Jan 21

Roosevelt Montás On Saving The Humanities

A poor kid from the Dominican Republic found solace in Socrates and other great thinkers.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Montás, who led the humanities-rich Core Curriculum at Columbia for a decade and still teaches there, has a new book out, Rescuing Socrates. We talk of Augustine and Socrates and Freud and Gandhi and the timelessness of the great texts. His book is a kind of response to the notion that these ideas and texts are somehow blighted by “whiteness” — a topic the Dish tackled last year. I loved this conversation — and the relief it gave from contemporary political and cultural obsessions.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips my conversation with Roosevelt — on why the humanities are in crisis, and on whether the bodily desires of humans make them less free — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, a flood of emails came in over last week’s episode with Chris Rufo, and many of them are below. But first, here’s a suggestion on the difficult question of trans women in sports:

Thanks for saying what needs to be said on the trans movement. Yes to critical and compassionate review without demonization!

Regarding trans athletes, has anyone suggested setting up a kind weight-class system based on testosterone exposure, a kind of T-Weight? It would use a scientific score of sorts based on a formula developed by a consensus of medical professionals, factoring both current testosterone levels as well as lifetime exposure (or whatever factors are deemed most relevant to athletic performance).

Then sports organizations could create T-Weight classes and allow participation universally regardless of gender. Maybe only three classes would really be needed: Heavy, Middle and Light, where Heavy would be dominated by lifetime biological males, light by lifetime females, and medium by a mix. And athletes in lighter classes would also be free to compete in heavier classes.

The beauty of this approach is how it’s potentially both inclusive and fair. In fact, one can imagine all kinds of competitions that have been traditionally sorted by gender now including a cavalcade of new participants from across the gender spectrum, opening the door to achievement (and the accompanying rewards) to individuals who would have otherwise not had good opportunities to test and showcase their abilities.

Here’s Mara Keisling debating the question with me on the Dishcast last year:

This next reader believes we should “consider transgender competition categories”:

One of my three daughters transitioned three years ago as a young adult. To this day, her path remains only for the strong of heart and strong of will. That said, she is comfortable that her personhood is now in the proper alignment. I have read with interest your columns on transgender issues and I offer the following observations:

1) I am glad our daughter did not begin a discussion of transition until she was in her early 20s. She was fortunate to be in a community where medical, psychological, and social support were available. While my wife and I participated in her decision process, the ultimate decisions were hers and funded by her. Our transition from son to daughter was not easy, but I shudder to consider how much more difficult it would have been if we were shepherding the decision of a teen or pre-teen. These intense dramas should be supported, not inspected. They are not political, they are personal.

2) It is time society accepted transgender for itself. Numerous cultures have recognized a third gender or third sex. It has been with us since the dawn of time, just like homosexuality, and it is time we accommodate the genders. Recognizing the transitioning of female to male seems a more recent phenomenon, surely we can accommodate both. If sport is such an issue, consider transgender competition categories … and perhaps it is time we begin thinking about competitions that can be pan-gender.

3) You have no idea how incredibly difficult the transition journey is — even for those supported, and many are not. Getting to the other side is only the beginning. Learning to live is a daily challenge. Cis culture seeks to hive you off. Gay culture questions your inclusion. Your own culture is fraught with conflicting definitions.

Rather than creating another category of “others,” we need to blend this bright thread into the weave that is us.

This next reader, though, argues that exclusion is simply the nature of competitive sports:

On the playing field, there are only X number of spots. Someone is always going to be excluded. That might be for a traditional reason (such as not being good enough to be on that particular team) or a novel reason (such as not enjoying an unfair biological advantage). So yes, the “fairness side” is not inclusive in this respect, but for nearly all of us, that’s merely a consequence of applying common sense to the context of sports rather than a projection of bias.

Another parent writes, “To the people who think your criticism of wokeness in public school education is alarmist, I offer this example”:

I have a 14 year old who currently identifies as non-binary — along with about a third of her 8th grade classmates. I was helping them study for their biology test, going through a series of flashcards with definitions of genetic terms. Two of those flashcards included “AFAB” and “AMAB.” For those uninitiated into the language of trans correctness, these mean “assigned female at birth” and “assigned male at birth.”

I’ll leave aside the implications of these labels — that every human being is the victim of cis/patriarchal aggression within hours of being born by being arbitrarily “assigned” a sex. What boggles my mind is the matter-of-factness of these terms being taught in a science class. I could understand a debate about gender and whether it differs from sex. But this class required the students to memorize these terms and tested them on their definitions without discussion or debate or a single shred of scientific evidence to indicate that sex is anything other than a genetically determined trait. (So far as I know, there was no suggestion that having brown eyes or being able to roll your tongue is a social construct … but maybe that’s coming.)

Yes, I live in a New England liberal enclave, but I can’t imagine that this isn’t going on in many places and that it isn’t spreading. I also can’t imagine that the eventual backlash to it won’t set back trans acceptance for a long time.

Another reason why curriculum transparency matters. The educational elites regard critical race/queer/gender theory as simple reality. They are teaching its precepts as fact. The cost for a single teacher of resisting this kind of ideological indoctrination is severe. Which brings us to the teaching of race in schools and the Rufo episode. Here’s the first of many readers:

I was glad to hear you push back a bit against Christopher Rufo and some of his ideas and biases. But I hoped you would push harder, and I was disappointed to hear you say that he might have swayed you a bit.

I’m no fan of woke teachers. Back in 2019, I got into a discussion with a teacher in Brooklyn after my 10-year-old daughter had some strange takeaways from school. After a unit on activism (i.e. social justice), she came home thinking that the police had murdered Eric Garner deliberately, randomly, and in cold blood. As her parents, we had been trying to teach her that if she ever got separated from us in the city, she should ask a police officer for help. But if the police are murderers, that makes as much sense as asking a school shooter for a hall pass.

My daughter also learned in her class that the Constitution was racist and sexist. She hadn’t, however, learned the purpose of a constitution, nor the significance of the US one in particular. She didn’t know that our Constitution represented the first real attempt at establishing a democracy anywhere in the world in about two millennia. So she didn’t quite understand why the people of the 18th century felt they had to document their racism and sexism like that.

So sure, I’m aware that there’s a problem here. But the solution is not to ban specific ideas from being taught. (When has that ever worked?) Because the problem is not CRT. It’s activist teachers, teaching kids what to think, rather than how to think (to use your own words). And I don’t want kids indoctrinated with Rufo’s ideas any more than I want them blindly believing in Robin DiAngelo’s.

Rufo even gives you an example of a bad idea he wants kids to learn: that socialism has been proven not to work. I am not a socialist, but it is ridiculous not to allow for the possibility that socialism (not communism) has made a huge, positive contribution in liberal democracies around the world. Countries that out-perform the US on a long list of metrics — public health, education, social mobility, etc. — likely have socialists to thank for that. Places as different as Scandinavia, Israel, India, Brazil and South Africa would arguably have been far worse off without (democratic) socialism in the mix. 

You don’t have to agree, but don’t ban the idea — not least because most of the really major (and many of the minor) problems of the 20th century seem to arise when you start banning ideas, and when you no longer give people the opportunity to choose between different ideas and try them on. The solution is not to drive ideas underground, to make their proponents iconic, to make their books irresistible to curious rebellious teens. Instead, let’s use school to teach and model the kind of pluralistic, intellectual life we want. We need to make sure that school presents more perspectives and more facts and more opinions — always more opinions. And, importantly, more questions. Mandate that! 

The trouble is: we can’t mandate that. And Rufo is not suggesting we ban ideas as such. We’re taking about the curriculum in public schools — which is inevitably a question for democratic deliberation. If the education establishment has decided to use public schools for a program of mass indoctrination into neo-Marxian ideology, parents have every right to resist — and to ban that kind of teaching, as they would ban a teacher from instructing students that a particular religion is the sole repository go truth. Another reader argues:

CRT has gained a foothold through culture, and culture is going to be the best way to fight it. The idea that it should be fought through government, politics, and bills is misguided, shortsighted, and fundamentally radical and illiberal.  

I agree generally. But public schools are already political, their curriculum shaped by public officials subject to democratic accountability. When an illiberal, ideological faction captures the teachers’ unions, the educational establishment, and an entire political party, we have no option but to fight back.

Another reader who enjoyed the episode:

Rufo’s perspective is one I don’t I listen to often, and I found it interesting — until the discussion called for introspection on his part. The adjective “Marxist,” along with “socialist” and “communist,” has been neutered due to overuse by the American right for decades (the same goes for the label “racist” by the left). If everything proposed by Democrats — the Build Back Better plan, Obamacare, and even the State Children’s Health Insurance Program — is communism, then people can be forgiven for ignoring the word when it's employed correctly. It’s been overused by the American right for so long that it’s lost all impact.

Also, I appreciated you trying to get Rufo to see why, despite the overreaches of the American far left, you cannot support the current GOP due to its devotion to Donald Trump. It was disappointing to not hear him express any understanding of that viewpoint. 

Agreed. The Chris Rufo in the podcast does not seem to be the Chris Rufo of Twitter — but then, that’s arguably a function of Twitter, not Rufo. This next reader is disappointed in me:

I tried to give Rufo an objective listen — I really did. But there was nothing he said that wasn’t more of the same anecdotal, breathless hyperbole disguising his desire for a nationwide K-through-college curriculum that the reactionary right approves of and which soothes their feelings, instead of whatever exists in scope and variety now. The easy target of CRT is just the way in.

That’s why I very much appreciated this op-ed by a Brooklyn high school student for giving a clear-eyed and honest depiction of her brief engagement with actual CRT — to positive results, no less, and no apparent danger of brainwashing. She makes you and Rufo look like hysterical, ignorant, and enthralled purveyors at the Moral Panic Fair — something you had the presence of mind to wonder aloud at one point during the podcast.

In the end, the conversation left out so much and challenged Rufo on so little that it will do nothing but give comfort to those who are passing yet more laws banning whatever they conceive CRT to be — laws you seemed to be against previously, but by your own admission are now open to entertaining. It feels like a shame and a loss.

In principle, I don’t want politics to interfere with the classroom. But the other side of this debate has already put politics in the classroom. Another reader worries about a vicious cycle of outrage:

I appreciate that you asked Rufo about his (and your) potential role in over-hyping the backlash to CRT, but I wish you pressed him further, especially on moderate lefties: How does he expect to build consensus using polarized language? What do we need to do to make these people feel heard in a democracy that’s as much theirs as his — and then convince them they’re wrong? If he continues to catalogue every example of CRT in curricula, doesn’t he expect people to catalogue every example of Republican over-reach, book banning, speech stifling, et cetera? Where does that gamesmanship end?

Your instincts historically have veered toward citizenry rather than activism, to which I say bravo. To repurpose one of Sam Harris’ refrains about the scientific process, when confronted with a breakdown of liberal democracy, we don’t need to abandon it, we need more of it. Now is the time, more than ever, to double down on what your friend Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge. The answers lie in his pages, not in Rufo’s.

Jon Rauch and Pete Wehner have an excellent op-ed this week on the illiberal dangers on the left and the right, but they insist, “What’s Happening on the Left Is No Excuse for What’s Happening on the Right.” I agree with them. But they also recognize the scale of the attempt to indoctrinate a generation in new-Marxian ideas:

The progressive movement, then, is increasingly under the sway of a totalistic, unfalsifiable and revolutionary ideology that rejects fundamental liberal values like pluralism and free inquiry. And conservatives aren’t hallucinating about its influence.

Are liberals and conservatives supposed to just let this happen? From a soon-to-be parent in Tennessee:

I’m not particularly fond of figures like Robin DiAngelo and others, and I find their influence to be more than a little frustrating, and the historical distortions of the 1619 Project were troubling. At the same time, I found Rufo’s account of the way that “they” are pushing CRT to be little more than a conspiracy theory, and at times, he seemed to be lumping all diversity efforts in with some vague and nefarious cultural Marxist plot.

I live in Nashville, and my partner and I are about to have a baby. She’s black, and I’m white. In my state, there are groups that are actively using an anti-CRT law to stop students from learning about Ruby Bridges and the March on Washington. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that if my daughter is going to learn about the history of civil rights, she may to have to learn it at home. It’s not the end of the world (and it may not go down that way), but it’s deeply troubling, and in light of this state’s history, a bit scary. Moreover, if the worst thing that happens is they don’t teach much of the history of civil rights in school, what will it say to students who see themselves represented in that history?

Rufo seems to want the equivalent of CRT coming from the right rather than genuine liberal education. His claims that the state is already involved in educational decisions are no doubt true, but when these decisions are wrested away from professionals, you end up with bills than mandate the teaching of the Abraham Lincoln-Frederick (that is, not Stephen) Douglas debates (as we saw in Virginia recently). It’s also bound up with a politics that situates whites as victims that’s also troubling.

Rufo may have a point now and again, but his claims should also be seen in the context of Steve Bannon’s declarations that the path back to power leads through the school boards. I can’t help but wonder if Rufo’s dubious ideas about a conspiracy to push CRT is playing into to far right’s will-to-power and is even more illiberal than his presentation would suggest.

I’d be lying if I weren’t concerned about this. Kmele is worried as well. Let’s hear from a more conservative reader:

Your conversation with Rufo left out the most important reason that upper-class liberal readers of the NYT passively choose to follow CRT. It’s because the NYT and other prestige publications have spent the past 20 years telling their readers that conservatives/Republicans are selfish moral monsters, and the only reasons anyone could be a conservative is because he is 1) selfish, 2) stupid, 3) crazy. Those readers have spent so long imbibing the notion that conservatives are monsters that they cannot countenance being on the same side of what they believe is a moral issue.

As such, those liberals are left with two choices: believe in the CRT rhetoric (primarily by not inquiring too closely on specifics), or complain quietly among themselves but outwardly express support for CRT and deride those opposed as bigots.

I’ll give you quick example from my family. My wife’s parents fall squarely into the NYT demographic. When the Brearley letter came out last year, we had a conversation with a family friend who had graduated from Brearley and was about to send her daughter there. She was hesitating over the CRT influence there. When I mentioned that if the classical liberals would ally with the conservatives at the school, they could add their numbers to the significant groups that conservatives had built on the issue and likely reverse the CRT trend.

My family’s reaction was shocking. Because racism is considered a moral issue, those at the table would rather not change anything than be seen on the same side as conservatives. The idea of common cause, even when there is agreement on the appropriate ends, is considered beyond the pale. Until the blanket moral superiority between the parties is broken, common sense and majority opinion can’t win out in policy.

Very well put. Polarization helps the extremes control the two sides. Liberalism disappears in the middle. What many on the left miss, in my opinion, is that democracy is not at stake in America. Liberal democracy is.

Another reader recommends a podcast episode with a great liberal figure:

I happened to listen to your conservation with Rufo right after this episode of Pod Save America, which comes from the very progressive Crooked Media and Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter. But the conversation is anything but what you’d expect. The story of the show’s guest, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is one that I hadn’t heard before. She was basically lambasted on social media by two of her former students as supporting murder of trans women for saying that “trans women are trans women.” She wrote an essay about the experience, and how awful it was for years afterwards.

Favreau went at the issue as gently as possible (as one would expect from a progressive point of view), but they hit all the points you’ve been making for a while about the coded language, the unforgiving nature of the righteous left, the inability to debate or think, etc. It gave me great hope to hear this type of discussion in that forum, given who the likely audience is, and given Adichie’s self proclaimed feminism and obvious commitment to thinking, writing, and storytelling, which is not possible when everything is doctrinaire.

Anyway, like many of your readers I often get sick of your continued harping on the CRT stuff from the left, but that’s partially because I’m dumb enough to follow you on Twitter. Given your history, you’re probably ahead of the curve on how truly dangerous all of this is for a liberal society. We need the Dems to not get co-opted by their illiberal crazies the way the Republicans did. Otherwise there’s really no hope for most of us who don’t fall into either extreme.

From a teacher in New Hampshire who sides with Rufo:

As someone who rejects the Kendi/DeAngelo/Crenshaw/NHJ etc. approach to race,  I have found the whole thing to be incredibly alarming and frustrating. We do need these laws in place, and I would like to explain why.

As you brilliantly wrote a few months ago, focusing on the term “critical race theory” is a mistake. It allows the purveyors of the race-focused ideology to deny what they are trying to do by accurately claiming that arcane law school theory is not being taught in middle school. What is more accurate is your analogy comparing what is happening to going to a Catholic school. As someone who spent the first 16 years of my education in Catholic schools, it is true that we did not debate transubstantiation in elementary school — but the nuns made damned sure that we understood a “right” way to live and a “wrong” way to live.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that we do not want to hinder in any way a true “liberal education.” But that is not what many of my public school colleagues are interested in. They want to teach these racial ideas as facts — not theories. That’s the crux of the issue. For many of them — products of elite educational institutions and/or teacher colleges — these things are not theories, they are obvious matters of fact. The United States is a fundamentally racist country founded on racism. White people all have unjust privileges of which they must be constantly aware and atone for. Everything (a la Kendi) is connected to race in some way. And on and on.

So the wailing and gnashing of teeth over these “CRT laws” here in New Hampshire by the usual suspects rings hollow to me. Frankly, they lie about it.  They claim that proponents of these laws want to block an “honest discussion” of history and race. That is 100% false. The reason they are upset is that they are being told to teach not preach.

One thing I would have asked Rufo about is the money angle as it relates to CRT/DEI. A massive (and very profitable) industry around selling “training” materials and consulting has blossomed, and these laws are cutting off the gravy train.

I’m with this reader, I have to say. The right did not create this crisis in education; they are reacting to it.

Lastly, a reader highlights a group trying to find a middle ground:

I agree with much of what you say, but in the conversation with Rufo I think you both make a fundamental mistake. He says states should be able to teach CRT or a patriotic emphasis, depending on the popular will of each state. You say teach both, to get students to think critically. I agree that critical thinking is important, but so is getting elementary/secondary students to attach to and willing to support democratic principles and practices. So every state should present the story and history and importance of these values.

To that end, a broad group of Californian educators has formed Californians for Civic Learning to advocate for the inclusion of more robust civic education while avoiding the extremes of left and right. Read about the group here and here. Educators who wish to teach civics and controversial issues in these turbulent times need support.

Worth a read. And a huge thanks to all the readers who wrote in. The pod page has become more of an op-ed page, curated and edited by Chris Bodenner. Send us your arguments, links and stories and we will do our best to feature them: dish@andrewsullivan.com.