Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! I’m reflecting today on a challenging new book by Roosevelt Montás, known for his past leadership of Columbia University’s celebrated core curriculum.
Recent years have reignited long-simmering national debates about undergraduate curriculum. In some cases, identity politics drives calls for dismantling and reconfiguring existing curricula around new courses, texts, and themes that seem more responsive to marginalized students. Because of a calamitous history of poorly serving minorities in American higher education, it is right to self-critically consider what we teach, why we do so, and with what results.
Yet what provides intellectual sustenance, probative moral value, and glimpses of resplendent beauty for first generation college students, Pell recipients, and racial minorities resides, more often than not, in a curriculum that has also nourished generations of privileged, white male students. Confidence in this, at any rate, lies at the heart of Montás’ Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation
Montás’ book unites memoir, a defense of liberal education, and critical reflection on Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi—"four companions . . . [who] speak with intimate familiarity about human experiences that we all share.” Written in first-person voice and full of touching anecdotes, the book is warmly personal and inspiring. It is also attuned to critical identity issues that cut through the heart of American life.
A first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Montás knows about life as a poor, brown, non-native English speaker lacking the social capital to understand the classrooms and quads of an elite university. As a child in Queens, he stumbled upon cast-off great books by a curbside trash bin and “rescued” Socrates. In reading the Apology
, and Phaedo
, he discovered a world of urgent questions. An attentive high school teacher and admission to Columbia through a special opportunity program enabled him to continue seeking answers. Montás rescued a book about Socrates, and he was in turn rescued by Socrates.
He admits love of a tradition “weighted toward the past and therefore toward ‘dead white males,’” not because of the race or gender of many of its authors, but “because of its contribution to human questions of the highest order.” Moreover, he objects to condescending assumptions “that only works in which [minorities] find their ethnic or cultural identities affirmed . . . illuminate their human experience,” and he believes that using “the cultural backgrounds of a diverse student body as an organizing principle in general education necessarily leads to incoherence, essentialism, and tokenism.” Nowhere does Montás turn a blind eye to “debates about exclusion, hegemony, and representation [as] an inherent aspect” of Columbia’s core curriculum. Scrutinizing authors and texts, and being willing to defend or revise choices, are themselves exercises in the spirit of liberal education embodied in the Western tradition.
In the advances and blind corners of this tradition, Montás seeks a priceless wisdom, including for “students from low-income households . . . [who] find in it a vision of dignity and excellence that is not constrained by material limitations.” In finding and honoring that wisdom, we live up to a tradition that calls us, today and always, to an elusive goodness and justice.
As the spring semester gets underway, please note these announcements and opportunities:
• We begin 2022 with ongoing adjustments in light of COVID-19. Please carefully read all pandemic-related updates from senior administration. Recent guidance is collected at University Updates
, and helpful information is available at Faculty & Staff Resources
. Vaccination boosters are encouraged and available at the North Village Community Center. Document booster status Director of the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core
, a leadership role to be filled by a tenured scholar of accomplishment, experience, and vision. A capable search committee is chaired by Wes Null
, vice provost for undergraduate education and institutional effectiveness, and professor of education in the School of Education and the Honors College. Committee members include Candi Cann
, Melanie Nogalski
, Jason Whitlark
, Lenore Wright
, and Colleen Zori
from BIC, joined by Erika Abel
(Honors Program) and Jonathan Tran
(Religion). Please reach out to any of them with questions or suggestions of prospective candidates.
• Coming weeks bring the promise of hosting candidates for tenure-track faculty openings in BIC and GTX. In addition, the Graduate School has a nomination process underway for its Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship Program
, through which the HC will support a postdoc. To all who are hosting candidates, please accept my gratitude for your generosity of time and the high expectations you bring to this important work.
• As University documents describe, tenured faculty members interested in promotion to the rank of Professor should consult with their program director. A new cycle of application and review begins with a February 15 deadline to submit a letter of intent to seek promotion and the names of possible external reviewers. Details are available in BU-PP 702
, related Promotion Procedures
, and our Guidelines for Promotion
• Out of concern for high costs of course texts and materials, Dean Jeffrey Archer of University Libraries has created an Affordable Course Materials Summer Fellows
program. A total of $65,000 in funding is available to support redesign of courses using “low- to zero-cost materials, such as open education resources . . . to reduce the per-class costs for our students.” Program expectations and application steps are available here
• Give well-earned accolades to Robert Miner
, professor of philosophy in the Great Texts Program, on publication of Nietzsche’s Gay Science
(Edinburgh UP, 2022). In this new entry in the Edinburgh Critical Guides to Nietzsche series, he brings joyful, appreciative insight to Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, making sense of the form and content of Nietzsche’s influential book. Hugh Drochon praises the book as “[p]oetic and profound, literary, playful and insightful, deeply cultured and challenging.” Well done, Rob!
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689