Roosevelt Montás | The Liberal Arts: why they matter more than ever

Oct 13, 2022 | Announcements, News & Media

Author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

Sydney, Thursday 13 October 2022: What is the effect of reading a whole curriculum of ‘Great Books’? Can prolonged exposure to such texts radically alter the course of a life? Can they speak to people from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds? 

For Columbia University academic, Dr Roosevelt Montás, evidence that the Great Books can lift people out of their circumstances, and transform lives, is his own life-story, detailed in his 2021 volume, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.

In this book Dr Montás describes how, as a poor immigrant schoolboy from the Dominican Republic with limited English, he made a chance discovery of ‘beautiful editions’ of Socrates and Shakespeare in the neighbourhood trash in Queens, New York. His determination to read these books, to understand their ‘compelling narratives’, saw him begin a journey of discovery that took him from his lowly neighbourhood high school to study at the prestigious Ivy League school Columbia University. There he rose to direct the University’s world-famous Core Curriculum, a required set of courses organised around the study of great works principally (not only) in the Western tradition, taken in common by every student.

Dr Montás led this world-famous course for almost a decade and is now one of America’s most passionate advocates for the liberal arts: specifically, the study of the canonical works that so radically altered his life trajectory.

The Ramsay Centre is proud to announce that a special recorded conversation between Dr Montás and Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines is our sixth Ramsay Lecture for 2022.

In introducing Dr Montás, Professor Haines says: ‘it would be hard to think of anyone whose vocation and life story could be more closely aligned with the Centre’s own core mission.’ The Core Curriculum Dr Montás directed, along with the Great Books degree at St John’s College, Annapolis, was the primary inspiration for the undergraduate degrees the Centre sponsors at our partner universities.

In a wide-spanning conversation, Professor Haines and Dr Montás discuss:

  • How four authors – Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi – had a profound impact on Montás’s life.
  • The history of Columbia’s Core Curriculum as a democratising force, aimed at levelling the playing field between those who have access to cultural capital and those who do not.
  • The peculiarity of a liberal arts education – the personal journey that differentiates it from a technical or professional education.
  • The problematic absence of women writers in the Western canon, but why that should be a basis for learning and examination, not a reason to abandon study of great works.
  • How ancient texts should be read as contemporary works, relating to students’ current experiences.
  • The intrinsic value of knowledge and the need for universities to offer students the opportunity to engage with their humanity, rather than simply be treated as customers, preparing for a vocation.
  • Moral absolutism and the need for students to balance idealism with nuance and scepticism.
  • Dr Montás’s mixed optimism for the future of the humanities.

Dr Roosevelt Montás is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia University and the former director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum (2008-2018). He was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York as a teenager, where he attended public schools in Queens before entering Columbia College in 1991 through its Opportunity Programs. In 2003, he completed a Ph.D. in English, also at Columbia; his dissertation, Rethinking America, won Columbia University’s 2004 Bancroft Award.

In 2000, he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student and in 2008, he received the Dominican Republic’s National Youth Prize. He regularly teaches moral and political philosophy in the Columbia Core Curriculum as well as seminars in American Studies. He is also director of the Center for American Studies’ Freedom and Citizenship Program, which brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus to study political theory and then helps them prepare successful applications to college.

This Ramsay Lecture is recorded. It will be available via our website as both a video and podcast on Tuesday 18 October.

Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098/