Collection hosted by Robert George and Cornel West goes smoothly

Director of Public Safety Mike Hill talks to students opposed to Robert George’s invitation before the beginning of the collection.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Since Prof Burke said all should speak but none should silence, why weren’t Hill’s comments that he gave to one group of students included in this article? Why didn’t Hill speak to the audience as a whole and isn’t that a form of silencing/intimidation? You left out that a group of students were protesting George’s comments about the LGBT community being “beneath human dignity” and instead focused on his stance on gay marriage. When you inaccurately report aren’t you and Swarthmore College guilty of silencing? And shouldn’t you realize the importance of respectful protest? Protest helps to bring change to this country; suffrage, ending segregation, etc and without that progress this collection between George and West may not have occurred. Now that they had their say at collection they can go back to their “safe” lives. But the “power of discourse to build from what we agree on” will do little to solve the continued silencing of Swarthmore’s targeted groups or targeted groups nationally. While the LGBT community is fighting for the right to live in their apartments, work their jobs, and receive service by licensed professionals, many of you take these things for granted. There are places in the USA where your fellow LGBT students can legally be kicked out of their apartments without notice, denied medical service etc because they are LGBT. And if you think that is ok, then where do you draw the line? And where does that end? Who will be next?

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