that have kept them down. so i i see liberal education in its in its kind of original conception as a liberatory practice as a practice of equipping individual to live a life of freedom to win and attain their own liberation. jenna you're muted. some background noise. thank you. let me ask you one more question before i pass this back to my
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husband you had some interesting speculation in the book about the difficulties that colleges and universities are having starting and continuing productive conversations about what it is that belongs in the core what it is that students need to know and learn in their four years in the institution. and you speculate that? one of the things that makes these debates so so difficult. is that there as you say likely to be had in moral terms not between what's educationally good or bad. this is your language but is ethically pure or corrupt right? so it makes an argument that it makes that argument actually rather unpleasant because because it becomes a battle of good versus evil and people end up wanting to avoid it altogether, right? so that's part of your theory of why we're not offering robust core curricula as much anymore. so i wanted to ask you to questions about this. just tell us a little bit more about this. where do you see this?
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why do you think this is a factor in the decline of core curriculum education in universities today and then what could faculty or administrators do to make campus conversation about things like great books education or core education more meaningful and productive. thank you. very i think kind of key questions that that you raise? so the canon this traditional canon that i call great books obviously reflects. our history including some of its most unpleasant unpleasant facts the most obvious one is that the canon and this is not just peculiar to what one might one might call western civilization. it's the case pretty much in every civilization that has left a a literate trace a traditional
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of tax that those are dominated by by mail. so that is the first kind of major. and obvious form of exclusion that is encoded. that's embodied. it's it's a person incarnated in the very existence of the canon women have been excluded from access to the tools of intellectual production throughout our history. um not only women but none elites of every kind people foreigners the poor clearly disabled or not non-conformist of every sort in the united states with our history of of racial oppression and subjugation that those distinctions have a skin color so that in the united states you have african americans who have been denied access to the tools of a production and and people
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of color in general. so there is this the sense that the canon somehow encodes. i think in in the most narrow-minded reading promotes these values so people have often criticized the canon for the more the shortcomings of our social past so um that moral critique that critique that says to read let's say shakespeare to read is to be somehow promoting a eurocentric colonial male centric probably racist probably patriarchal way of understanding and see in the world. so there has been a moral social
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justice critique attached to the critique of the canon, so we're not going to critique shakespeare because he's a bad poet because he doesn't really illuminate our human experience. we're not going to criticize the expert because he is an insignificant figure in the shaping of the english language of our sensibilities of literary history. we're going to reject shakes were because he's somehow ideologically tainted that that critique has become actually quite powerful and quite dominant in higher education today. now, i'm stating a kind of extreme extreme version of it. although you will find you will find that version out there, but the whole kind of approach to asking of the past particularly of the work that embodied in the canon to pass a kind of test of moral purity from our standpoint
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before their worthwhile objects of attention to for our students and that that paradigm has been absolutely destructive to to the study of the great books and it has also and you you allude to this in your in your in your question jenna it has made people shy away from a full-throated defense of say the worth of aristotle because if you defend say we should study irish irish dollars worth our attention every undergraduate should have a serious intellectual encounter with aristotle. somebody might come and say well, you know aristotle supports slavery aristotle things that women are barely human kind of subhuman. maybe you have an investment in advancing those ideas too that you are defending aristotle the way you are so that kind of it's
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almost like a high voltage. danger of promoting embracing advocating for the study of these of these ancient books have has really made people even people who kind of privately want and do teach them has made them shy for from from promoting them from advancing them. what can we do as faculty as faculty members? i think the first thing we need to do is to realize that an embrace that part of our function within the university that concerns undergraduate education. i mean part of our function special and research universities to engage in research is to write articles or produced works that engage with the scholarly conversation and that's really addressed to scholars and and it's in some cases it will produce knowledge that is that that filters down to a general to the to the general reader, but that's one function.
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there's another function a function that i think constitutes really the soul of the university the function that no other institution can fulfill and that has to do with undergraduate education. so first is that we as faculty member ought to clarify for ourselves what priority what degree of centrality our purpose of educating on the graduates is going to occupy once we embrace that to some extent then the next question is what is our responsibility? as scholars in presenting this undergraduates with a coherent account of what from our past is most worth knowing and studying. that is a responsibility that has been sharped. um, we do not want to have that conversation people do not have the come out do not want to have a conversation or come up with a reasonable thought out not
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ultimate not in alterable not with a claim to absolute authority, but i provisional. vision that we present to our students of what about our past is most worth their attention. they want that from us and it is our job and we are the only ones who are positioned. in a place that can offer such a thought through account of what is most worthwhile knowing from our cultural past. that's a that's a that's a very important argument and i think one that that many faculty neglect. i want to i want to turn now to some of the responses that the polemical elements of your book have have generated. so rescuing socrates has been widely received. excuse me, widely reviewed response has been overwhelmingly positive and you've touched a lot of nerves and you've you've won a lot of fans.
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but there have been some criticisms and i i'd like to give you a chance to to respond some of these. so the first comes from harvard english professor louis minab. writing in the new yorker mananda takes exception to your argument that professional practitioners of liberal education have corrupted their activity. by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialize academic pursuits. that's as quote. he takes from from rescuing socrates. and he notes that the humanities are already in decline that with english majors down something like 25% between 2012 and 2019, which is really just a tail end of a much longer decline that stretches all the way back to the 1970s at least. so i think what menon is saying is that you're hitting humanities when they're already down the how do you respond to this kind of argument? that was such an interesting.
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an interesting take on my book by menand and it's it. if you if you look at his review and you read my book, there's there's much that's unrecognizable about the claims he makes about my position. but but in this he is correct in this he does put his finger. on a fundamentally different vision that we have of the purposes of undergraduate liberal or general education ben and and this is a main street view mainstream view among academics things of the humanities and the liberal arts as being primarily engaged in the business of knowledge production. he calls it the knowledge business and his vision of undergraduate liberal education is as concerned primarily with expertise primarily with the generation and dissemination of knowledge my vision of
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undergraduate liberal education concerns itself primarily with the cultivation of individuals, and that's a fundamentally different view. what are we about? are we are we about generating new knowledge the humanistic fields, or are we individuals to live? maximally fulfilling human lives now those two are an entirely separable because in order to to promote this larger vision of human cultivation you do need to engage with knowledge. you didn't you need to gate with engage and train students in critical thinking and methods of interpretation. give them a sense of historical a historically accurate sense of the past etc. so there's a lot of knowledge production and manipulation analysis that goes into this more fundamental task of liberal education that has to do with equipping an individual for would the tools to live a free
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life so in our the contrast between our view is that in my view the student is at the center of the liberal education endeavor and in his view the subject. the discipline is at the center of the endeavor. in my view it is his approach and paradigm. that is that has contributed to the decline of the humanities because the fact is that most of our students are not interested and should not be interested in the kinds of specialized disciplinary questions that a phd in literature allows you to uniquely address. it's not relevant to them. it doesn't matter to them and when they come to a liberal arts classroom, and that's what they get. they're likely not to return. however if they get an education that is focused on the ways in which the great ideas in philosophy the great debate in history the great achievements of the human imagination
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illuminate our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves if that's what they get in the liberal arts classroom, then i think many more of them will be kind of turned on and ignited into whether pursuing that as majors are more courses or simply to establishing a lifelong relationship with this life of the mind that ultimately is what we want to rich let me let me remind our viewers that you can submit questions the for roosevelt montes to the email address jackson.walford at or tweet them to hashtag rescuing socrates aei your your last response reminds me of another criticism. that was level that your book this was this one comes from george will who is in general very favorable to rescuing socrates, but he has a he has one sharp line and the that he that he directs at it and he
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says that anyway what he's taking aim at is your contention that the primary aim of liberal education is the search for self-knowledge and he writes that the young should not be encouraged to have more of what they spontaneously have a high ratio of interest in themselves to more substantive things the so what would you what would you say in response to this more? critique. yeah, this this the two but but that says that this version of liberal education focused on self-knowledge kind of contributes the what one might call the natural narcissism of the young. you know, i think that that the simple answer is that there is a distinction between the pursuit of self knowledge and the egoic narcissistic interest in oneself. i think of it's a zen master. who's who says that to study the buddha way is to study the self.
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study the self is to forget the self. or you know more in the western tradition socrates injunction. that the unexamined life is not worth living. thing i love about that is that he doesn't say that the life which having been examined doesn't arrive at an answer is not worth living. right the the life that he is calling us to it's a life of examination. it's a life where that where the life is in the questions. the life is in the pursuit and all of the thinkers are i discuss ten augustine chocolates himself freud gandhi the more they study their self the more the self-emerges as a stero incognito the more it emerges as a place of mystery as a place of continuous unfolding revelation of what your inner life is like
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of what the world as a scene from your eyes is like so i don't mean the study of the self in the way that a kind of neurotic self-obsessed individual might just be concerned with his or her own prerogatives. i mean that in ourselves in our interiority lie the keys lies the answer to all of the questions, you know, one of my favorite thinkers of all time is rifaldo emerson and ralph aldo emerson as a famous line that he says nothing is at last sacred. the integrity of your own mind nothing at last satisfies us. but a kind of inner certainty a kind of inner conviction about whatever it is. so ultimately it is that inner work where all the world where all the action happens. so i think you know, i think
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george will inimitable way takes the opportunity to take a shot of what it takes to be the the excessive narcissism of today's young people. he likes to do that, but i think that it is not that which i celebrate but something much more deeper and much more consequential. let me just i just want to draw attention to one thing about the book here. that's very refreshing is how seriously you take the young people who show up in your classrooms. you take them to be serious people who are asking serious questions that the books you put in front of them help them ask the and i think that's a that's a refreshing point of view and when we're so often preoccupied by debates between boomers and snowflakes that you know, i don't think you see you don't you regard either in those kinds of condescending terms? thank you, you know and i think that's really really. key to the to the task of a liberal art teacher a liberal arts teacher.
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cannot teach except as a function of a kind of devotion. that's a kind of respect even a kind of love to their students. i i simply could not teach the liberal arts. i could i could teach my specialty to anybody who will submit themselves to it? i can do it online teach my my field of scholar specialty i can just lecture to a recording device and use that to educate. um people but liberal education this work of cultivation of an individual as a unique and particular. irreducible subjectivity. i cannot do that unless i love the student and i don't think any teacher can do it unless they love the student and the student needs to love you back that effective connection. and you know, it's i'm not i didn't come up with this. you can even see it like in the
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symposium that effective connection between teacher and student is is fundamental to to liberal education as i said before liberal education. is something that happens between people that's something that that just happens from from books or from or from or from just the intellect the whole the whole person is engaged in this process? janet did you want to ask one more? shall i? okay. oh, i'd be happy to if we have time. yeah, okay. all right, then. let me ask the last question while you then i think proves the questions from the audience is that that right? okay, so i'm just going to that was that was beautiful so roosevelt and i was i was writing some of what she said down so and i think that you give a really lovely account of
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the way that liberal education has to be formed in the context of a personal relationship. i just want to bring this to conclude back one more time to to the political dimension of what you're saying though. because as you were talking earlier about the leveling function you call it that offering a great books education can have and how that leveling function is particularly important in a democracy where we expect everybody to understand the way that our world is structured, you know in a way that prepares them to participate in its rule. i find that argument very compelling, but i also think that you know, even in our democracy you don't do away with the fact that certain people have more power and privilege and responsibility. than others right or different kinds kinds of larger scale things. and so i'm wondering not only about the leveling function of
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the great books, which i think is a good argument that you make but also about the elevating function. i might call it and in particular, you know, what are you doing at columbia in the core curriculum? to help students there who are after all at a very elite institution right headed and headed to be at the top of whatever fields or businesses or what have you that they go into. what are you doing to train them to be a responsible member of an elite class. we don't even like to think of ourselves that way but the fact is some of us are elites, right? what do you do it? what do the great books teach people about how to use that kind of privilege? well, thank you. i think that's it's you'll raise a set of visuals that are so important in our educational system. we you know, we are in a you know gonna brutally exclusive and hierarchical landscape of higher education students are,
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you know ranked very decidedly as high school students and and that determines to a large extent what institutions they go to and places like colombia are at the top of the heap and i sometimes remark how kind of counter cultural the activity of the core curriculum is it seems that we select not just a colombia. but at all all highly selective on the graduate institutions. we select for qualities that we then with a liberal education tried to unwind that is there is a kind of goal-oriented driven often great grubbing fixed determination to to achieve and to maximize your time to be efficient to build your resume. i mean you need to be like an olympic athlete. student-wise like an olympic student to get into into some of these schools and then in the
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core curriculum we say way maybe the system of values. that has brought you here is hollow. maybe the the brutal. are competitive world in the top the top of who sheep you lie is a sham. maybe that in fact doesn't maybe that's hollow maybe that doesn't satisfy and and address your kind fundamental. well-being or you or your fundamental search for for meaning and a good life now? you know, i i often say we in in a course or two or three or four are not going to undo a whole a whole cultural a whole. in some ways consensus dominant dominant efforts, but what we can achieve is to saw some doubt. what we can achieve is to
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propose a an alternative way of looking at your own life and a skeptical orientation towards the certainties towards the givens towards the assumptions the cultural assumptions that drive our late capitalist or capitalist capitalist society one other thing that that i think this kind of education does. is that it emphasizes the contingency of your privilege, you know part of the perniciousness of the hyper competitive environment that we have is that people who succeed then falsely believe they have earned that success people who are colombian people. i'm here because i deserve it. i'm here because i worked hard i'm here because i'm smart. i'm here because i'm better and then they go on to careers in which they can think of their successes as expressions of their marriage one of the things
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that an education like this does is to highlight the contingency the accidental fortune of your of your own privilege, and we're all people who are i often say people who are a colombia we say i point out i remind them that we are all in the 1% we are the global one percent sitting right here. i try to bring their attention to the kind of irony or contradictions of their own commitments of social justice. i sometimes i say there are one-line joke online jokes are very rare because jokes usually require a setup and a punchline but a one-line joke is columbia students marching against gentrification. so, you know columbus is it in the middle of kind of wedge between harlem and washington
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heights to underprivileged under-resourced poor communities and yet many of our students are are out there on against gentrification. so bringing self-awareness to that condition. it's one of the things that this education does by placing our particularity in this much larger context and there's much larger context of history and debate and ideology. one more thing is that part of the magic of a core classroom even at columbia like like many of many would wealthy institutions does have some commitments to bringing low income people as part of the class. that's how i ended up at columbia and one of the extraordinary things of in a core classroom, is that you do in the best of circumstances and up with real diversity. that is you end up with people who have really different understandings of the world based on their experiences and you get them to talk about
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fundamental issues you get them to talk honestly and directly about the grounding questions of our humanity and of society rather than you know, there's many campuses work that i that are diverse students just self-segregate and you know particular kinds of students they particular classes the athletes all run to one class and the athenos will run to one major or sit in the same place in the cafeteria or join the same clubs there is this natural self segregation the core classroom. is the place you know, the liberal arts classroom is the place where our campuses can realize the potential. of our diversity yeah. let me turn now to a couple of questions from our viewers. the first one is from jeff shirts who asks professor montess you you mentioned that the end of liberal education is the students liberation. liberation from what and liberation for what? great.
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i'll give a metaphor or an image and it's not my own but we all live when there's certain certain constraints some of them have to do with our social commitments with our family relations some of them of them have to do with the social economic conditions and that we grow up the cultural religious commitments that we have the expectations that other have some are just are simply cognitive. we come with a particular kind of a mind. liberal education and we cannot escape that we are we we're we are constrained and determined in all kinds of ways you might think of human life as being we live in a cage. we live in anchus boundaries. we did not create and so when you think about it that way liberal education is a way of expanding the floor of the cage and that's that that's the image right expanding the for the case
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that is to increasing the self-awareness in please increasing the latitude that you have given constraints that we all live with. i mean, it's a basic insight of freud and probably most most directly expressing civilization and it's his content that the possibility of civilization the possibility of collective action depends on the repression constraining the binding of a lot of things in in our cells that are natural natural desires natural ambition. natural drives we must constrain and bind them in order to achieve collective action. it's one of the ways in which in which our constraint liberal education is a way of maximizing our freedom. we think that constraints that are inevitable in human existence so liberate you from what in some ways it is liberating you from constraints that come with your condition of
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being human liberal liberating you from for what liberating you to maximally develop your human capacities to maximally, you know, there's there's a quote in rousseau where he says that to be driven. by appetite is slavery and to obey the laws that we have formulated for ourselves is freedom this notion that to be driven by appetite is slavery that we can be enslaved. we can be our liberty can be robbed by a kind of disordered desire a kind of disordered way of wanting things can actually limit our freedom. well liberal education is one way to bring order to the economy of desires and the economy of psychic forces that sometimes constrainers and sometimes robust of our liberty. one more question from our
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audience. this is from john soledad. what role should american studies and judeo-christian religious education play in the core curriculum he asks. american studies and judeo-christian religious education um, and i assume that the question is in a core curriculum in the united states, so, you know, one of the reasons why i think that that the western tradition is worth special attention within the united states because so many aspects of our culture our institutions are laws ouresthetics. our language are the idioms of our of our social life have a history much of which has can be traced and understood and clarify in this lineage that we call the western tradition that includes julia christian value. so would you which in future talking about text, you know, the biblical text now we don't teach those as indoctrination. we don't teach them to
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indoctrinate you into them. we teach them to again clarify where we are to understand more deeply what they mean and how they relate to the way the world is today. you believe him or not, isn't it's a private. it's a private. faith issue liberal education is not about giving you the answers liberal education. it's about clarifying the questions. similarly. it goes for american studies that in an american university. i think there is an american core an american canon that includes, you know declaration of independence and the constitution on the federalist papers, but also includes frederick douglass. probably fourth of july speech and and it includes the voices that articulate how american values interface with our diversity and the ways in which you have failed to to enact our values and the battles that we have fought in order to bring those ideals into into closer
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reality. so there is a kind of a of american core that i think ought to be part of the general education of a student in an american institution particularly particularly a student who is going to live and be part of the american american democracy. okay. well, thank you very much roosevelt montes for joining us today. we've reached the end of our hour and may thank all of our viewers also for for tuning in and and commend to everybody roosevelt montes' wonderful book rescuing socrates the how the great books changed my life and why they matter for a new generation. thank you. weekends on c-span 2 are an intellectual feast every saturday american history tv documents america's story and on sundays book tv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors funding for c-span 2 comes from these television
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companies and more including cox. cox is committed to providing eligible families access to affordable internet through the connect to compete program bridging the digital divide one connected and engaged student at a time cox bringing us closer cox along with these television companies support c-span, 2 as a public service. the format for this evening will be a conversation between agama oluo and patrice colors. i want to especially thank a gemma for saying yes tart invitation to curate and host a series this year. it takes a lot of trust to enter into partnership and we are so grateful to you joma for trusting sal to bring your vision for the series to life. as you all know a gemma is the author of the number one new york times bestseller. so you want to talk about race and most recently mediocre the dangerous legacy of white male america her work on race has been featured in the guardian the new york times and the


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