Saving Classics From Identity Politics

Underprivileged students have much to gain from entry into the larger intellectual culture that has molded Western societies.

An illustration of a light bulb looking into a mirror
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.

Early in Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Roosevelt Montas describes an intellectual origin story that I found strikingly familiar. Montas, a fatherless teenager who had recently immigrated to the Bronx from the sticks of the Dominican Republic and was still learning to read in English, found himself on a winter evening faced with a pile of discarded books, some ornately decorated with gold-edged pages, waiting for the garbage collectors. “I wanted to take them all, but there were too many, and we had no bookshelves,” he writes. “In the end, I grabbed only two hardbacks. One of them was a volume of Plato’s dialogues.” That fortuitous selection—and his dogged efforts to learn what was between those covers—would fundamentally change him.

Half a century earlier, in a provincial and segregated Texas community, my own fatherless Black father had a chance encounter with the very same text. And as it freed Montas, it liberated him. It allowed him to build his sense of himself as a reader and thinker, and to forge a connection to a tradition that could not be severed by the accident of his skin or the deprivations his immediate ancestors had suffered.

I suppose, then, that I was primed to admire Montas’s earnest defense of the humanities, which is also a personal testament to the power of a liberal education. And I was primed, as well, by my own experiences and observations to agree with his argument that minority and underprivileged students would have at least as much to gain as their more advantaged peers from entry into the larger intellectual culture that has molded the Western societies we must navigate.

“Every year, I witness Socrates bringing students—my high school students as well as my Columbia students—to serious contemplation of the ultimately existential issues his philosophy demands we grapple with,” Montas writes. “My students from low-income households do not take this sort of thinking to be the exclusive privilege of a social elite. In fact they find in it a vision of dignity and excellence that is not constrained by material limitations.”

This position may have once seemed obvious (think of how W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass stressed the importance of universal, humanistic education), but today it is radical and contested. In the all-consuming culture wars, Western customs and habits of thought, which are ever more conflated with oppressive “whiteness,” have been pitted against oversimplified understandings of diversity and group identity. The latter are ascendant. But as Montas’s book and life make clear, ideas and identity needn’t ever be a question of either/or.

Identities, resonant as they may feel, are almost always too narrowly drawn in the contemporary pedagogical discourse, particularly when even those with the best of intentions take the interests of Black and brown and otherwise marginalized students into account.

“Representation of the cultural backgrounds of a diverse student body as an organizing principle in general education necessarily leads to incoherence, essentialism, and tokenism,” Montas argues. “The criterion of democratic representation—appropriate for politics—is not appropriate for selecting common curricula; to adopt it as such is to abandon the very idea of education and to turn students into interest groups, each lobbying for their own special curricular accommodations.” Yet in this era of seemingly limitless racial reckoning, elite academic institutions have made a devil’s bargain with group identity, in many cases at the expense of the elevating notion that some ideas have withstood the test of time and shaped the contemporary world for a reason. Many academics have stopped arguing that certain ideas are worth understanding no matter the standpoint from which any one individual might approach them.

Last year, in a much-discussed article in The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Poser chronicled Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s fervent mission to “save classics from whiteness.” Padilla’s origin story is quite like Montas’s: A child prodigy also from the Dominican Republic, he drew attention and admiration in the New York City homeless shelter he inhabited with his family. There, he fell in love with a textbook titled How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome. He excelled in every elite space in which his gifts and drive landed him. Each institution he encountered—from Manhattan’s Collegiate School, to Princeton, to Oxford, to Stanford, to Columbia and then back to Princeton—enacted the principles of a liberal education and catapulted him upward.

He distinguished himself early in his career as an authority on the Roman senatorial classes and published original research into the interior and religious lives of the empire’s enslaved population. Nonetheless, even as his star rose, he “began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition,” Poser wrote in the Times article. “Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and ‘Western civilization’ had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped.”

Here’s Poser describing the revolution in Padilla’s thinking and his intense ambition to excavate his authentic self from the scaffolding of his education, which led him far away from Montas’s universalist worldview.

Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He … now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

Padilla slaps the sins of slavery, racism, colonialism, fascism, and the production of whiteness on his discipline and told Poser that he “suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics.” This is extreme, but Padilla is not alone in his refusal to separate ideas from the flawed and compromised men and women through whom they have been transmitted. Even rudimentary educational pursuits such as basic literacy and numeracy have in recent years—and especially since the George Floyd protests of the summer of 2020—been combed over in search of latent and structural anti-Black and -brown biases. A vocal and growing number of people in the knowledge economy now purport to believe, some genuinely and some no doubt expediently, that there is no such thing as an idea devoid of the historical power imbalances inscribed in contemporary identity designations.

In 2019, Richard Carranza, then the chancellor of New York City schools, held citywide “white supremacy culture” training sessions for administrators, highlighting what was termed “worship of the written word” or emphasis on “documentation and writing skills, rather than the ‘ability to relate to others,’” as evidence of institutional racism. In July 2020, the Smithsonian Institution published (and rescinded) a graphic on its Talking About Race site that identified rational thought, politeness, objectivity, and the Protestant work ethic as harmful “white” characteristics that perpetuate systemic racism. This past February, a consortium of two-dozen education organizations funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” which argued that a “focus on getting the ‘right’ answer” and requiring students to “show their work” were facets of white-supremacy culture.

Such new perspectives have formed an expanding latticework of self-reinforcing language and assumptions about the inherent capabilities and predilections of entire color categories of students. It is a way of thinking that meanders throughout the nation’s education system, from kindergarten to the Ivy League. The very notion of an education like Padilla’s (or for that matter Montas’s or my father’s) that is rooted in the texts, themes, tastes, and premises—the culture—of a Western lineage has been deemed singularly corrupt. A pedagogy that does not emphasize the politics of identity through an activist lens now strikes many as untenable if not counter-progressive, and certainly not worth fighting to preserve.

Montas intervenes in this muddled ideological context, insisting that “the tradition matters, not because it is Western, but because of its contribution to human questions of the highest order.” His unapologetic defense of the Great Books program at Columbia (where he is a senior lecturer in American Studies and English), as well as the humanities more broadly, is structured as an intellectual love letter to four pivotal figures: Socrates, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi. The four exemplify and, in the case of Gandhi, challenge the cultural and intellectual heritage that has produced the comparatively open and democratic swath of the world we are lucky enough to inhabit. Much like Padilla’s, Montas’s story is that of deep talent, recognized and then carefully cultivated. Yet he wears his learning lightly, demonstrating the ways in which the currents of thought transmitted by these four men, which they have also redirected, made possible the imperfect but undeniable progress that conditioned his own ascent.

More than anything else, though, his book is a warning. Montas pleads throughout—perhaps romantically or, it could also be said, pragmatically—the case of a “great books” education for the masses. “One of the dangers facing American higher education—and American civic culture in general,” Montas cautions toward the end of Rescuing Socrates, “is a return to a time when liberal education was the exclusive province of a social elite.” The most prestigious liberal-arts colleges and programs that are written off today as vectors of “white supremacy culture,” he argues, are likely to survive, “if not unscathed, at least not fundamentally transformed.” This is because “many well-to-do families from the US and abroad will continue to seek—and pay for—a traditional liberal arts experience for their children,” he continues. “Moreover, alumni are not likely to turn their backs on their alma maters.” But the non-elite and the nonwhite may find themselves driven back to the “technical, vocational, and professional” tracks, or to the whims of merely faddish thinking, to our collective impoverishment.

This is, of course, one bitter paradox of what flies under the banner of the new anti-racism: Few among the elite—of any color—would consent in practice to the abandonment of cultural heritage deemed appropriate for less advantaged, mostly Black and brown students. Whether or not the nation’s classics departments continue to shrink, the winners of the meritocracy will not be sacrificing fluency in the shorthand of the educated classes—which is to say, cultural capital—anytime soon.

Padilla’s criticisms raise the perennial question of utility—what is an education for?—and inflect it with the social-justice mission that seems to have permeated virtually all of the nation’s academic, cultural, and artistic institutions. Yet it is Montas who answers most persuasively: The purpose of an education is liberation. And the ideas and traditions that support that liberation are not and can never be crudely racialized as one group’s property, thinned out and flattened beneath the rolling pin of identity. We are not only one thing (Dominican! Brown! ESL!) and ideas are not black or white. They are good or bad, worthy or not worthy, useful or not useful—judgments that can shift and evolve with time, and not always for the worse.

“Many people today, even academics, take the approach to liberal education based on the study of classics to be elitist and exclusivist, with little understanding of the democratizing impulse behind it,” Montas writes. But “we do minority students an unconscionable disservice” when we steer them away from it. “We condescend to them when we assume that only works in which they find their ethnic or cultural identities affirmed can really illuminate their human experience.”

Ideas and identity are not in opposition, and they are not equals. Striving with and against the most durable human thinking to have created and altered the intellectual, cultural, and political landscape beyond our own backyard equips all of us to discover who we are most fully. This is the message brought vividly to life in Montas’s book. It is a simple one. But in times of extreme social tension and tribal polarization such as our own, the act of stating obvious, lasting truths can amount to the most generous form of bravery.