Following weeks of campus discussion on the merits and failings of discourse, Cornel West and Robert George ‘77 led a community-wide collection on the merits of the liberal arts before a crowded audience at the Friends Meetinghouse last Monday. The discussion, though controversial, was relatively calm and occurred without any interruption as the two speakers responded to challenges from students.
George and West, who have co-taught courses at Princeton University, were invited to the college by the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Their visit comes on the heels of last spring’s debate over constructive discourse.
George is a professor of jurisprudence and chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has published many books on the topics of civil liberties, law and the constitution.
West is a professor emeritus of African American Studies and is the honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also is interested in Marxism, transcendentalism and pragmatism, and is author of the bestselling book Race Matters.
The event drew criticism from students who took issue with George’s opposition to gay marriage, some of whom felt that the college should not have invited him to speak. George is the co-founder and past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
Professor Timothy Burke, chair of the history department, introduced the two speakers by reminding all present that the Friends Meetinghouse was a space where all could speak, but none should silence.
George opened the conversation by claiming that the “liberal arts education is in crisis.” The identity crisis of the liberal arts, George said, is bigger and perhaps more significant than the question of who will pay for it. His talk developed the theme of self-critical thinking and intellectual humility, by which, George asserted, we may move from error to truth. He warned that “we get attached to our beliefs,” and that the liberal arts required making oneself “vulnerable.” But, he claimed, this process is worth it, because “by engaging with a serious, even if misguided, interlocutor, I can deepen my understanding.”
West followed up George by describing the liberal arts crisis as a “market-values crisis.” Citing Cicero and Montaigne, West said that the foundation of his philosophy was the idea that “to study philosophy is to prepare one’s self to die.” The liberal arts, West went on to say, require “the courage to critically examine yourself” as well as to let go of parts of yourself. West described social, psychic, and spiritual deaths, with the ultimate goal of deepening the self. With “courage to question and courage to love,” we can avoid “sterilized discourse” and stick to the plain, honest speech that West says brought him together with George.
A student opened the question and answer period by challenging George’s positions on same-sex marriage, asking what kind of critical examination would be necessary to make him change his views and challenging West on his complicity with George. George responded by narrating a process of intellectual self-questioning beginning with his time at Swarthmore, and ended by explaining that while it was difficult to be in a room of people who disagree with him, he could not sacrifice his beliefs without sacrificing his integrity. West responded to the question by affirming the power of discourse to build from “what we agree on.”
Following questions interrogated the sincerity of the liberal arts and how to enact social change within a flawed system. A video recording of the collection will be made available shortly.