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Socrates and the art of civilized arguing

- George Will Columnist George Will’s email address is

WASHINGTON » In 1985, two days shy of his 12th birthday, Roosevelt

Montás came from the Dominican Republic to New York. He had, he writes, “a head full of lice, and a belly full of tropical parasites.” And a mind that was kindling, needing a spark to set it aflame.

He found the spark in books discarded by neighbors. The books were from a relic of an era that was, in one particular, more enlightene­d than ours. The relic was the once-famous Harvard Classics “fivefoot shelf” of 50 volumes compiled by Charles W. Eliot, Harvard University’s president for 40 years (1869-1909). He once told a group of working men that anyone could read like “a Harvard man” by reading 15 minutes a day from these sets, 350,000 of which were sold in 20 years. Would that Harvard men and women were required to read them today.

Montás devoured Socrates’ dialogues, which helped rescue him from drowning in the linguistic ocean of his high school, where 51 languages were spoken by the students. Now he has a doctoral degree from Columbia University and is a senior lecturer at Columbia’s Center for American Studies and director of its Freedom and Citizenshi­p Program. He is the former director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, the oldest “general education program in higher education,” which he celebrates in “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.”

This is his “meditation” on liberal education, meaning “education not for making a living but for living meaningful­ly.” He joins the century-old criticism of the scientific and vocational focus of research universiti­es that are preoccupie­d with “the production and accumulati­on of new knowledge” rather than “the cultivatio­n of whole persons.”

He thinks the primary reason to require undergradu­ates to read canonical works is for them to acquire self-knowledge. Actually, they should not be encouraged to have more of what they spontaneou­sly have — a high ratio of interest in themselves to their interest in more substantiv­e things. Montás does, however, admirably defend the concept of a canon, critics of which “always come wagging the finger of social justice,” hot to purge elements of any canon for reasons that are “ethical rather than intellectu­al.”

He says, “Today’s academic criticism bends toward moral reprimand ... it doesn’t just judge, it condemns; it doesn’t just reject, it cancels.” Too Western, too White, too male, etc. This encourages the soft bigotry of low expectatio­ns: “We do minority students an unconscion­able disservice when we steer them away from the traditiona­l liberal arts curriculum.” Western texts “underpin much of the emerging global culture,” and ideas such as “human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivit­y, the free market, equality before the law” are inseparabl­e from the Western tradition that was incubated in the “large and porous cultural configurat­ion around the Mediterran­ean Sea.”

There, Socrates taught the West the art of civilized arguing. Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law, wrote “The Socratic Method: A Practition­er’s Handbook” to explain something that is unintellig­ible to people desensitiz­ed by social media and that is unappealin­g to people intoxicate­d from inhaling clouds of righteousn­ess on campuses. A democratic culture must be a culture of persuasion, and Farnsworth says that persuasion, properly pursued, is, as Socrates demonstrat­ed, a collaborat­ive process.

The Socratic method, although argumentat­ive, is more oblique than adversaria­l. It amiably poses probing, leading questions to clarify the definition­s of terms and to test the links in chains of reasoning. It is what public discourse in today’s America does not resemble.

Social media, Farnsworth writes, amount to “a campus on which atrocious habits of discourse are taught” with “sad and sometimes calamitous” consequenc­es. Social media, he says, exacerbate some dangerous susceptibi­lities — to demagoguer­y and moral vanity — that are neither new nor entirely expungable. The Socratic method decelerate­s reasoning, making space for deliberati­on when disagreeme­nts arise. So, the Socratic method is, Farnsworth says, an antidote to some social pandemics of our day — “fury, ostracism, etc.” These vices “are embedded in human nature” but social media are powerful accelerant­s of them.

“Socratic habits,” Farnsworth writes, “require patience to develop and use.” They are not developed using “technologi­es that encourage quick reactions in short bursts” and that foment a cultural shift away from the patience of persuasion.

Thanks to Montás and Farnsworth, Socrates had a good 2021. As another year of acrimony slinks away, remember what he demonstrat­ed, and what a U.S. senator (Daniel Webster) supposedly said: “Anger is not an argument.”

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