Cornel West Discusses Higher Education, Racial Justice in Virtual Event

On March 18, the Office of Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OSDEI) celebrated its official launch by hosting a virtual conversation between Cornel West and Assistant Professor of Black Studies and History Mary Hicks. The event was co-sponsored by the Black studies, American studies and political science departments. During the discussion, West spoke about the role and limitations of higher education in the pursuit of justice, the self-reflection that cultivates true leadership and the search for vocation and passion.

West is an American philosopher, political activist and social critic, but his roles have extended beyond the world of academia and politics and into the realm of art as well. West frequently appears on CNN and C-SPAN, has advised multiple presidential campaigns and even made a film debut in the movie “The Matrix.” His activism has drawn on the legacy of the Black prophetic tradition and endeavors to make critical analysis of contemporary dynamics of race, politics and theology accessible to all.

The event began with an introduction from the OSDEI’s student leaders, Jeremy Thomas ’21, Andrew Leung ’22 and Maya Foster ’23, who spoke about the office’s founding purpose of providing the critical student perspective to discussions of diversity and inclusion.  Hicks then welcomed West to the college, noting that West has historically inspired audiences to join him in philosophical introspection, moral clarification and social activism.

She began the conversation with a question about the role that universities and colleges play in the struggle for racial justice. Responding to this, West brought up the idea of paideia, a Greek term for “deep education.” According to West, paideia is “education at its highest level, which is the formation of attention, focusing on the things that matter away from superficial things; it is the cultivation of critical consciousness which is a way of examining and scrutinizing who we are, the assumptions and presuppositions that shape who we are; it is the maturation of a compassionate soul.”

At the heart of what the university does is make students “stronger forces for truth and good and beauty — a critical counterweight to greed, dogmatism, narrow conformity, indifference to the vulnerable and callousness to the weak,” West said. He emphasized that justice is not just about discussing policy, but rather “a disposition to behave in light of a conception of the world.”

Inspired by West’s recent activism against what he sees as the commodification of higher education, Hicks also asked him to speak about the limitations of the structure of the university and how to surmount them. West responded by acknowledging that institutions will inevitably have their blind spots, but that it is “those courageous exemplars” who “in their own fallible ways try to engage in a visionary and courageous quest for truth” that allow the institution to continually better itself.

On avoiding the commodification of education and holding on to the ideals of the university in particular, he highlighted the notion of vocation that 19th century German theorist Max Weber wrote about in his essays “The Science of Vocation” and “The Politics of Vocation.” 

Vocation, West said, is something that is difficult to commodify if you’re fundamentally committed to it. “I come from a tradition of a Black people who say everybody is a star. It’s shining for others. It takes the form of service to others, so that’s a calling in a vocation that flies in the face of the commodified culture, flies in the face of the obsession with spectacle and celebrity as opposed to service to others that leads toward a fundamental transformation of self and the world.” 

Hicks also asked about how West manages to “marry truth-telling and critique with love,” to which West answered that “all of us are fallible and finite,” that empathy towards others starts with compassion for yourself. Building on ideas mentioned previously in the conversation, he emphasized how he has always kept certain exemplars in front of him as guidance on how to grow as a person. “You know, William James used to say that education — especially when it comes to the formation of leaders — education is the inculcation of a habitual vision of greatness and excellence,” he said. “His greatness was a certain willingness to interrogate himself.” 

To close out the event, Foster asked West for his advice on finding one’s passion. “It has something to do with trying to discern what gives you joy,” he responded. “That would be the beginning of an answer. But in the end it’s very much like the [Black] national anthem, which is, ‘lift every voice.’ You have to answer that question [of passion] in the dark corners of your own soul, just like you gotta find your own voice and not be an echo.”

“And when we pursue our voice and find joy in that process, then I think we’re onto being long distance runners in the quest for truth and goodness and beauty,” he continued. “Any justice that’s only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice. What’s deeper than justice is love and joy — and that’s what sustains your quest for justice.” 

Perhaps even more than any of his insights, it was West’s charm and charisma that captivated students who attended. “I think Cornel West has such a timeless, engaging [and] warm way of communicating really important, powerful ideas,” said Sylvie Palmer ’22. “There are very few people on this planet who rival his warmth and compassion and excitement about topics that can get really scary and divisive.”

Thomas thought the event was a “terrific” launch for the OSDEI. “When I think about Dr. West, I just think about a very long career of a combination of study and struggle — he’s always at the floor of whatever issues are most pressing to his community, and he’s also always reading and engaged in literature,” he said. “I think Dr. West is somebody who, because of the rigor with which he approaches both of those things, encapsulates what we’re hoping to do with OSDEI.”

Hicks, who was impressed by the level of student engagement at the event, urged students to take to heart West’s comments on the promise of deep education as a way of transforming oneself, as well as one’s community. “He obviously cares very deeply about students and young people, and has a kind of belief [and] faith in their ability to change the world,” she said. “Students should feel empowered that they’re moral and intellectual agents in the world.”