Martha Bayles wrote this review of what sounds like a very interesting book, Rescuing Socrates by Roosevelt Montas at Columbia University. Montas apparently shows persuasively the ways in which a thinker like Socrates helped liberate him and educate him beyond his background as a Dominican immigrant fresh to New York City. It led him to Columbia and that led him, ultimately, to become a Professor at Columbia teaching in their Great Books Program. It is insufficiently appreciated that the Western Tradition isn’t simply the preserve of old white men dedicated to the preservation of what’s old merely because it’s what’s old. At its worst, “tradition-preservers” defend it on those grounds. Those grounds, however, are both insufficient as a defense and insufficient even as an explanation for why we should take it seriously. Instead, Montas’s book points us in a much better direction. The Western Tradition is defensible insofar as its major thinkers freed themselves from the confines of their societies and pointed to human freedom. Their examples educates us to be free from the mere prejudices of our time.
I remember a conference several years ago, part of which involved discussing the continued viability of the Columbia Great Books program. Someone in that program recounted a story of a black student reading Thucydides: “This gives me the insights and the tools to speak truth to power.”
Of course, to this argument, some might respond that these Western thinkers are still inextricably bound up with their time in a way that makes it hopeless to learn from them. This, however, would then be a judgment question–one we can’t make well if we haven’t read the books ourselves. Perhaps this points then to a much better ground for debate. Rather than defending “the Tradition” because it’s THE TRADITION, its defenders should defend the liberating power of some parts of the tradition. I, for instance, don’t think there’s anything liberating about anything Charles Dickens ever wrote and thus no good reason to read him. In other words, the tradition would have to make prudent choices as to what educates and what doesn’t. The tradition’s critics would then need to show that these books can’t in fact liberate and educate because they’re too bound up with their times. This is then an empirical question susceptible to mutual judgment.
As it stands, the tradition’s defenders are fighting a losing battle against those who rightly argue that education should not be about indoctrination but about liberation. The critics simply think that liberation can only come from texts more directly related to those they’re trying to liberate. For instance, Toni Morrison’s Beloved can speak to a black woman in a way that Thucydides never could. This may, in fact, be true insofar as it’s a great work of literature that necessarily frees its reader and will do so even more for those who can immediately relate to it. But that insight ought not exclude Thucydides, nor should the recognized and long-lasting greatness of Thucydides exclude Toni Morrison. Perhaps if we can agree about what we’re aiming at, we could agree more on what we ought to use.