Yes, the Great Books Make Us Better People

Roosevelt Montás came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child, got his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia and ultimately came to run its Core Curriculum program. This is a slate of courses required of all Columbia undergraduates that includes a major component on what is commonly referred to as the Great Books.

Now, he’s written a combination memoir and call to arms.

In “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation,” Montás explains why he fears, as many have, that universities have come to put more value on, and resources into teaching, the sciences and more readily marketable skills, as opposed to emphasizing the mind-expanding and personal development that students gain from a rigorous colloquy around certain hallowed texts. Specifically, he stipulates, “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 adds, “I want nurses, computer scientists, accountants, engineers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and professionals of every kind, to be liberally educated.”

The New Yorker staff writer and Harvard English professor Louis Menand seems unimpressed, seeing Montás as well as Arnold Weinstein, a Brown comparative literature professor who has written a similar book just now, of overselling Great Books courses and undervaluing the aims and contributions of other academic curriculums, including in the sciences. In the coming New Yorker, Menand writes, “The conflict these professors are experiencing between their educational ideals and the priorities of their institutions is baked into the system” and is an extension of the “dispute over the purpose of college” and that the definition of a liberal education extends across academic disciplines, not just to the traditional canon.

Menand doesn’t dismiss the value of studying these texts, and notes that he teaches many of them. (I should note, at this point, that I am a fan of Menand — his book, “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” is a feast. I’ll further note that Montás is a colleague and friend.)

However, Menand wraps this all up by arguing something that caused me the same alarm that has called Montás to the academy’s battlements: that humanists such as Montás “need to connect with disciplines outside the humanities, to get out of their silos” and that “the idea that students develop a greater capacity for empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in fields that study actual human behavior does not make a lot of sense.” Menand concludes:

Hmm. He doesn’t? For several years I taught the Core Curriculum course “Contemporary Civilization,” and I do think it made a better person out of me, as well as the dozens of students I ushered through it.

That course is a two-semester marathon requiring every sophomore to read dense texts week after week and come prepared to discuss and write about them. It starts with Plato’s “The Republic” and continues with (this is but a partial list) Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, St. Augustine, the New Testament, Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke, Adam Smith, Hegel, Kant, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Du Bois, Fanon and many others. And as much of a climb as this can be for students (and their teacher), it does make one a better person.

Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” for example, is initially a forbidding piece of work, seeming to meander through assorted definitions of vague- and perhaps quaint-sounding concepts such as happiness and virtue. However, to guide students through what Aristotle is getting across is to reveal invaluable insights about the human endeavor — one of my favorites of which is that what Aristotle means by virtue is excellence, as in excelling. His “Ethics” offers a light to shine through the difficulty in figuring out what the point of existence is — of finding something we do well and doing our best in it as a prime justification for existence. One day, it’s over for each of us, but you tried, and did, your best with what you were given.

Rousseau is perhaps best known for his concept of humans beginning as “noble savages.” These figures supposedly led largely solitary lives and lacked language and even capacities for discernment. We must, in a nod to Menand, acknowledge that anthropology and paleontology have put this to rest as any kind of scientific fact about the origin of humans — humans emerged as, and have always been, social, rational beings. And we must acknowledge the Eurocentricity in his characterizations.

The key thing is that Rousseau did not see this “noble savage,” a clueless brute, as noble at all. His notion of semi-paradise was small, basically egalitarian societies, with the idea that everything went to pieces when humans conglomerated into hierarchical civilizations. The problem as Rousseau saw it was masses of people condemned to wrest “iron and wheat” from the earth — while a fortunate few reaped the benefits thereof.

The question, then, is whether what we think of as the normal state of things has been a worthy development. To examine that question seems, pretty clearly, to be a kind of self-improvement, even if you don’t land on conclusive answers, which you probably don’t.

And this understanding is a tool for grappling with today’s dilemmas: For example, anthropologists have also told me that depression and anomie are unknown among the early societies that they’ve studied, because it was so clear what one’s place and purpose were within the structure of these societies. Yet few of us would want humanity to return to these small bands being our universal condition.

But this leads to the question of whether hierarchy is inherently wrong. Is there a kind of large-scale hierarchical civilization that would be more just? Here is where a student may come to understand that Marxism, despite its built-in problems, despite its deserved bad rap in our market-based society, isn’t crazy. To simply know that the kinds of questions Rousseau stimulates are, indeed, questions makes you a better person in the sheer sense of understanding the complexity of the real world, something that escapes ideologues of all kinds.

I especially enjoyed teaching Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” One of his categorical imperatives proposes an ultimate ethical obligation, to “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That is not, mind you, the old Golden Rule, because “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” could mean that you decide to be lazy and be OK with other people being lazy as well. This fails under the categorical imperative because it would be a poor universal law — a society of layabouts would be a hungry and threadbare one.

However, the categorical imperative leaks when you try to apply it to, say, suicide (Is it wrong because we wouldn’t want all people to do it?) and lying (Is a lie intended to avert catastrophe inherently wrong?). What we ultimately get from Kant is how elusive any truly universal principle is, especially if we consider that different peoples worldwide might have differing perspectives on such matters.

Menand, certainly, doesn’t think contemplating these questions has no value. But how can it be that becoming equipped to debate them didn’t improve his, or most people’s sense of preparation for this vale of tears called life? My mother taught at a university, and when I was around 10, I asked her what college was for, given that even at that age I sensed that students, at least outside of the sciences, were not being filled with quantities of basic knowledge in the same way they were in elementary, middle and high school. She said that after four years of college, students have, or should have, a sense of the world’s complexity, that everything did not easily reduce to common-sense observations of the kind you preface with “Well, all I know is …”

Mom had that right, I think, and Great Books lend precisely this perspective. Having a sense of how to decide what your life is for amid all the possible choices before you; understanding that the ethics of how civilizations and power operate is complex rather than reducible to facile binaries and snap judgments; tasting the elusiveness of the single, irrefutable answer and thus truly appreciating the wit of Douglas Adams’s famous proposal that the answer to everything is “42.” One is, surely, a better person with this perspective under one’s belt.

Scholars of Montás’s perspective are empirically correct, not old-fashioned, in treating the books on the grand old “Five-Foot Shelf” as vehicles of self-improvement, of the kind to which the sciences generally lend only more obliquely. Books like “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” teach us much. Aristotle, Rousseau and Kant teach fundamental lessons.

Montás’s book is not a clap-back against the aims and practices of the modern university in general. He argues for the value of a Great Books education as the foundation for receiving the benefits of everything else a school has to offer. Especially urgent is his point that the Great Books curriculum, in its philosophical universality, is egalitarian. Despite those who claim that these are merely works by dead, possibly irrelevant white men, Montás argues that the Great Books approach has a fundamentally democratizing impulse.

“A Core education serves a leveling function” for students, he says, “sharpening their historical awareness of how the world has come to be what it is, giving them a shared vocabulary with which to describe and act upon it, and equipping them to communicate with others who bring different backgrounds and perspectives to the conversation.”

I’m sensing, once again, people coming out better.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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