Americans discard “perfectly good stuff,” which is how Roosevelt Montas came, in high school, to rescue Socrates from a “garbage pile.” The Harvard Classics series, two volumes of which Montas scored one fateful garbage day, was conceived early in the 20th century to fill the “intellectual needs of the average man.” Montas isn’t average. He came from the Dominican Republic to New York City just shy of the age of 12 “with a head full of lice and a belly full of intestinal parasites,” and he grew up to lead Columbia University’s Center for the Core Curriculum. Despite his story, the great books tradition he defends is often disparaged as elitist and white.

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation By Roosevelt Montas; Princeton University Press, $24.95, 248 pp.

In Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Montas defends “liberal education based on the study of classics.” Though no conservative himself, he chides condescending liberals who righteously match minority students with “works in which they find their ethnic or cultural identities affirmed.” For Montas, the Dominican immigrant, it was Socrates, rising from a Harvard Classics volume “like a genie rubbed out of a lamp,” who spoke to his “deepest self.” Today, Montas directs Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship program, which introduces low-income, mostly minority high school students to the study of classic works, including the dialogues he found in the dump. Many of those students take Socrates “seriously and personally,” including one who signed up “after several years of foster care, having been removed from an abusive mother in Harlem.” The idea that Socrates or Homer or St. Augustine is part of a white curriculum that demeans nonwhite students insults those it presumes to represent and constitutes a censorious presence in our education debates.

It isn’t easy to defend liberal education, whose value is best discerned through its experience. Montas solves this problem by relating his own experience grappling with four figures: Socrates, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi. It’s one thing to hear that such figures can offer guidance and companionship as we try to understand ourselves and the world. It’s another to hear the story of young Montas, then a restless believer, living with Augustine’s Confessions and its account of restlessness. It’s one thing to hear a standard defense of acquainting American students with the Western tradition, namely that diverse Americans share an “intellectual and cultural heritage.” It’s another to hear about Montas’s work with John Philippides, a teacher at his Queens public high school, who encouraged his interest in Plato. Philippides “had been a Greek immigrant boy on a Pennsylvania farm and had made his way to Princeton.” He encouraged Montas to apply to Columbia and gave him Homer’s Iliad, required reading at Columbia, for Christmas. Immigrants: They get the liberal education job done.

By taking us through his reading and rereading of books over the course of a life, Montas can articulate what is rarely articulated well about great books education. Great books speak to “human experiences we all share,” but they also connect with us as particular individuals seeking to make sense of our lives. Freud wouldn’t make my list of four thinkers who matter. I doubt that liberal education is compatible with Freud’s claim that the “whole apparatus” of a conscious self is “an elaborate mechanism of self-deception.” If we believed that, we would be on the couch free associating, not in a classroom, batting around arguments. But Montas, who at one point in his life felt just fine even as his hair was falling out from unacknowledged stress, learns from Freud and psychoanalysis a “suspicion of reason, sense, and sanity” that serves him.

We take Montas’s point, regarding Freud and other long-dead thinkers, that it is usually more rewarding to ask, “In what way are they right?” than to ask, “In what way are they wrong?” But if we’re moved to read Freud, it may be less because of that wholesome observation than because of what Montas calls the “contagion of one mind to another,” of his mind to ours. Here is the strange magic by which a teacher, whose relationship with a text owes much to the “idiosyncrasies of how [his] particular life has unfolded,” animates for students leading quite different lives what “might at first look like a carcass.” Rescuing Socrates, which gives ample praise to Montas’s teachers, illustrates how teaching often works. More broadly, it is a tribute to what the black thinker and activist W.E.B. DuBois called the “contact of living souls” at work on “the riddle of the world.”

There is no shortage of obstacles to this contact, Montas says. We contend with the claim, from the Left, that liberal education is a mask for the assertion of white power. We contend with the claim, from the Right, that liberal education is a trick left-wing professors use to indoctrinate. We contend with the research university itself, in which science is king, that liberal education is a low-ranked attendant. But Montas, in a final chapter, acquaints us with programs at places as different as Columbia University, Seton Hall University, Purdue University, and Hostos Community College that keep liberal education at the “center of undergraduate education.” As schools compete for the hearts and dollars of a dwindling number of students, more of them might do well to notice the “appetite of students” for liberal education and fish Socrates from the trash.

Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.