Remedial Humanities: On Roosevelt Montás’s “Rescuing Socrates”

Remedial Humanities: On Roosevelt Montás’s “Rescuing Socrates”

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life by Roosevelt Montás

MY FIRST COLLEGE CLASS at the University of the Américas Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, in 1997 was a “great books” course. Bureaucratically entitled “Modelos Literarios I: Épica,” the class was not taught by an expert on the subject but by a scholar of colonial Mexican literature. The list of books was ambitious: the Iliad and the Odyssey (which I had providentially read in high school), the Aeneid, the Popol Vuh, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Poem of the Cid, and the Nibelungenlied. The book that always stuck with me, though, was the very first assignment: the Epic of Gilgamesh, recently translated by a Mexican scholar, Jorge Silva Castillo. I learned how stories of ancient heroes and medieval knights resonate in our ideas of civil society and politics. My first paper was a study of the concept of history and politics in the Aeneid, the beginning of a career as a literature scholar.

This was not a general education course but the first class in a rigid and chronologically organized curriculum for the Licenciatura degree in literature. “Licenciatura” is the term Mexico uses for the college degree: it means that you are licensed to work in a profession. The same thing happens for students who pursue the undergraduate degree in medicine and graduate as physicians. It was meant to be the first class in a process of credentialization and not a course for our cultural or personal betterment.

As Roosevelt Montás reminds us in his new book, Rescuing Socrates, his engaging and passionate argument for a “great books” curricular model, the United States is exceptional in shaping its universities around the ideas of the liberal arts. In Mexico, as in other Latin American countries and most nations around the world, a college degree is earned by focusing exclusively on one’s subject. My own perspective on this matter is peculiar because I was educated in the specialist model but now teach in a private US university with a liberal arts curriculum. Rescuing Socrates is a worthwhile book that should be read by anyone teaching humanities in higher education. Montás’s defense of the value of a liberal arts education is inspiring, and I share some of his vision; however, I find the specifics of his curricular model unpersuasive.

There are many trade-offs involved in the choice between US-style liberal education and the specialized models of other countries. The specialist model makes 16-year-olds choose their professional destiny when they may not be ready to do so. In turn, it allows them to become lawyers or physicians without the need of a graduate program. The liberal arts, as Montás eloquently argues, seek to prepare citizens for the responsibilities of life in society, providing knowledge across an array of fields while inculcating a “concern with the condition of human freedom and self-determination.” In the specialist model, a student who majors in accounting or engineering can go their whole career without encountering the humanities while, as a literature student, I never took a science class after high school.

Having experienced both traditions, I believe Rescuing Socrates raises important questions about the model of higher education that has resulted from years of austerity, economic crisis, and neoliberalization. US universities have evolved into a system that continues to privilege general education in the liberal arts prior to the selection of a major, but which also trends toward vocationalism as a response to economic anxieties and political pressure. In this indecision, universities fail to meet the goals of either model. Montás reads this development as a threat to the university’s role in the formation of an informed citizenry and in providing “a fuller life” for students, a concept deployed throughout the book.

It is striking how patchy an education the liberal arts model provides. Even at my elite institution, the amount of remedial teaching I must regularly perform in subjects such as basic American history is significant. Students often tell me how little they know about the Mexican-American War or US interventions abroad, information essential to understanding Latin American culture. All of us in modern language programs teach literature in the second language to students who lack the ability to read literary works in English. Oftentimes, we find students who only seldom read a whole book in their prior education. Montás notes that as a student he felt the “gaping lack of exposure to the culture of higher education” and describes his young self as being as “ignorant of letters as probably any student in Columbia’s near 250-year history had ever been.” Remedial teaching is at the basis of any core curriculum.

One would presume that this problem is intensely acute for marginalized or immigrant students suffering educational inequality. But it also affects students coming from top districts and elite high schools. Standardized testing, the fetishization of STEM (which does not mean that science education works either), the politicization of school boards, and the effects of economic uncertainty are all deeply detrimental to the humanities. These trends push students and parents into a narrow conception of education as solely related to job-seeking, rendering the humanities superfluous and even undesirable. Regardless of individual backgrounds, many of today’s students have difficulties in seeing the intellectual dimension of their education as a central pursuit in their lives. Coming from a culture in which you go to school to study and little else, I have always considered the outsize role of sports, Greek life, and extracurricular activities in US universities to be clear impediments to students’ intellectual life. Moreover, for most students, the need to take one or more jobs to pay tuition, the acquisition of debt, and the inability of the system to incorporate lower-class students into university life constitute forbidding barriers to learning.

My conclusion after reading Rescuing Socrates is that we, as educators, must cope with the consequences of a system that fosters irregular knowledge in the best of cases and utter ignorance in the worst. How do we respond to the need for remedial teaching while granting our students advanced knowledge that is meaningful and empowering to them? I find this question urgent and impossible to answer, which is why I found Rescuing Socrates both inspiring and frustrating.


Montás is a senior lecturer in American Studies at Columbia University. He is the former director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the current director of the university’s Freedom and Citizenship Program. His autobiographical account makes clear that he does not come from the class of intellectual patricians and public intellectuals who contributed to the rise of middlebrow literary culture in the United States. Montás presents himself as someone who, due to his origins, did not belong to his elite institution (he also conducted his undergraduate and graduate studies at Columbia). Liberal arts education was empowering for him as a journey of both self-discovery and professional success. Accordingly, he is troubled by an educational system that is no longer willing or able to provide it.

Montás is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, the son of a political activist with a sixth-grade education who fought against Joaquín Balaguer’s regime. His story is quite moving: “I had come to the United States from a mountain town in the Dominican Republic a few days before my twelfth birthday, not speaking English, and never before having been even close to an airplane.” After moving through public schools, Montás entered Columbia through the Opportunity Programs, which he describes as “an admissions category created to meet the requirements of the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), which provides generous financial and academic support to low-income students.” As part of a cohort of Black and Brown students who “stuck out on campus,” Montás faced the challenges of the Literature Humanities course for first-year students, enrolling in the section of a legendary teacher, Wallace Gray, who was greatly committed to the pedagogical model.

My experience in college as a low-income student was analogous in some ways, although race was not a factor for me. UDLAP is a private university located in the grounds of a former hacienda. Founded as Mexico City College by the American businessman William Jenkins, it was originally modeled after Vanderbilt, Jenkins’s alma mater. I was not a typical student. My mother, who raised me by herself, only completed sixth grade. When I began looking for colleges, we had just emerged from years of unemployment and near-homelessness. There is no question that the private education I received changed my life and allowed me to survive the difficult conditions of my youth. My ability to access humanistic culture regardless of my class origins was empowering. Attending a school like UDLAP was desirable but unimaginable to me. Yet, the stars aligned. I secured a scholarship, which covered 90 percent of my tuition. As an aside, one of the most painful things to read in Rescuing Socrates was that Montás had to secure thousands of dollars in student loans to get his MA.

Coming from a social class with little access to literary knowledge, Montás’s argument that “[w]e do minority students an unconscionable disservice when we steer them away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum” resonates with me. He further claims that access to canonical literature and philosophy is meaningful to students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds, and that we are mistaken in denying access to this knowledge in the name of agendas such as diversity, inclusion, or decolonization. The mere fact of not teaching something to low-income or minority students, or telling them that it does not concern them, becomes, as Montás notes, “another mechanism for reproducing and reinforcing social privilege.” I find this argument unimpeachable, as I believe that the breadth of culture must be taught to students with no access to it, particularly now that classrooms are diversifying far more rapidly than the faculty is.

The argument for teaching canonical culture to today’s students is not popular, but it raises a very important question regarding the goal of democratizing education. The fact that the laudable goals of cultural inclusion and curricular decentering can become synonymous with wholesale dismissals of the idea of teaching students canonical works or materials beyond their own identities is bewildering to me. It is particularly troublesome in a country with such a deep history of segregation, where denying access to knowledge through differentiated educational systems was one of the key objectives of systems of racial oppression. At the same time, simply reverting to the canon and sidestepping the forms of knowledge that are continually fighting to become part of the curriculum can be equally unwise. The challenge is to find a balance between the two.

Although I do not share Montás’s idealistic view of US liberalism, he is correct in noting that humanistic knowledge is valuable to all students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds. The political and economic pressures to turn US universities into vocational schools, without providing the solid grounding that specialized models offer elsewhere, endangers the utopian possibility of democratic access to education. But this knife cuts in two directions. Although not the subject of the book, a serious question is whether the classrooms teaching US minority or Global South cultures should be solely populated by students from those backgrounds, or if we should normalize white students enrolling in these classes too. The unsatisfying response in Rescuing Socrates is that this can be achieved by distribution requirements. Imagine the implications of making Western culture mandatory and everything else optional. If one is going to truly argue that all culture should be accessible to everyone, the Western focus paradoxically becomes an impediment to knowledge.

To be fair, Montás does not believe that critical thinking about race, gender, colonialism, or marginalized communities is necessarily contrary to a study of the canon. He argues that the Columbia core curriculum can be focused on the past and on “dead white males” because it also “invites questions about inclusivity, diversity and representation.” Anyone teaching in a diverse classroom knows that our chosen materials will always face productive pushback from a diversity of perspectives. There is a pedagogical truth here. While seeing our culture and community represented in the curriculum is empowering, so is engaging critically with cultures other than our own. A great pedagogist, Montás maintains that professors must be willing to put themselves in the proverbial hot seat and engage radical skepticism about — and student questioning of — that model. Our job as professors is to teach our students, particularly students from minoritized and marginalized backgrounds, that it is their right to learn everything, and that learning across the board is empowering.

Student demands about the diversity of voices in the curriculum are also just; however, students often lack the resources to understand the intellectual traditions that have shaped our unjust societies. Montás believes that “liberal education,” understood as a civic formation strongly grounded in the knowledge of Western culture and its humanistic tradition, must be not “the exclusive province of a social elite” but rather “the common education for all — not instead of a more practical education but as its prerequisite.” I could endorse the idea that a democratic education can be more fully achieved by making humanistic knowledge accessible. It should be a right, not a luxury. But in the current university landscape, the idea of a core curriculum structured around great books misses the forest for the trees. One cannot advocate the delivery of a specific tradition when students lack the ability to find and engage intellectual culture on their own.

Rescuing Socrates cannot be read apart from the complex realities that surround the contemporary humanities, their material conditions, and the meaning of teaching them in adverse circumstances. The first limitation of this book, and of me as its reviewer, is that we are discussing these matters in the context of elite institutions, which often monopolize the public conversation about academia. Montás and I are the product of and employees at private universities. He mentions Purdue as an example of a successful core curriculum in the public realm. Nevertheless, such an endeavor would be unsustainable in universities and colleges that are either too poor to afford the infrastructure required, too small to justify it, or too massive to attempt running it. Short of a universal public university system with a centralized curriculum, those inequalities will always be there. Pushing the core curriculum as a model of the humanities may be impractical for most universities around the country.


There is also the question of who teaches what and where. Montás is not in a tenure-track position. He teaches at the university from which he earned his degrees and works in a space that is not frequently occupied by research faculty. Columbia is clearly lucky to have him in its ranks. Still, one cannot fail to notice that an educator as distinguished as himself is not recognized with tenure. This is the result of a system that historically undervalues undergraduate teaching in elite universities, and thus prevents a renowned educator (with a book released by Princeton University Press) from enjoying the full benefits of our imperfect but nonetheless strong mechanisms of academic freedom and self-governance.

Montás argues that the universalization of the core curriculum would be an antidote to the economic anxieties that keep students away from the humanities: “[P]utting serious liberal arts programs at the center of the undergraduate curriculum will not only inspire more students to major in the liberal arts but will reinvigorate the professoriate and reverse the precipitous decline in faculty jobs in the humanities.” I would like to see such a scenario, but I am quite skeptical that this would be the case. The problem of academic casualization and adjunctification is perhaps at its worst in core educational structures. Any truly viable model of general education must reconsider the way in which foundational classes are farmed out to vulnerable academic workers. The kind of core curriculum that Montás describes, like many such classes in research universities, are taught by faculty off the tenure track, some of them securely employed lecturers like him, but often graduate workers, postdocs, adjuncts, and visiting professors on finite contracts. Many of the core curriculum classes at Columbia are taught by the very graduate workers who recently participated in a weeks-long strike.

Undergraduate education is essential for the reproduction of our fields and our duty to do the best for our students. I have always refused to accept that my career as a research-focused professor means neglecting my commitment to undergraduate teaching. Every fall, I lead an introductory-level Latin American Studies class with around 60 students. Most of my other classes are advanced-level undergraduate courses. The intro is a wonderful class to teach. I get a very diverse classroom of students from many disciplinary backgrounds. Some of them are Latinx or Latin American students looking to learn about their heritage, while others are seeking international perspectives for their careers. A few more want to study abroad or cover a distribution requirement. The intellectual experience one can build in this kind of classroom can be very special, but it requires a substantial amount of work. Students who are not invested in the field as their primary pursuit must be continually engaged. Teaching complex content at this level is hard when there are so many watered-down textbooks that would make the instructor’s life easier. I spend months reading materials to update my curriculum every year.

Montás states that he “want[s] nurses, computer scientists, accountants, engineers, entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals of every kind, to be liberally educated.” Courses like my intro are where a version of liberal education can be delivered. Well-designed, lovingly taught introductory classes for groups of socially diverse first- and second-year students are where the liberal arts can truly thrive. One could try to build a core with these classes, and make sure Western culture is part of the mix. If a core were to exist, it should map a wider territory of knowledge and make better use of existing classes in the humanities, interdisciplinary programs, and the social sciences. The West is just a province within this world.


Montás exemplifies the value of his model through the reading of some authors present in the “great books” model: Saint Augustine, a triad of Greek thinkers (“Socrates, Plato and a bit of Aristotle”), Freud, Gandhi. It is striking that a professor trained in the field of English chooses not works of fiction or poetry but rather of philosophy, theology, or other forms of moral, psychological, or social theory. Because of this focus, Rescuing Socrates works very well as an intellectual memoir, sometimes better than as an educational polemic. The main thrust of its canonical choices is that there was a process of self-discovery involved in each one of these readings. Montás approaches Augustine in relation to his own sense of being lost as a college freshman: “I was desperately trying to make sense of the strange and dislocated life I was living, trying to find some footing in the disorienting world in which I found myself.” After narrating his relationship to evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism, he arrives at a psychological and rhetorical reading of the Confessions, based on Augustine’s “skill at describing emotions and inner experience” and “[h]is insights into human psychology.”

Augustine was both one of the most educated men of his time and a writer who left a very detailed testament regarding the nature of his knowledge. Montás admires him so much that he waxes nostalgic about medieval education: “Today, the dominant practices of liberal education are a pale shadow of the life altering program suggested by the classical tradition of learning.” The notion of higher education in Rescuing Socrates unapologetically affirms that universities must be teaching truth and redemption on a mass scale. Although not immediately obvious, one cannot read Montás’s arguments about figures like Augustine or Gandhi without perceiving that his intellectual enemy is not only instrumentalism but also relativism, a favorite target of humanist moralism. He proudly recounts writing a thesis that sought to correct Derrida’s reading of Plato. Higher education’s failure for Montás is its inability to center the deepest truths of the self and the polis.

Montás conceives humanities education as an advancing of the realm of self-knowledge, as provided by Christianity, psychoanalysis, and peaceful struggle, alongside the social commitment to deliberation and justice. He has the added benefit of a personal history in which that self-discovery was not the mere affirmation of preexisting bourgeois white privilege but rather an intellectual journey that involved integrating his social difference and experience of marginalization with the ideals of American democracy. I am a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, and I love both my countries deeply, but I do not believe that either of them has a democracy worthy of idealization. The correlation between democracy and liberal education is not a given, as Rescuing Socrates and many other works in the genre contend. Those of us who do not share this axiom are usually branded as relativists or postmodernists (a term that peppers this book), or dismissed as woke, but having navigated the institutions of the humanities for years, I can testify that this is a mischaracterization. Most humanities professors I know care deeply about their students and the value of what they teach. A paradox in Rescuing Socrates, and much of the self-appointed liberalism of today, is the way it advocates for freedom of inquiry while fiercely defending a particular ideological field from any kind of dissent. This dismissal of people working across the ideological spectrum is both unfair and ironically illiberal. Montás advances a program for freedom and citizenship that imagines itself to be self-evident and universal. Actually, it is an ideological position that is very much aligned with some of the culture wars of today, which explains why participants in them such as Montás’s Columbia colleague John McWhorter and the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who see many critical strains of the humanities as contrary to democracy, have enthusiastically championed the book.

Few things hurt the humanities more than dragging them into the simplistic alignments of today’s culture wars. Rather than drawing one-dimensional battle lines, we should all be working together to champion our fields, without papering over our ideological differences. Sadly, Rescuing Socrates seems at times designed to summon partisans to war in defense of Western culture. I find these moralistic squabbles over the humanities, at least as manifested in the provincial corner of US liberal culture, unproductive. It is easy to pretend that the decline of the humanities comes from “wokeness,” identity politics, postmodernism, or some other such simplistic framing. Such narratives permit their champions to ignore the deeper structural problems that plague the educational systems of a country too wealthy and powerful to be having them in the first place. The real structural problem is not the concrete content of humanities education but the destruction of its infrastructure, mostly conducted by people in positions of academic and political power.


Because Montás raises a moral case, his book is infused with a desire to find cognitive exceptionalism in the humanities. Montás, like many defenders of the humanities, seeks to resolve the insurmountable problem of nonutilitarian knowledge in neoliberal institutions by presenting the humanities as the disciplines that best capture the realities of social life. Clearly, the humanities teach in ways distinct from other forms of knowledge. Yet, specificity is not a synonym for superiority. The idealization of nonutilitarian knowledge has long proven to be an ineffective political strategy. Obviously, no one is going to buy the idea that humanistic thinking is more urgent than science or engineering. This defense also rests on a reductionist vision of the humanities in which certain fields — environmental humanities, media studies, languages other than English, ethnic studies — are sidetracked. And this is programmatic: the fact that the Western canon no longer holds the monopoly on the humanities has resulted in the strengthening of these various fields. For all the claims regarding the universality of the great books model, its flaws are more pedagogical and material than cultural. Western culture is at the same time very large (a tall order for our students with deficient pre-college education) and very narrow, just a slice of the massive cultural archive that concerns the humanities today.

Perhaps more critically, Montás’s critique of utilitarianism is based on problematic presuppositions. Freud is presented as someone who limited the value of his approach to self-knowledge by seeing it as a “quest for scientific respectability.” But Freud was both a thinker and clinician. There is nothing illegitimate in seeking scientific validation for a clinical practice. Montás also argues that René Descartes summons us, “against the fruitless speculations and debates of the humanistic philosophical tradition,” to reorient “learning toward the amelioration of the ills that beset human life.” Montás stunningly claims that the heirs of this thinking are “in Silicon Valley” and in “the broader culture.” In reality, there was no period in human history in which practical knowledge and the desire to solve society’s ills took a back seat to the life of the mind.

In fact, Montás appears to forget in this claim that in Descartes’s time the people pursuing science and the people pursuing philosophy were often the same individuals, which is why we have liberal arts in the first place. The hierarchies of knowledge today are the consequence of the segmentation of knowledge into disciplines. The “two cultures” problem of yore does not account for the current downgrading of the humanities, which is a consequence of the rise of STEM. This acronym was coined in the 1990s to correctly point out that the US was lagging in science and technology education, yet its pursuit has gradually displaced the liberal arts from the center of educational policy and values. This development was accompanied by the growth of professional schools, particularly business schools, able to sell a more straightforward narrative of career-building skills. These factors have consequences in terms of resource allocation, political pressures, and student enrollment trends. The problem is not that we have suddenly become utilitarian. All capitalist societies are utilitarian. Rather, STEM and professionalization have become a de facto core curriculum in which the humanities and social sciences are seen as having little value.

The idea of liberal education as a modern paradigm has a long history of contradictions. In his 1948 treatise European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (published in English translation in 1953 by Princeton University Press), the great German philologist Ernst Robert Curtius notes:

Literature forms a part of “education.” Why and since when? Because the Greeks found their past, their essential nature and their world of deities ideally reflected in a poet. They had no priestly books and no priestly caste. Homer, for them, was the “tradition.” From the sixth century onwards he was a schoolbook. Since that time literature has been a school subject, and the continuity of European literature is bound up with the schools.

Curtius continues that, over time, “the classics of the modern nations became school reading, even though they might be as little suitable for the purpose as Shakespeare or Goethe’s Faust. Literary historiography must include an elementary knowledge of European education.”

I bring Curtius to the table because he shows a conflicted and elitist skepticism about the correlation between classicism and education. By historicizing this connection, Curtius lamented that works of literature often became textbooks, echoing his belief that the classical tradition was not compatible with education for the masses. One can plausibly argue that the reason why the core curriculum works at Columbia is because, as an institution designed to either reproduce or expand an elite, its students are part of an exceptional cadre. It is perhaps the case that liberal education as it exists institutionally presupposes inequality. After all, the countries that built mass public universities that continue to be tuition-free to this day are built on the system of specialization. The National University of Mexico serves 350,000 students who pay no tuition. This is far more inclusive and democratic than any core curriculum can ever aspire to be.

The obligation to deliver humanistic culture through the curriculum emerges because the United States differs from Latin America or Europe, which see culture instead as a right and a patrimony that must be publicly funded and supported. I grew up in a country in which state-owned museums were cheap. I could become a reader because public and private publishers have low-cost collections of classics, there are programs for mass-printing free books, and sidewalk kiosks sell classics in popular editions. On my last trip to Mexico City, I found in a modest newsstand outside a subway station a new collection of cheap but beautiful hardcovers that featured books by Spinoza, Kierkegaard, and Aristotle. Mexico has deep educational inequalities, yet a country with far less resources than the US believes that investing in books, and in the arts more widely, is of public interest. US universities must offer remedial instruction in the humanities not only because of the deficiencies of K-12 education, but also because this sense of patrimony and public investment does not exist at the same scale or with the same reach.

It may be that Curtius, in the wisdom of his elitism, was right — not, of course, in his disdain for mass education but rather in his belief that the conversion of classics into textbooks for a core curriculum, or into pieces of writing aimed at self-knowledge or civic improvement, diminishes their power. A careful reading of new translations of classic works, such as Maria Dahvana Headley’s daring rendering of Beowulf (“Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings”), or Stephanie Burt’s pungent rewriting of Callimachus’s epigrams (“The fuckers renamed an airport for a tyrant”), reveals new ways of engaging with the literary canon. These translations are full of Dionysian joy, rebellion, and resistance, and would provide students with a timely and relevant experience.

Personally, I want my students to learn the power of anarchist forms of being, the pleasures of engaging books in community, and the ability to critically read the cultures surrounding them. Turning the humanities into a device for teaching students how to become liberals pursuing individualistic self-knowledge does not sound desirable to me. I would rather have them reading Diogenes over Aristotle, Fanon over Gandhi, St. Paul over Augustine. The real issue, of course, is not whether we should teach Montás’s values or mine but whether, for either of us to be able to teach our different perspectives, we must first inculcate some fundamental skills that are missing from the curriculum. We do not need to rescue Socrates so much as we need to rescue the cognitive abilities lost in testing-based educational reforms and STEM-centric education, in order to be able to read Socrates and nearly everything else.


So, what is to be done? Rescuing Socrates concludes with a “nuts and bolts” chapter that usefully discusses the core curriculum and its principles. Anyone designing an undergraduate program should read this section carefully. I agree with Montás on some basic pedagogical principles: small classes, discussions rather than lectures, non-disciplinarity, and commonality. But I am not persuaded that a Western focus is a “genealogy of the present,” as Montás claims. This idea reeks of US exceptionalism and, for all its cosmopolitan inclinations, presumes a teleology that sees Western culture leading toward a version of American democracy that exists only in the imagination of centrist liberals. Nevertheless, those of us who teach in the humanities should stand together in defending the spaces of humanities education. Beyond my differences with him in ideology and style, I recognize in Montás an ally (perhaps a comrade, though I don’t know if he would like the term) in the good fight.

We must engage the structural conditions of university teaching today without renouncing the possibility of radically changing them. We must recognize the remedial nature of our educational task. Professors must contend with the poor access to cultural and literary knowledge for everyone entering higher education while understanding the deep inequities within the student body. Those of us with the privilege of being securely employed and properly compensated must embrace the responsibilities of undergraduate education while advocating for better conditions for our colleagues in precarious positions. Students do not live in the provinces of the United States or the West but rather in a world in which one cannot be cultured without some minimum awareness of the planet, both in the ecological and the cultural sense. While it may be tempting to adopt an exclusive focus on Western (i.e., American) values, such a focus is unethical when training the citizens of the country with the largest global footprint.

Nostalgic yearnings for the greatness of 20th-century culture are not a solution. The idealization of the past is a consequence of our growing institutional precarity. Our need to be defensive in the face of the ongoing crisis in higher education undermines the proactive envisioning of a future for our fields. We live in a world where people read many books (classics are continually re-edited and sold across the world), and in which intellectual culture continues to be intensely alive. The humanities in US universities fail to match that liveliness, and Montás does not offer a satisfying account of the dynamism of public literary culture either.

Reading and debating with Rescuing Socrates can inspire new curricular agendas. We must ensure that foundational classes in the humanities have the same role in the lives of freshmen as other classes. It is absurd that students cannot begin a language sequence or study the humanities because of STEM courses that require an inordinate percentage of credit hours and class time. Educational experiences should be diverse and provide a variety of well-designed pathways for students. Humanities programs should advocate for team teaching and cross-departmental offerings, and fight to change the models of funding that privilege departmental silos over collaborative initiatives. Any humanities education of the future must ensure first-year students have an education that exposes them to a wide conception of the humanities and not only to English or to Western culture. All departments should be invested in first-year education rather than outsourcing part of this investment to a core program. Curricular designers should envision organically designed sequences to replace the pick-and-choose model of requirements. Make sure that tenured faculty, faculty with active research projects, and the best evaluated teachers are accessible to students in their first year. Choose engaging and good-quality readings rather than outsourcing your syllabi to textbook publishers. Do not get caught up in defining or defending a canon, but do not deny your students the possibility of reading the books that brought you to intellectual work in the first place. One of my most successful pedagogical exercises of late is a book club assignment that teaches detailed and meaningful reading, but not traditional close reading in the model of an English department.

We can begin imagining and building a structure that empowers students to access the books that would be meaningful to them without fetishizing Western culture as the mechanism to do it. Beyond my quarrels with some of its assumptions and claims, Rescuing Socrates can be the beginning of a wider conversation between teachers. I am very grateful to Roosevelt Montás for a book that places the educational values of the liberal arts at the center of an ongoing debate.


Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.

LARB Contributor

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His research centers on the relationship between aesthetics, ideology, and cultural infrastructures in Mexico and Latin America, with a particular focus on literature, cinema and gastronomy. He is the author of seven books and over 100 articles, and the editor of 14 scholarly collections. His works include Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World Literature (Northwestern University Press) and Screening Neoliberalism. Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988–2012 (Vanderbilt University Press).


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