Roosevelt Montás discusses importance of liberal education

By Sarah Datta

Roosevelt Montás discusses the importance of liberal education before a crowd of College of General Studies students. Photo by Ziyu (Julian) Zhu

Roosevelt Montás didn’t always want a liberal education. Now, as a senior lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia University, as well as author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, he’s a passionate proponent of how an education grounded in classics and life’s big questions can create better, stronger world citizens. 

Montás delivered a guest lecture to College of General Studies students in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium on March 14, discussing his book and the history and future of liberal education.

Montás argued that modern universities don’t place nearly enough emphasis on liberal education: at best, there are a few required courses undergraduates need to take, at worst, no guidelines at all. But that approach, he said, harms students.

A liberal education fosters self-reflection, intellect, and a worldly view, Montás told the assembled crowd. By denying students a liberal education, the next generation is unprepared for their civic duties. 

“A liberal education can illuminate a life,” he said. 

Montás’ own journey with a liberal education started at Columbia, from which he graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature in 1995. All Columbia undergraduates have to take the Core Curriculum, a rigorous course load that spans multiple years and disciplines, designed to inform students in art, philosophy, and the humanities. Roosevelt draws on his Columbia experiences to inform his current views of what a liberal education should be.  

“You can, and should, get a liberal education regardless of major,” he said, advocating for liberal education to not be restricted based on university type, socioeconomic status, or career trajectory. 

Furthermore, he said, a liberal arts education creates a certain type of community. Montás discussed how, at Columbia, he could share his experiences with every single undergraduate student on campus, since he knew that all of them were trained similarly.  

Montás said a liberal education is “relevant to how you live your life.” It’s transformative; a liberal education allows you to contemplate your own existence and your place within the world. 

He explained how the concept of a liberal education goes all the way back to Athenian society, where this type of education was considered noble and prepared citizens for aspects of life in government. 

Students take notes during Montás’s lecture in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium. Photo by Ziyu (Julian) Zhu

A liberal education allows you to surpass questions of survival and contemplate questions of existence. He added that this ability to think critically is fundamental to world change, referencing how when Frederick Douglass learned to read and write, his following actions impacted the world for generations. 

While universities and colleges tend to focus on job prospects, promoting high rates of employment among graduates and touting statistics about their various programs’ career readiness, Roosevelt said an equally important outcome of an education is students’ ability to think critically and make connections between the past, present, and future. 

Montás acknowledged that a liberal education is often fought over politically, but said that it shouldn’t be because ‘liberal’ isn’t about a political point of view. 

“Liberal education is liberal because it is not bound to a predetermined outcome,” he said.

Montás ended his lecture by emphasizing the real world importance of a liberal arts education.

“A liberal education is there to help you find your way,” he said, claiming that without one, our fundamental democracy and world worsens, but with one, students are able to reach their highest potential.