Intro. [Recording date: March 10, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 10th, 2022 and my guest is educator and author Roosevelt Montás of Columbia University, where he is Senior Lecturer in American Studies in English and the former director of Columbia's Center for Core Curriculum between 2008 and 2018. He is the author of--great title--the author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, which is our subject for today. Roosevelt, welcome to EconTalk.
Roosevelt Montás: Thank you. It's great to be here, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Now I want to say I love this book. It's a fantastic book. And, in many ways it's the culmination of a number of EconTalk episodes in recent years, as well as capturing my own journey to become the president of Israel's only liberal arts college. What makes the book so powerful is you integrate your own educational journey with your life experience. But, I want to start with a little bit of your history. You were the Director of Columbia's Core Curriculum for 10 years. Some listeners won't know what that is--that is hard to believe--but they won't know about what Columbia's Core Curriculum is. So, tell us about it.
Roosevelt Montás: Sure. Well first, thank you for inviting me here and for the work you're doing at Shalem, an institution that I admire and whose wellbeing matters a lot to me; but I think it matters in the world. Thanks for your work there.
Columbia's Core Curriculum is the oldest thing of its type. In 2019 celebrated its centennial. And, the briefest way to put it is that it's a set of required courses for all undergraduates in, roughly speaking, the Western classics. It includes a course in music--again, roughly Western music--and a course in art; but at the centerpiece are these two year-long courses in, roughly speaking, Great Books. So, every first year at Columbia takes Literature Humanities, which is a class of about 20 students. So, there are 60-some-odd sections of this class, about 20 students in each section.
And, the course begins with Homer in September and reads the Odyssey and runs through, kind of Great Books canon of the West, all the way to contemporary works. So, you end in the spring semester after a year with the same group of students, same faculty member, reading contemporary works.
Then the sophomore students do the same thing, this time though reading philosophical texts, beginning with Plato's Republic followed by Aristotle's Ethics and Politics; Biblical texts--both the Jewish and Christian texts and the Islamic text, the Quran--running through great works in philosophical, ethical, political thought, all the way to contemporary works.
So, those two year-long courses that anchor the first and second year of Columbia are the center of the Core Curriculum. Again, the program has been going for about 100 years and is something that is very much in the identity and the DNA [Deoxyribonucleic Acid] of the Columbia College experience and of Columbia College alumni.
Russ Roberts: A common challenge is that a lot of professors--and I would include myself in this group--have a tradition of liking to hear our own voice.
Roosevelt Montás: Yes, yes.
Russ Roberts: And so, it's not easy emotionally, I think--and I've worked on this myself--to pull back and make room for the students. And, I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, well that just gives the students a chance to run their mouths. I don't want to hear them. They don't know anything about Homer. Here you have a professor who has been teaching it for 20 years. Shouldn't that person be explaining it?' What's the value of letting the students explore the text rather than being told what's in it?
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. So, let me say a few things about that.
One is that we emphasize quite strongly the discussion aspect of the courses. The reason that they are small courses rather than large lectures is so that every student has a chance to participate--so that every student has a chance to engage, not only with the instructor, but with each other.
It is kind of in the essence of the way we conceive of the project in the classroom, is a conversation, it's discussion.
So, that is kind of drilled into every instructor that enters into the classroom by every form of communication that we have. Including, and perhaps most importantly, that we have faculty meetings every week in which we model that. We have faculty meetings in which we have a guest speaker. That's an expert in the field, in the book, whatever book is coming up. And, that speaker might give a 20- or 30-minute presentation. And then it's discussion and questions. So, that modeling is very important, especially for the teachers who are being trained.
Another thing that we do-- this started while I was there, is something I implemented--in the end-of-semester evaluations, we ask the students to comment and to, kind of, rate the balance between discussion and presentation of the instructor. That's very important, because by asking that question, the student evaluation would signal both to the student and to the instructor that this is something that matters to us and that we want to keep an eye on.
One other thing that's very important is that there is no individual who is an expert in the range of material that we teach. If you are a classics professor, you're going to have some expertise in the Greek and Roman classics, but you're going to be in the same boat as everybody else when we're doing the Hebrew Bible, for example, or when you're doing Don Quixote, or when you're doing Shakespeare.
So, the fact that the professor from the foundation, from the premise of the course, the professor doesn't walk into the classroom as an expert in the field, but rather as a guide to the conversation, as a skilled moderator of discussion, exchange, debate, exploration. So, that is quite central to the identity of the program and to the way that the classroom is structured.
Russ Roberts: Of course, the other thing that the teacher doesn't bring to the table is sometimes--the other thing that they don't bring to the table is relevant life experience. I was talking to a student here at Shalem recently--all of our students, virtually all of them, I think have served in the Israeli army. And, I asked him if he got any value out of reading the Iliad which is a brutal--a very long, brutal poem.
And, his one sentence answer was, 'Well yeah, it changed my perspective on what it meant to be a soldier.' And, I think--we'll move on, but I think the fundamental misunderstanding of liberal arts education is that it's about the transmission of knowledge, when in fact it is not.
You start off your quote saying it's not.
Russ Roberts: And, I think the idea of an expert at the front of the room explaining something to you or telling you something is a necessary model in many fields. But, when you're exploring a great text or more importantly, an unanswerable question, what you learned from that experience is very different when you discovered for yourself than when someone tells you their answer. Right? It's an answer.
Roosevelt Montás: Right.
And you can see how this model of education, this approach to the educational experience is going to sit uncomfortably in the thrust of the university, which is the model of the contemporary university as a research model, in which people develop very narrow expertise, very deep expertise, and then build their professional identity by replicating and reproducing that expertise--that is, by training students on the one hand and by publishing on the other, to advance and reproduce that expertise.
And, that's what we've learned in graduate school, even in the humanities. My Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosophy] is in English and comparative literature. And, that's what I learned. I learned how to be an expert in 19th century American intellectual history, which is what I wrote my dissertation on.
And then when you step into the liberal arts classroom, you are in an entirely different territory.
And, very often--if you are going to succeed, if you're going to do the job right, you have to unlearn all of the academic habits that have been instilled in you in graduate school.
So, it's a practice within the university--I'm speaking here mainly the research university. Shalem or liberal arts college, where it's all about liberal education is somewhat different. Even though the research ideal dominates--at least in the United States--the profession so thoroughly that to some extent, this obtains even in liberal arts colleges. When you step into the liberal arts classroom, you are doing an entirely sort of different activity, one that is very interpersonally intense. And, one in which, as you say, the point is not to arrive at the answers to the questions, but to sharpen our capacity to think through, sit with, examine, debate, hear others on these fundamental questions--because they are the fundamental questions of our human existence: questions about justice, about political power, about the meaning of love, the meaning of mortality. We don't know better today what justice is than Plato did. And, we don't read Plato because it's going to tell us what justice is. We read Plato because he's going to sharpen our capacity to ask the fundamental questions that are implied by any kind of commitment to respiration[?], to justice.
Russ Roberts: And, the reason your book is so powerful--and we're not going to have any spoilers, I don't think, on the stories you tell in the book--but the reason the book is so powerful is that you reflect on your own experience, having been a student at Columbia in the core curriculum, having been an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, coming here as a young person, and how that experience of the core curriculum at Columbia transformed your own life. And, a lot of it involves what you call--and what we call at Shalem--self-scrutiny, which we'll talk about. But, before we do, I want to talk about the phrase 'liberal arts,' which I, for fun, said, 'We're the only liberal arts college in Israel.' I hate that phrase. I know you don't like it either.
You make the observations--it's obvious for me, too--that it's not a great marketing phrase. It makes people think it's either about politics or sculpture. Liberal arts--what the heck is that? I often call it real education, to try to distinguish it from the transmission model, recently quoted on this program, the quote from Plutarch--it's sort of a quote, as we talked about in that episode, that 'the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.' And, that to me is--that's a pretty good one-sentence description of what we're trying to do here. It leaves out a few things, but it's a start. Talk about what's wrong with liberal arts, if you want to add anything.
Roosevelt Montás: Well, it is a problematic phrase; and largely it's problematic because it's got baggage associations within the broader culture that are all kind of misnomers or misunderstandings. Like, as you said, thinking of 'liberal' in 'liberal education' in political and contemporary political terms. Whereas the origin, the meaning, it just has to do with freedom--has to do with the condition of freedom in which we find ourselves as human beings, and in the fact that the education is not subordinated to some specific goal, some specific craft.
Same goes with 'art:' It's not about art in the sense that we understand art since probably after the Renaissance, as this kind of autonomous useless activity.
So, there are other phrases: 'real education.' Sometimes people just talk about 'core competencies' or sometimes 'soft skills' or 'general education.' Sometimes they just talk about the humanities, which is certainly problematic because the sciences and the mathematics and quantitative thinking is part of liberal education, the liberal arts.
I have not found an adequate term. So, virtually every talk I give--and I begin the book this way--I have to take a few minutes to talk about the term, to kind of disambiguate and clear some of the cobwebs that prevent people from thinking straight about what liberal education is.
The one thing about the term that has prevented me from giving it up, is this emphasis on the condition of freedom. Because, the reason why we are subjects, the kind of being that need and benefit from a liberal education, is that every human being finds itself in this condition where we have to pass it for ourselves, develop, work out for ourselves, some notion of what the human good is. What the good after which we want to organize our lives and strive toward.
No one can do that for you. I mean, you can have traditions: You can have religious, cultural heritage that gives you some pointers and some guidance, some framework. But, you have to somehow work out for yourself what those end-goals are, that are going to give your life meaning, that you're going to strive forward to make some satisfying life to give meaning.
So, that task that is inevitable and ineluctable for every individual, embodies, expresses our condition of freedom.
And, liberal education addresses itself to that.
So, problematic term, and I hope that someone gives me a better one.
When my book--after I wrote the book and we were kind of finalizing it, I could not come up with a title. And, I asked the editors at the press, 'Please, come up with a title for this book, because I'm stumped here; but I hope that it has the word liberal education in the title.' Well, the title came back; does not have 'liberal education' in the title.
Russ Roberts: But, Rescuing Socrates is a beautiful title because it's a reference--it's a double entendre. It's rescuing Socrates as a thinker from the ash ban[?] of history; and Socrates himself under the death penalty needed rescuing, chose not to be rescued. And, you have a wonderful discussion of that ethical quandary--or, wasn't a much more quandary for him: he was pretty decided that he was going to take his poison and accept his fate. But of course, he's immortal, he never did die, and you've rescued him one more time for the rest of us.
Just as an aside, I would mention that many of our listeners will know the Hebrew word 'shalom,' which means peace. The word 'shalem,' which comes from the same route, means whole, W-H-O-L-E, complete, entire.
And, of course, it's an aspiration, not a real goal. We're not telling people where they're going or that when you're done here, you'll be whole, but it's about the goal is to lead a full life: a whole life as a full human being.
And, I just want to pick on my own discipline of economics, and economists say, 'Well, it's easy to live. You just maximize your utility.' And you just--and, of course, that often, to my horror, becomes just: 'The more stuff the better.' And, I think in many ways, real education is appreciating that maybe that's not the only goal in life.
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. I mean, this issue of wholeness, I didn't know that. But, it's beautiful because part of managing this condition of freedom in which we find ourselves consists of is somehow integrating the conflicting psychic forces that we are subject to, our, kind of, desire structure.
We sincerely, wholeheartedly desire absolutely contradictory, incompatible things. We want to be fit, but we don't want to work out. And, we want both of those sincerely, genuinely. And, our life is shot through with similar incompatibilities of desire.
And, part of living a whole life is finding a way to integrate, finding a way to bring some kind of wholeness to that inner life. And, that's where wellbeing comes from. That's the condition for thriving, for fully developing our humanity. And it's quite disconnected from economic goods.
I mean, we need, obviously, some economic goods to make that even possible.
But, that threshold, it's a very modest threshold beyond which the questions that determine your wellbeing are no longer a function of material goods, but enter some kind of different dimension and that have to do with this condition of freedom. And, that's what liberal arts tries to get at and to educate.
Very tricky thing: What is the best kind of education for an individual that is faced with this internal configuration? And, of course, that is in a community of people similarly constituted. Those are the issues to which liberal education addresses itself.
Russ Roberts: Well, one might argue--I wouldn't, but I'll pretend for a minute, put on a different hat--now, this liberal arts education thing, a whole life, fulfillment--you didn't mention 'human flourishing,' a phrase I like--it's a different way to describe what you're talking about. If you want to be pretentious, you use the Greek word, eudaimonia--which I don't know how to pronounce, but you get the idea.
I mean, that's just--first of all: Self-scrutiny? Come on. For $60,000 a year, plus opportunity cost, you're going to let people read these old books and, what, discover themselves? I mean, don't they need to find a job? I mean, this is way out of line for the bang for the buck. Yeah, it's a nice thing for maybe a summer on your own: read some of these books. But you're telling me that this is a worthwhile expenditure? And at a state college, you're spending government money to indulge in this kind of high-falutin', philosophical quest. Come on.
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. There's a line.
Russ Roberts: Can you defend that? Really?
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. There's a line in King Lear where King Lear is asking for, I think it's a number of knights or horses that he wants his retinue to continue, and the daughters, the bad daughters, are like, 'No, you don't need 100, you don't need 50.' And, he says, 'Reason not the need': the things that constitute our humanity and that give us a life worth living are not about the needs.
And yes: it is the most worthwhile pursuit for each one of us, to examine ourselves and the world, in the quest for this kind of wholeness.
Now, one common misconception is that a liberal arts education gives you that, instead of the skills to have a job. And, that's not it at all. I mean, we--the university, higher education--has, I think, a moral imperative to equip our students to go out and be productive members of society--to be able to find a job, to be able to make a living, to be able to contribute to society in meaningful ways. That's part of our responsibility.
The problem is that in the contemporary world, that aspect of liberal education has swallowed the whole. That is, that we have done that and forgotten about this other responsibility that we have, which is to educate free individuals. Right? There is an education that's about how to do a job, how to accomplish something, how to do what you're told, how to be a member in an often-hierarchical, industrial, or productive organization. That's a kind of education that the ancients used to call a slave education. And, there's another aspect of education, that's a free education, for the free person.
And, in our economic structure, we do both of those things. There are aspects of my life in which I am subject to procedures, to institutions, to credentialing system--in my case in higher education. And, I perform those functions, and my education prepared me for that.
Then, there is this other aspect of my life, that is not entirely separate because the way in which I perform those kind of determinate functions is informed and shaped by this other thing, which is: How do I conceive of myself as an individual? What drives me? Where do I get meaning? What do I do with my life once my basic needs have been met?
The way that W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American intellectual, put it is that the college is not just about how to earn a living. The true college, he says, is not just about how to make a living, but knowing what to do with that life--not just for earning bread, but to know what to do with the life that bread sustains.
So, that's what liberal education is. And, I go around talking in many schools, many audiences, and one thing I've come to--I've kind of gotten around to emphasizing is that I am not there arguing for the liberal arts major. In the American university, you choose a major as an undergraduate. And, art history, literature, philosophy, those majors have been precipitously declining, and there's a kind of panic among faculty and institutions about the decline of the humanities major.
And, sometimes they confuse what I'm talking about in arguing for liberal education, with arguing for the liberal arts major. Which I'm not. Liberal arts major is great. I was a liberal arts major. I teach liberal arts majors. But that's not the point that I think our universities are feeling in, and the point which I think is kind of critical for sustaining a democracy. What we need in a higher-education institution within a democratic society is liberal education for all. You can be a computer scientist, you can be a doctor, you can be a business person. You can be whatever you'd like. But, that should be on top of a liberal education.
Russ Roberts: And, that's the Columbia model, the Core Curriculum to start with. You don't spend the rest of your time doing more philosophy and literature and music and art, and so on. You specialize in something.
Russ Roberts: So, you picked four thinkers who have had a big influence on your life. You picked Freud; Gandhi; Plato; Socrates via Plato; and Augustin or Augustine--we've decided before we recorded this, so each of us could use either one interchangeably. So--
Roosevelt Montás: That's right.
Russ Roberts: If anybody else knows better, let us know. We'll be happy to correct it in the future. You picked four people.
Now, I assume you could have picked eight. You could have picked 12, but at some point at which you could name a book that you couldn't at least remember its impact on your thinker.
And, what's fun about this for me is that other people--your classmates--would pick different books and different thinkers. And, we bring our own experience to the table and then we internalize the knowledge we're trying to explore in that seminar. And, we fashion something out of it. We craft, as you say, we craft ourselves.
And, why these four, for you? Without telling the whole story of the book. I recommended it, it's fascinating. But, what's special about these four for you, in a thumbnail?
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. There are at least two big ways in which these four ended--two big reasons why these four ended up there.
One is completely idiosyncratic. These four writers happen to have had a huge impact on me when I read them, and have continued to kind of shape the way I live my life, the way I think about my life, the way that I teach, I continue to teach these writers.
Take St. Augustine, the first writer that I deal with. I encountered St. Augustine in my freshman year at Columbia, a time that was hugely challenging for me, disorienting in the most profound ways. I was trying to work out my own, kind of, relationship with religion, with God, with Christianity, with the intellectual life that I was beginning on as a student.
And Augustin fell on very fertile ground for me. It was intellectually transformative. Kind of, you know, you talked about that line where the mind isn't a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit. St. Augustine lit me, put me on fire. And, he's a very devout and deep religious thinker. What he did for me was not make me more of a Christian, like he would have liked, but rather it made me less of a Christian, but more of an intellectual. But, I know people for whom St. Augustine did the opposite. I was having a conversation with a philosopher the other day, where she also encountered St. Augustine as a freshman in college, and ended up being a Catholic, converting to Catholicism because of the influence St. Augustine had on her.
So, these books had profound, formative impact when I read them. So, in that way it's kind of idiosyncratic.
And, as you said, a different student or me at a different stage in my life might have had other of the writers I encountered, have this decisive impact.
So, that's one way. In one way, it is idiosyncratic.
There's another way in which they are also exemplary. They're exemplary--I'll mention two ways in which they're exemplary.
One is that these are works that I think work very, very well for the purposes of liberal education. That is, these are the kinds of books, the kinds of intellectual stimuli, provocations that I think are ideal for the liberal arts classroom. They are books that are rich, consequential, human, enduring, kind of timeless. So, that's one way which they are a model for the kinds of works that I think are most conducive to the project of liberal education.
Another way in which they are a model is that these are books--even though I'm a scholar, I'm a professor--these are books in which I don't have scholarly expertise. I don't read Latin. I don't read Greek. I don't read Gujarati. I don't read German. I don't know the scholarship. I mean, I have some generalist encounter with some of this scholarship, but I'm not a specialist in this and I'm not writing about them. And, I don't teach them--as a specialist, as a scholarly authority. But, I teach them and write about them as a human being, whose life is illuminated by the ideas, the debates, the provocations that these writers put forth. And, that any individual who is similarly interested, similarly alert can be impacted in this way by these books, without the scholarly apparatus, without the kind of elaboration that these works have received in the traditional academy.
Russ Roberts: You say anybody can be influenced by them. I'm going to make a confession. Don't tell anybody on the Board of Shalem. Okay?
Russ Roberts: This is between you and me, Roosevelt. Okay?
Russ Roberts: And, anybody's listening, if everybody would agree, I'd really appreciate it. But, I've never read Freud. My dad had a Master's in Psychology that poisoned Psychology for him for his entire life and he told me it was a waste of time, and I believed him for a long time. I've since realized that there's something there I ought to be[?] thinking about. But I never read Freud. And, a lot of people would say, 'Freud? Oh, come on. He had those kooky theories about our drives, our ego. That's out of date. He's been disproved. He's silly. He's a waste of time. Nobody should read Freud. It's silly.'
I've read a little Gandhi, I should say--I was going to say I hadn't read any Gandhi, but I have read a little bit. I've read very little Plato: I've read a few Dialogues; and I've never read St. Augustine.
And so, I want to challenge you. I want to ask you two questions. One is: some of the lessons that you bring out--and they're really quite fascinating--for your own life and how they influenced you, you could learn them from other thinkers. The questions they raise and the answers--they're not questions with answers--but the answer, the way you cope with those questions in your life, you could find other thinkers, I suspect, for some or many of the questions they raise. So, is that true?
And then, the second question I would ask is: after reading your book, one of the things I wanted to do is to run out and read some Freud, because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is so interesting.' And, it has nothing to do with weird things about my mom. We'll just leave that there.
And, yet you were transformed, you were cultivated, you were lit on fire by encountering those books in this weird, formal, seminar system that we started off talking about. It's not easy to pick them up and read them on your own. Now, a good education teaches you how to read and teaches you how to ask your own questions and puts you in the--I like to think in a way for a lifetime of exploration, but it's hard. It's really hard. So, talk about those two issues. Can other thinkers provoke some of the same issues, and secondly, can you do it on your own?
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. Well, Russ, you are in for a treat when you get to read Freud. One thing about Freud is that he's a great writer. He is engaging. Now don't read his technical stuff, the clinical papers, etc. You can read some of the case studies, which he wrote for a general audience. Just a fascinating, provocative writer who relishes scandalizing conventional wisdom and conventional thoughts. And he's wrong plenty of time, you don't read him because he's going to solve all the questions for you. But, boy, he's a fun writer to read.
Russ Roberts: I just want to interject. I just want to interject that--for recent listeners--if Tyler Cowen were here, he'd say you have to read him in French. But you're saying I can read him in--it's an inside joke for EconTalk listeners; I'll explain it to later to Roosevelt when we're off the air--but I can read him in English, right? I don't have--
Roosevelt Montás: Yes, you can read him in English. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Thank you.
Roosevelt Montás: You know, German is the language--
Russ Roberts: Where should I start? Where should I start?
Roosevelt Montás: Well, I would start with the text that I discuss the most in the book, which is his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, which he gave in his only visit to America, as a general overview of the psychoanalytic method and the major concepts and procedures, significance of psychoanalysis. That--it's is a very accessible, lovely, short little blog[?]. So, that's where I would begin. And, if you're interested, there's a lot more.
But, to your questions, let me just first say that Freud indeed has been discredited in large parts of his theories and claims that he made. And, virtually ignored in clinical psychology today directly, yet he's hugely influential even among people who've never read Freud.
It's kind of like Marx. Right? Marx, kind of discredited as a political force, but boy, Marx pervades the way that we think about the world and especially in the academy.
So, Freud is similarly enormously influential beyond the specific claims that he made and about the nature of, particularly, clinical practice.
But, yes: these books are not the only books from which people can get this kind of stimulation and illumination. We are lucky that we have a tradition of classics or of major thinkers. We have a wealth of texts, so that the kind of curriculum that you might do at Shalem College is going to be different than the kind of curriculum you do at a liberal arts college in China. And, there are such experiments in China; or the ones that you would do in Latin America; or indeed what you do in the United States. There is a huge wealth of texts that I think serve the purpose of liberal education.
So, indeed these are not the only texts. They are models. They are exemplary, but will you be handicapped if you organize a liberal education curriculum where it doesn't have Freud in it or that doesn't have Gandhi? No, you wouldn't be. I think they're very good. I'd recommend them, but they're not irreplaceable.
Plato might be irreplaceable if you're doing the Western tradition because he's so foundational: he's so at the bottom of so many of the questions and issues that all of philosophy and political thought have continued to grapple with.
Are these texts accessible on your own? I think I have a mixed answer to that. Yes, you can pick up the Dialogues of Plato, read them profitably on your own, but liberal education, in my view, is something that happens between people. And, it's actually something that Plato would agree with. There's a little dialogue that Plato writes called the Phaedrus in which he condemns writing; and he says writing a book just keeps saying the same things over and over again. And if you ask it a question, it doesn't answer: it just repeats again and again. You need, for philosophical development, you need a live, kicking, and objecting, and responding individual.
It's a deep insight in that, where liberal education involves dialogue, involves debate, involves shared exploration. The books are an occasion to do that. They're a platform, a vehicle to facilitate that kind of dialogue.
So, while they are profitably read individually, it seems to me that you would be missing a lot if it stays there--if it doesn't become an occasion for dialogue and exchange.
So, what I always suggest is if you are interested in this text--you're not a student, you're not in school, and you can't sign up for something online or join a discussion group--find one person that's going to read this one book with you and go have dinner, go have coffee, and discuss the ideas. Discuss the passages that struck you. Discuss what it made you think about, what questions it raised for you.
What do other people think, the other person thinks about those questions--this kind of dialogic process of exploration, of debate, of consideration of the great issues, that's kind of where the meat of liberal education lies. So, yes, accessible the books, much more profitably taken in as part of a conversation.
Russ Roberts: Well, I like to think that's what EconTalk tries to do. You and I are having a conversation. The listener--my happiest moment is when a listener says, 'You asked just the question I was going to ask.' And, it allows the listener to be more than a fly on the wall and ideally an active participant to the extent it's possible in this modern medium. But, I think dialogue and conversation are very powerful. And, as I get older, I appreciate more and more what they do. What challenge, I think you said--
Roosevelt Montás: That, of course, gets us--just a quick comment. That gets us back to the question you raised earlier about the classroom--the liberal arts classroom--being conversation driven. It is not knowledge of the works, but debate and grappling with the questions that the works raise.
Sometimes--you think of a novel. The thing that you get out of a novel is not knowledge of the novel. It's a certain experience--a certain aesthetic, moral, discussive immersion that you experience in reading the novel. That's why you can't just tell somebody the plot, tell somebody the story. And that won't do it, because it's not knowledge of the story, but the experience of going through the story that does the work of literature.
Russ Roberts: Great example.
Russ Roberts: I want to challenge your claim about foundational. Well, Plato, I wouldn't disagree, that Plato is foundational. What I want to disagree with is whether that's important.
So, here at Shalem, our students, we like to think, learn the best of Athens and Jerusalem. They learn their Western heritage of Plato, Shakespeare, Aristotle, and so on. And then they learn their Jewish heritage: whether religious or not, we read them--you don't read Homer to find out how many gods there are. And, you can read the Hebrew Bible with Prophet, even if you are a believer; even if you're not a believer, they're interesting, deep questions.
And, obviously who we are in, say, in America or in Israel, in many other places in the world, the Hebrew Bible is part of that evolution of our cultural heritage in canon. And, in some sense, made us--made the water we swim in, is the way I would describe it. But, even if you don't know much about how that water, where it came from: Do you need to know? It's kind of cool, right? It's nice to know. I like to say--our students, they learn where they came from, and then they can decide where they want to go.
Russ Roberts: The alternative view--and this would be true, by the way, about your own personal life, not your heritage as a citizen, say, of the West or a particular nation, East or West. It's like saying, 'Okay, sure. My parents had an influence on me and maybe my religion had something to do with how I was raised, or my lack of religion. But I'm my own person. I'm free to be who I want. I'm a blank slate. I can write my own future. I can aspire to be whole in my own way. I don't need to know any of that stuff or where I came from.' How do you answer that claim?
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. Two things. One is: There is a--you can't do it on your own. The language that you speak, the water in which you swim, as you said, is not one that you made yourself, and you're constrained by that. So, it is kind of impossible to do it on your own.
That's not to say that you have to go and get a formal education.
The kind of self-reflective exploration of the human good that a liberal arts education promotes can be had outside of academia, outside reading. I grew up, until I was 12, in a kind of rural little town in the Dominican Republic and I knew a lot of people who were illiterate. There were people all around me who--in essence, people in from the mountains, or even people in my own little town--they were illiterate. And, some of those people had what I would think of as a liberal education: People who were thoughtful, wise, deliberative kind of thinkers, intellectual in a way that I can only describe as the same kind of quality that a liberal education tries to foster.
So, it's not the case that you need to be Plato in order to be liberal-educated.
But, the question is: If you are going to create an institution whose mission or part of its mission is to give a liberal education--is to foster the kind of habits, analytical disposition, tools for integrative thinking--how do you do that? What is the best way to do it?
And, I know of no better way--curricularly now I'm talking, the way that you actualize this ideal, in an institution--I know of no better way than this kind of grappling, reading, discussing works that have proven, have a kind of track record of stimulating and enriching just this kind of thinking. Literary works, philosophical works--I know of no better way of kind of executing a liberal education than organizing discussions and instruction around these books--many of which are ancient; and part of their importance is precisely that they're ancient and are so foundational, so in the DNA of our culture.
Russ Roberts: I just want to mention--I'm going to give a tentative plug, because I don't know enough about it, but Zena Hitz, past EconTalk guest, has a project online called the Catherine Project that tries to give people access to these books in a social setting for conversation. And, I do want to emphasize that, I think a lot of people when they hear a conversation, 'Oh, I got to listen to other people's opinions.' It's not so much about opinions. It's about working together in a group, trying to understand something that is a little bit hard to understand, which is why it's helpful to do it in a group.
Russ Roberts: Coming back to Freud for a minute: My answer to the person who says, 'What do I need all this old stuff for? I'm my own person. I'm free to form myself. Oh sure, there might be some stuff that influenced me.' And, I think the project of the examined life--which is the Socratic project--is understanding how hard that is: to form yourself without reference to how you were raised, where you came from, what your parents did to you, what your religion or lack of it was, what your country was about, the culture you grew up in, the media you watched.
You say at one point, and so I would say, that person is living under an illusion.
Russ Roberts: And, by examining where they came from, they will learn things about both themselves and the world around them--their own community and their culture that they would not otherwise see.
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. They might even learn where this impulse to make yourself all by yourself comes from. Because that is a culturally-constructed ideal. That [inaudible 00:46:17] people don't try it every time.
Russ Roberts: Exactly. 'No. I thought of it myself. Come on. It's easy. I know I did.'
Very relevant, you say:
Freud alerted me to the fact that my own mind was not the transparent self I had always taken it to be, but rather a kind of terra incognita, a place full of mysteries and shadowy arrangements that, despite their invisibility, conditioned my personality. As that perception matured and deepened, my own mind became the overriding subject of study in and outside of the classroom.
The other thing I would just raise is that--two issues again--I apologize, ask you two questions at once. But, these people that we're talking about, they're dead. Most of them are white--not all of them, but a lot of them are white. They all happened to be men. I'm sure you got some pushback from your editor, 'Can't you put a woman in there?'
Roosevelt Montás: My wife was the one who gave me the most pushback about that.
Russ Roberts: Reasonable. It's a good question.
Russ Roberts: Some would find it disturbing--but certainly in the Core Curriculum, historically--and we'll talk about the modern version of it in a little bit, maybe.
But, historically, it's mainly dead white males, because dead white males were, for better or for worse, the people who wrote the books that endured because--well, for all kinds of reasons. Just a fact. It could be an injustice, but it's a fact.
And so, what--isn't there something better to read? I mean, these things are--can't I read something today, can't I read something more like me, if I'm not a male, not white? But well--and a lot of people of course have, have been very critical of the kind of Great Books canon, right? For its exclusivity--not exclusivity in the usual sense or, but that it excludes people of color, women, other issues obviously are relevant. What--why should--how: How do you defend that? I mean, and more just on the most narrow grounds, why are we reading these people? Haven't we learned something between since all these people lived, a long time ago?
Roosevelt Montás: The issue of diversity often gets kind of conflated with related--but not identical--issue of kind of chronological ordering. So that, certainly there are works that take my own kind of biographical, situatedness, I'm a Latino man, immigrant, to the United States.
There's a wealth of literature, both philosophical, reflective, literary that looks at that and reflects on it. And, that I find, you know, delicious and stimulating, etc.
And, if we wanted to construct a canon that reflected the contemporary diversity of our society, we could do that. But, that is going to mean roughly contemporary canon.
And, if you are going to value another kind of diversity that you might think of as chronological diversity--that is, where you want not only to see what has been thought and debated and pondered in the last 50 years, but you want to know what has been thought and pondered and debated in the last 3,000 years, then you are going to lose a certain contemporary diversity when you include that kind of diversity.
And, my argument is that you want to have both of those things in your curriculum.
There is nothing exclusionary about the fact that ancient texts are written primarily by males. That is, they're only exclusionary to the contemporary diversity. It is not there. It is not that we have decided that we're only going to pick the male writers from the past. Right? That would be exclusionary in the sense that I'm using the word.
No. The writers that are there in the past--the people that had access to the tools of intellectual creation--were male for all kinds of reasons: unjust reasons, reasons that we would not defend today, reasons that we have rejected. And, therefore we live in a different world. Yet, there is some other value to that.
And, one of those great values is that we can see in those ancient texts--in those minds and writers from a different world, a different time, a different class, a different culture than our own--we can see what is fundamentally human. That I can read Homer, that I can read Plato and recognize myself in Homer and in Plato, even if I'm a woman--that is extraordinary. And it tells you something about kind of the fundamental architecture of the human experience that nothing in the contemporary world can tell you--nothing that reflects your own historicity, culturally-specific signature--nothing that reflects that can illuminate the kind of substratum level humanity that this ancient and alien texts can do.
Of course, that's also why it's valuable to read text from different cultures. The fact that I can read Lao Tzu or Confucius or the Bhagavad Gita and find myself so clearly, luminously reflected, tells me something about me and about what it means to be human, that nothing else can, nothing contemporary, nothing that reflects my lived experience as an immigrant in the United States can.
So, you need both of those things. And, the point of a curriculum, of a full liberal arts curriculum, is to be able to span that range.
Now, obviously, every curriculum is going to have to make hard choices because we have limited time, but I think judicious choices and very effective--kind of outstandingly effective--curricula can be put together, that capture both things.
Russ Roberts: I like to point out that if you read a book a week and you read for 50 years, you'll read about 2,500 books in your lifetime. So, pick them carefully. It's not a very big number. There are those of us who read a lot more than that, but 5,000 would still be a small number. If you read twice as many, read two books a week for more than 50 years, if you're blessed to live longer.
Roosevelt Montás: And, to make those kinds of decisions, traditions are extraordinarily valuable. Traditions collect a kind of--they express a kind of collective intelligence: a kind of generation after generation that have read thousands and thousands of books. And, they have made the selection for you. You don't have to agree, but it's a great place from which to start.
Russ Roberts: Just a side-comment about translation: All these books that we're talking about, certainly the last ones you mentioned from Eastern culture, they're not written in English. We read them. We mentioned Freud earlier, but he wasn't writing poetry, but certainly for Homer or reading him in translation--until the Fagle's translation of Homer, I never got a lot out of it. The Fagle's translation is so good--and I've not read the newer ones. Emily Watson has one that's received a lot of acclaim. But the Fagle's one is so good, I used to read it out loud to my small children. And, I encourage those of you who are parents out there, you can read The Odyssey,--The Iliad is a little bit violent--but you can read--and so The Odyssey, of course. But, you can read The Odyssey profitably to--you can even keep your kids spellbound.
You may need to explain a few of the poetic twists of phrase and some of the sentences might be a little bit convoluted, and you might have to go back and read them again and talk about them. But, it's like reading one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
Now you could read a different adventure story. There's plenty of them--modern ones, as we're talking about. Homer is just really good. The way I would answer it as an economist, is: It stood the test of time.
And it's not because people just had a religious desire to read Homer. Although you could argue you should, because it's part of who we are. The scene where Homer, excuse me, where Odysseus comes home to find 108 or so suitors chasing his wife and her money, because they think he's dead, and manages, with the help of his son to, I think kill all 108, is like the beginning of the Avengers, the standard movie trope, where a small band of courageous people maybe overcome odds. And, it's an old trope, and it's powerful to read it in that old version.
But, what I was going to say--I got off track--is that I'm reading it in translation. And, if I picked up the Fitzgerald translation of Homer today, I'd struggle to be moved by it.
So, if you want, talk about that: about translation and whether you agree with me about the test of time and all that. I think it's partly what you were saying beforehand anyway.
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. I think the problem of translation, if you want to say, if you want to put it that way, it's a great--it's a great kind of entry point into a certain kind of education and awareness of the way that language works. So, I encourage people--you know, there, there, there's a kind of different levels of interest. There's probably a level of [?] you just want to read the book and talk about it. If the book really, really catches your attention, you may want to go to another layer; and that might involve picking up a couple of translations and looking at them and see why they're different or how they differ and which ones move you and which ones don't move you.
A third level might be to look into some of, like, the key terms. So, you know, you mentioned the term eudaemonia before, which is central to Aristotle's ethics. And, that term is often translated as happiness. But, when you dig around a little bit, you realize that maybe human flourishing is a better translation. Although, it's not a common thing: we're always talking about being happy; we rarely talk about flourishing, which is a very metaphorical. And then: Does the term happiness or flourishing in Aristotle, how does that compare to the Sanskrit terms that are cognates, like Nirvana or enlightenment?
And, you can get at these very profound kind of truths about human experience by doing this kind of linguistic analysis that is conscious of translation problems. That is translation problems, the sometimes untranslatability of terms, it's a way of shedding light on the complexity of certain notions on the historical constructiveness of certain notions, in the way that we don't have certain words in this language, that to say something that you say with one word in a different language, you need several and you never kind of get it right.
I think that meta-awareness of the linguistic reality and medium in which we live is extraordinarily valuable in education. And, it's one of the reasons why the study of foreign language, something that you live, living in Israel, you live in a world that's linguistically and traditionally complex, in a way that in America we don't. Most people in America are just English only and have only a very vague sense of what it means to know and speak a different language. So, that is extraordinarily enriching, that the problems of translation--and I think that they belong in the kind of reflection that you do about the great works.
Russ Roberts: I want to recommend a few books that that brings to mind. George Steiner, who is not well known, wrote two books that I really enjoyed. One I read completely, the other I'm in the middle of. I alluded to one of them before: he wrote a book called Errata, E-R-R-A-T-A, meaning, like, mistakes. It's a memoir, but it has one of the most extraordinary passages of what it's like to read the Iliad. He talks about being a little boy and his father is reading him from a big dramatic scene. And, then his father says, 'Oh, oh, oh, oh, the translation here, it ends--and it made some mistake; I think a page fell out.' He goes, 'Do you want to try to read the original Greek and we'll work our way through it?' And, and George Steiner is, I think he's like 8 or 10. And, he's of course, 'Yes. Yes.' He's dying to find out what happens, whether Achilles is going to kill this guy, who he's got at his mercy. And, I won't spoil what happens in the scene or with George Steiner, but it's very deeply moving about the power of education, especially at a young age, to open your mind to the richness of the human experience--a lot of what we've been talking about.
But, he has another book--he talks about some of these issues in Errata--but he has another book called After Babel, where he--talking about the Tower of Babel--where he defends multiplicity of languages. Which is a crazy idea. Right? You'd think: what would be better than if everybody could talk with the same language? And he actually in this book first talks about how translation is not just a foreign language problem, but a same language problem, because over time as languages evolve, what you think a word means doesn't mean that anymore.
Russ Roberts: It's unbelievable.
Russ Roberts: So, that's fascinating book. But, the other book I want to recommend, which I mentioned very briefly before, I did an episode with Richard Gunderman on Tolstoy's "Master and Man," which is, I think, one of my five favorite short stories of all time--a mind-blowing story.
Russ Roberts: And, many people went and read it who were listening. You could find it online. But, I found it in a book by George Sanders, which is a masterpiece, the book. His book is called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, where he takes different Russian short stories, Checkov, Tolstoy, and others, and Gogol, and others. And, he riffs on them.
And, the way he riffs on them is very, very powerful. Because, what he's trying to do in there is give you the experience of sitting in his classroom and doing exactly what you and I are talking about, which is to recreate--in a two-dimensional form, but it's the best you can do in a book--something of what you would start to think about the questions you might be asked and how you would struggle to answer them in a great seminar. And, if you're thirsty for the kind of experience when I describe Shalem and I'm sure when people read your book, they go, 'Oh, I want to study that. I want to come to Columbia,' or 'I want to come to Shalem.' And, that book by George Sanders gives you the flavor of what it's like, without you having to travel.
Roosevelt Montás: What was the title of book?
Russ Roberts: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Not a great title. It's hard to remember.
Russ Roberts: I think it's Checkov's short story.
Roosevelt Montás: Okay. Okay.
Russ Roberts: I'd never liked Checkov until I read that book. That book really got me interested in Checkov. And I didn't know that particular Tolstoy story. And, it got me interested in some amazing Tolstoy stories, which are just, they're very, very--they make you think.
Russ Roberts: Which is a lot of all of what we're--but, what--
Russ Roberts: But what Sanders does, is--as the book goes on, he starts to give you--he goes deeper and deeper in his sort of exegesis of these stories. And, he starts to show you different translations of a sentence in say, "Alyosha the Pot," by Tolstoy. And, he shows you how you might think of the character of Alyosha could change just because he picked a slightly different word.
It gets at what you're talking about.
Russ Roberts: It's a long-winded answer, response to your comment--that, once you experience a foreign language, it really changes--or living in a foreign culture as you did as a boy and as I'm doing here in Israel--language-wise, you're forced to realize that both your brain and your speaking and the language, which is so natural to you, is actually kind of funky and not so reliable, as you think it is [inaudible 01:02:54].
Roosevelt Montás: It's invaluable. The light that that sheds on the experience of your own mind, it's priceless.
And, it seems to me that a liberal education ought to include language instruction, foreign language instruction: that it ought to expand your linguistic range in this fundamental way. Exposure to a foreign language is one of the things that in American higher education it's being lost, increasingly: fewer and fewer universities are including second language or foreign language as part of the general education. And it's tragic.
And, I love that idea of celebrating and preserving and advancing a multiplicity of language. And, sure, we can have one lingua franca. We can have a language of broader communication. But, fostering linguistic specificity just seems to me so, so valuable: such a treasure that we have, that's really worth preserving.
Russ Roberts: My wife and I were sitting in a restaurant last night and I wanted a napkin. And, the waiter came by, and I said, 'Mapiyt, bevakasha,' which means 'A napkin, please.' And, I was so excited because I didn't think, 'I want a napkin. What's the Hebrew word for napkin? Oh, mapiyt.' And, I said it. It came out unprovoked.
Russ Roberts: Now, is that an illusion of what that process is like? When I say 'napkin,' is it any different? Am I really just going, 'I want the white thing that I sometimes go--oh, that's a napkin. Could I have a napkin please?'
Russ Roberts: And, is it just faster now because I've been here a while or is it something else going on there? And, you do sort of see your mind--it allows you--and I think a lot of what we're talking about, certainly the Freud--it allows you to step outside yourself and look down on yourself in a Smithian impartial observer way, which is one of the most powerful things a person can do.
Russ Roberts: It doesn't come natural--at all. In fact, what comes naturally is just getting through life every day. And, when you can step outside yourself and realize, 'Oh my gosh, that person who just said that or made that face or forgot to do that thing. Oh, that's a kind of sad. Oh, that's me.'
Roosevelt Montás: Yeah. Yeah. Conscious self-reflection.
And, that capacity imbues the world with interest. One of the great benefits that a liberal education confers in you, is that it makes the world so, so interesting. It becomes very hard to be bored because everything around you, including your own mind is so full of noteworthy, puzzling, interesting things.
Russ Roberts: And, I guess that's the work of--my limited knowledge of Montaigne [Michel de Montaigne], I don't know if I'm saying his name correctly--but Montaigne was the person who basically said, 'You know what the most interesting to study is? It's me.'
Roosevelt Montás: That's right. 'I study myself,' he says, 'more than any other subject. This is my physics. This is my metaphysics,' he says.
Russ Roberts: And, he was onto something.
Russ Roberts: And, he can be read very profitably on your own.
Russ Roberts: I lost my train of thought again. I wanted to add a quick thing. Oh. Yeah. So, I enjoy learning. I love reading: for me it's a form of pleasure. And learning new things is a form of pleasure and then explaining them to other people is a form of pleasure. Which I think as a teacher, sometimes I get too much in that 'let me fill the vessel' rather than 'light the fire' mode. And, it's a challenge because I get all excited about it. Is it worth anything more than that? Does it make better citizens? For a better country?
You argued we should have liberal education for everybody, at least as the basis for more specialized study. I like to think here in Israel, which is the center of science, technology, engineering, and math--unbelievable startup nation--that having thoughtful engineers is better than having not-thoughtful ones; and having them as colleagues, a student who didn't study computer science, but who studied Plato might be useful for both a company that's innovating in software, but also for a nation that's trying to figure out what is the life well-lived and maybe should be thinking about that. What are your thoughts on that?
Roosevelt Montás: I think it does make better people and better citizens--at least, better citizens of a democracy.
And sometimes people confuse that claim--that it makes better people--with the claim that it makes some people better than others. That is, that if you're a liberally educated person, then you're better than somebody who is not liberally educated.
And that's not what I mean. What I mean is that if you're a liberally-educated person, you would be a better you than a non-liberally-educated you. That is, that it makes you a better version of yourself.
And, I think that a democratic society also is a better society with people that have this reflective capacity, this deliberative capacity, this communicative capacity. Because, self-governance both at the individual level and at a collective level requires a certain kind of distance, a certain kind of deliberative capacity that has to be cultivated.
I do emphasize this as a democratic society, because liberal education is incompatible, in my view, with--I don't know how to put it--authoritarian, non-democratic forms of governance. So, it's not good for every society; it's not good for every kind of citizenship.
And, there are certain, you know, structures within society--taking[?] the armed forces or something--where they function by a kind of commitment to following clear lines of authority: not asking questions, or at least not raising questions then, kind of putting out, factoring out, certain kind of critical autonomy. And, that's fine in a certain context.
But, if you're going to have a democratic society--a community, a polity--that is self-governing, then liberal education is absolutely critical for that.
In fact, the possibility of democracy--democracy--right? The Greek word that means rule by the people--the possibility of rule by the people hinges--depends on--people being equipped for autonomy, for self-governance.
And that is liberal education. Liberal education is education on how to be free, on how to manage freedom.
So, it does seem to me that there are both personal benefits--that you live a better life, a better version of yourself--but this kind of cultivation and societal benefits that accrue to democratic forms of governments.
Now, of course, there are all kinds of different ways in which you can organize a democratic form of government--representative, direct, and all kinds of quirks, even within those--those forms--but all of them, I think, require members of that self-governing community to have this kind of liberal education.
Russ Roberts: When I talk about the education we try to provide at Shalem, I often quote my colleague, Leon Kass, who says, 'We're trying to produce thoughtful individuals.'
Thoughtful--that's a very deep word. It's thrown around a lot, but it's a one-word summary of the kind of self-reflection and awareness that we've been dancing around for this entire time.
And, the other thing I often add is that, it should also teach you the complexity of the world and a little bit of intellectual humility. And, you could argue--I mean, there are a lot of things wrong with America today or the West, which we don't have to go into--but certainly we've walked away and chosen to leave and have been expelled from the kind of education that we're talking about.
Our education in the United States, for example, has certainly become more professionally oriented. Taking the critique I offered earlier very seriously, that this is expensive and it better give you a bunch of skills you can make a really good living. And, you and I might believe, Roosevelt, that you can make really good living with a liberal arts education, but a lot of people are skeptical about that. So, they choose something else. They major in business; and they're very comfortable knowing that they're probably going to get a job.
I actually think a liberal arts education is great for getting a job and I have the experience of our students. But I think when you're young, there's anxiety about it. And, I certainly--I respect that and I understand it.
But, you could argue that our lack of experience--intellectual experience--with the kind of books and ideas that we're talking about is part of the reason that America has become such a un-humble place, you could argue--a place where complexity is ignored. And everything is simple: There's the good guys, the bad guys; I'm on the good-guy team, you're on the bad-guy team; and I don't need to listen to you. In fact, you're a traitor to the country; and each side feels confident about that.
And, similarly, you could argue that while democracy sounds good and it's got some nice things about it, people are easily manipulated and a lot of democracies have turned out really, really, really badly.
And, would you want to make the claim that I'm hinting at here, that without liberal arts education, the system that is sustained, say the United States and many of the countries of the West, as we move toward a more utilitarian, ends-oriented educational system, that we're going to lose some of the underpinnings that make democracy work well, and we're heading down a bad path?
Roosevelt Montás: Yes, I am comfortable with that claim. And, I would put it this way: Liberal education is the enemy and the antidote to ideology. That is, to the uncritical adoption of accounts of truth.
And, what we have in the American political landscape today is the increasing dominance of ideology--where people, they have the answer without needing the data. They have the answer before the question arises and--
Russ Roberts: Oh, they've got plenty of data. Don't worry. They got the data: they just don't have all the data. So, they're happy cherry-picking the stories.
Roosevelt Montás: Right. The answer is independent of the data.
Higher education has not--so, I wouldn't blame the crisis in our political discourse, kind of the discursive crisis in which America finds itself today--I wouldn't blame that on higher education. But I would say that higher education has failed to make its contribution to preventing that.
That is, there is a role in liberal education, in the university, by giving liberal education to creating a kind of individual that is, to some extent, immunized from the ideological polarization and political demagoguery that we see growing and that increasingly characterizes American political conversation. And that higher education has failed to do its part in preventing that.
So, in some broad sense, it is a--our political crisis is a failure of our liberal education, in some significant sense--at the university level, also at the K-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade] level. But, we have failed in higher education. And, I fear are continuing to fail to deliver the kind of education that equips people to participate in this collective project of self-governance.
Russ Roberts: I'll close with one more challenge. I'm not sure the word 'postmodernism' is in your book, but you could argue that what has gone awry in American universities--we talked about it today, it's in the book--the way that research emphasis has affected the educational process for undergrads is, I think, dysfunctional and dangerous. A better way to say it: it's inimical to the, I think, what could or should be the mission of real education, if you're not careful. It doesn't have to be, but there's a challenge. There's a challenge there.
A critic of liberal education could say that the discourse that has failed in the United States and the West, or--'fail' is too strong, but is struggling--is the outcome of liberal education.
Liberal education, which said: Anything goes, there's different opinions, you can't be sure--all this humility that I've been talking about, you talked about it in a different way--that leads to people believing there's no truth.
And, that in turn has turned the American--the West's--educational institutions into moral relativists: people who don't believe, stand up for what they believe in. And, that's the problem that we face today: is that this is the natural evolution of liberal education.
In fact, certainly the departments of the humanities in modern American universities have left the field from the kind of education you and I have been talking about. They've turned to Marxism, they've turned to these post-modern disciplines, whatever you want to call them. What are your thoughts on that?
Roosevelt Montás: Yes. I think that liberal education today exists in an intellectually hostile environment. The humanities, the dominant paradigm in the humanistic disciplines in the university makes liberal education impossible.
For example, you can't have liberal education absent some commitment to truth, and absent the possibility of rational investigation into truth, into the human good, into virtue. If these notions are emptied of content--as much postmodernist theory and deconstruction as a kind of philosophical movement does--if you empty those categories of meaning, the only thing you have left is power. And, again, that is the reigning intellectual orientation in universities today. And, that makes liberal education actually impossible. Which is why, today, even in humanities departments, or even in the traditional disciplines that are called and associated with liberal education, liberal education is actually not happening.
What you end up with is, on the one hand, with narrow disciplinary, specialized pursuits. In the other, this posture of deconstructing all value systems and ending up with what?
And, once you deconstruct all the value systems, all you end up with is a vying for power and dominance.
So, yes, I think that the reigning intellectual climate in the university has been utterly catastrophic for the practice of liberal education, which is why programs like Columbia's, programs like Shalem's--and, there are a handful, and I'm happy to say growing handful, after a many decades of decimation--a growing number of programs that are reconnecting with this older, non-disciplinary tradition of liberal education. But it's an uphill struggle that we're facing.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Roosevelt Montás. His book is Rescuing Socrates. Roosevelt, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Roosevelt Montás: It's my pleasure, Russ.
Jun 20 2022 at 9:33am
Unexplored: The illiterate South American farmer who was considered every bit a philosopher i.e. how life even without a formal education is important.
My issue: A good education helps analyze the issues of the day before you vote, but voting itself is deadening: no choices and being told “don’t waste your vote.” Ranked choice voting allows you to pick the best, moral, good etc and then slide into the practical and winning choice. Voting then becomes more of a conversation about our educated thoughts.
Jun 21 2022 at 5:53pm
Dan: a related virtue of ranked choice voting is that it reduces the power of noisy, eccentric candidates who have a devoted “base” which enables them to win primaries with a plurality of votes in a large field. Yes, I’m thinking of Trump and 15 wannabes in 2024, but the same applies to the far Left, as well. It seems to me that a change in our voting systems would enable more thoughtful, nuanced candidates to emerge on top after several sorting.
Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1)
Jun 20 2022 at 11:06am
It is amazing how deeply rooted the “classics” are in the Judeo-Christian canon of beliefs. You can be a classical liberal without being religious, but I don’t think you can be classically liberal without understanding the precepts of Judaism or Christianity.
As a young whippersnapper, I was dead set on going to business school as an undergrad. I did. I have done well in my life.
But, I would have been a better decision maker if I had engaged in a classical education, with a grad business degree. However, I was middle class, and wanted income as fast as I could get it.
Upon graduation, I read The Closing of The American Mind by Allen Bloom and thought I just wasted four years of my life.
A two-year curriculum in classics doesn’t fit everyone. I had one daughter do it at Davidson College (great program in the past; but have heard it has changed) and the other wasn’t cut out for it.
The problem with core curriculums across America today is that they have become highly politicized, and slant left. I have heard through the grapevine Columbia is like this. Not sure about UChicago anymore. It’s a terrible facet of education because the classics could be very valuable for business people, and in the long term create better outcomes for society.
Jun 21 2022 at 5:59pm
Jeff: It would indeed be disappointing if the Columbia core curriculum lurched to the Left; if so, it would be a violation of everything Russ and Roosevelt were discussing. In fact, it would be an interesting natural experiment to survey students at Columbia, St. John’s or Chicago in comparison to students in the more “woke” institutions. It should be difficult to escape a liberally taught core curriculum without a deep sense of both history and common humanity across sexes, races, religions, and cultures.
Jun 20 2022 at 2:30pm
One of the very best parts of the episode came at the end when Russ asked for Roosevelt Montás’s thoughts regarding the critic who suggests that the “natural evolution” or “outcome” of liberal education is to descend into a postmodern relativism that denies truth. The response is spot on as far as describing the state of affairs we have come to.
As far as that goes, he gives an excellent synopsis of where matters stand. However, that doesn’t answer the question Russ posed about whether liberal education itself is inherently at fault, whether it contains the seeds of its own inevitable demise. He didn’t identify the cause of the descent into this intellectually hostile environment.
In the earlier episode with Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay on the Enemies of Modernity, I had an exchange with Helen Pluckrose regarding the serious problem that they were advocating scientism as a part of modernity itself.
Among other things, I pointed out that “Scientism makes trustworthy moral knowledge impossible.” (Thus scientism excludes any possibility of trustworthy knowledge about “goodness” or “virtue”, thereby emptying those categories of meaning.) My conclusion then matches with Montás now.
It’s exactly the consequence that Montás describes, but it didn’t begin inside post-modernism. It began as the inevitable result of modernity embracing scientism with its constrained idea of what we can know. This excludes all non-scientific categories from “trustworthy knowledge” and reason (i.e. “the possibility of rational investigation into truth”). This is why the undermining of liberal education began when modernity embraced scientism.
Jun 27 2022 at 10:53pm
I was curious about this too.
My uninformed take is that both liberal arts and STEM programs are contributing to a rigidity of opinion and overconfidence in data and scientism, as you mention. The building-up of character that is the alleged value of liberal arts. So, it could be that it’s simply being replaced by “deconstructivism” and “post-modernism,” or it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. And if that is the case, then I wonder what is going on underneath.
Jun 21 2022 at 7:08am
Two advocates of a humanist liberal arts education engage in a pleasant conversation here in which they deplore the increasingly smaller part such education plays in the universities of the West. They feel that the kind of broad education they champion will lead to a more educated and self-aware citizenry who will be more qualified to participate actively in the life of a vibrant democratic society. My own feeling is that they are largely right and make sense in a general way.
However, my sense is also that they are talking of one kind of ‘good life’ and being a bit limited in addressing the whole of the real world, the whole of the Western heritage in ‘core subjects’ and the humanities, the whole of what the vast diversity of humanity requires.
Consider for instance how many of the greatest geniuses have been entirely focused on their own area of inquiry. Consider how the world has so many highly ethical and moral people who have never read a single book. Consider too how many of the most broadly educated people have turned into monsters, how many of the star -figures of the core-curriculum preached doctrines and action that are evil.
So, however commendable the kind of Education championed here it is only part of the answer to the crises Western society and humanity as a whole are facing now.
Jun 21 2022 at 6:10pm
As an aside about the value of varying translations, I would note something which might be of interest to believing Jews and Christians. Available online are free compendiums including many translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I read through both testaments every year using Bible Gateway online. It includes dozens of translations which may be compared with a single click. Once upon a time, in order to get a flavor for different English translations of an interesting thought, I had to find the term in the King James Version and then drag out Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to compare the same word translated in different contexts. This is truly one of the wonders of the computer age.
Jun 21 2022 at 8:31pm
I find the tone of the conversation a bit hysterical. Are we supposed to be anti science now? Anti progress? Are humanists “better” and wiser than other faculty In a university? I find that this discussion is about nothing. If I need counseling to find myself I would go to my rabbi or therapist. I go to uni to learn from experts about different areas. Methods, deep interpretations, ways to build an argument, how to do proofs… I also took great books courses. But these were not particularly more engaging or moving intellectually than my econ classes. But what do I know I was a math major…. Silly discussion Russ. Just look out your window. Humanists are just not better or wiser people than the rest of the academy. These questions about who we are, what is good etc have no answers.
Jun 22 2022 at 5:13pm
I did not hear that humanists are “better” – what was important to hear is that today, colleges have become intolerant of idea explorations – there are campuses where dissenting ideas OR someone asking questions that may be uncomfortable OR reading a book that was written by someone who was clearly a racist or whatever are no longer allowed it seems.
Universities used to be places where students and faculty engaged in free discussions, debates – and learned from others through such – it does seem to be under attack and administrators appear bullied by a few.
I can imagine finding texts that are not that old and find similar lessons – and perhaps (just perhaps) some of the ancient texts are unique (I doubt it) – the point is to learn universal lessons that appear to be embedded within many ancient texts.
https://www.intelligencesquaredus.org/iq2-conversation-a-new-university-offers-forbidden-courses/ (Kanelos has also been on econtalk https://www.econtalk.org/pano-kanelos-on-education-and-uatx/) – Imagine that, there are some universities where some courses are considered FORBIDDEN – No one allowed to read, discuss, debate some ideas considered dangerous and forbidden (because it may hurt someone’s feelings or something)
Perhaps a “liberal” education helps humans flourish (i.e. not just get a job) – much depends on what and how and ofcourse students who can work through difficult material.
Jul 4 2022 at 12:16pm
The section on translation reminded me of one of my favorite books, Experiences in Translation by Umberto Eco. It’s a fascinating, short little book. If I recall correctly Eco wrote all in Italian, but he had input in the translation of several of his own books. I highly recommend it.
Jul 5 2022 at 9:26pm
Think back to your days in undergrad. Think back to the people you interacted with in class. How many of those people, at the ripe young age of 18-22yo, in a world where children are increasingly shielded from difficult concepts or world-view challenging discussions, had any innate interest in learning about the classics, debating morality, or understanding Human Flourishing? I know in my limited experience in Central Missouri, fellow students who wanted to engage with me in the above topics, numbered well under 50% of other students I interacted with. And if that debate wasn’t for a grade, cut the number IN HALF. The other portion were much more interested in partying, drinking, having sex, and passing their classes while spending as little time studying as possible.
I’m sure a Liberal Arts College might attract greater numbers of students being TRULY interested in learning about these subjects, but I guarantee it’s nowhere near 50%. The Bryan Caplan episode is so Spot On about an undergraduate degree being about Signaling rather than real learning. The students who are ACTUALLY interested in the classics, and debating morality, are students who would discover WELL those Passions OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM (and probably more effectively, at that…)
“You can lead a horse to water… But you can’t make it drink”. I LOVE EconTalk. I tell everyone I know about it, I’ve recommended episodes to my dad I thought he would like, (I KNOW he would LOVE the Bill James Baseball episode), he has tried it out, and he just doesn’t enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with that; he and I have interesting conversations all the time. Maybe he just isn’t a fan of Podcasts, Maybe he doesn’t like Russ’ voice; anyway the reason isn’t important. Just like the reason exponentially more teenagers have read Twilight than The Odyssey isn’t important. It is a FACT, and approaching this fact from the mindset of “how can we get our students interested in OUR books which WE KNOW will REALLY get them to live Eudaimoneously?” Who is to say Twilight won’t help them live their best life? I really think forcing Classics down undergrad’s throats is the wrong approach. Most students just won’t get anything from those stories; the diction, conflicts, analogies, metaphors, symbolism, etc.. are just so alien to someone raised in 2000’s America. Discussing them is great, but they’d probably gain a lot more from discussing the latest Anime or Twilight movie (which I assure you have many similar themes as The Odyssey, etc…)
It seems like recent episodes that talk about this topic (Pano Kanelos, Russ on Education, and Montas), the proposed solutions are all the same: READ THE CLASSICS and then DISCUSS THEM IN CLASS, assuming that is the best thing to help young people get the tools they need to succeed. Why is innovation so slow to permeate higher education? And why is it that UATX and other ‘innovative’ schools all seem to be innovating in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY?
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