Liberty Matters

Why Read the Ancients Today?: A Response


Roosevelt Montás, Why Read the Ancients Today?: A Response 
I want to thank Jennifer Frey, Anika Prather, and Aeon Skoble for their attentive and generous reading of my lead essay.
There seems to be broad agreement among the four of us in our appreciation for the importance of ancient texts in undergraduate education.  With this response, I simply want to touch on some of the more salient points of contact between my lead essay and my colleagues’ perceptive responses.
I was tickled to read Jennifer Frey saying that I traffic “in the halls of power at one of the most elite institutions in the country.”  Someone should tell my Dean.  And my mother.  My own experience of the matter is closer to that of an endangered species in hunting season. 
I appreciate Frey’s clear-eyed focus on the fact that young people enter college facing fundamental and inescapable questions about who they are and what way of life is most worth living for them.  These are, at bottom, existential questions and “the humanities” and “liberal education” condemn themselves to sterility and irrelevance unless they take those questions seriously and organize their task around the student’s encounter with them.  As Frey notes, the ultimate goal of liberal education is “human flourishing.”  The point is not merely to understand what people have said about human flourishing and to examine competing visions of what the good life looks like, but to integrate that knowledge into one’s own pursuit of a meaningful life.  I love Frey’s statement that “unless one understands the reasons why they pursue what they do, they are not truly free.”  Because humans are the kind of creatures that they are, genuine flourishing involves self-conscious reflection on the nature of the human good.  
 Anika Prather gets at something similar with the “Water Truce” metaphor—a neutral space of nourishment that is accessible to all.  She recognizes that what makes a Classic a Classic is its capacity to speak to our common humanity and to inspire a kind of reflection that can enrich the life of any individual.  One wonders whether it is perhaps too much to hope that professional academics would exercise the kind reasonableness Kipling proposes among the jungle animals.  Prather aptly highlights the importance of the Classical tradition in the long struggle by African Americans to win social equality and to assert their dignity and place in the American story.  And she reminds us that “the canon” is not a closed list, but an invitation to each of us to add our voices and contributions to an ongoing conversation. 
Aeon Skoble offers a sober assessment of the state of play in higher education with regard to the study of ancient texts by non-specialists: “It's actually even worse than Montas thinks,” he notes.  I don’t often come across the suggestion that I understate the prevalence of the professional, institutional, and ideological vices that relegate the study of ancient texts to the margins of undergraduate education.  But Skoble points to a line of argument that I don’t consider in my lead essay.  It is an argument that claims, essentially, that inasmuch as ancient philosophical knowledge has been superseded by new and better knowledge, it is not worth our time.  In his essay, Skoble refutes this argument effectively, and I would only add that, like art, liberal learning does not get better as time goes on—the latest war novel is not an improvement on the Iliad and Richter is not an improvement on Renoir. 
Again, I thank my thoughtful responders and the Online Library of Liberty for sponsoring this rich exchange.