Posted by Rick Chrisman
If you were lucky enough to attend Cornel West's lecture last week, you must have left it bedazzled. I sure did. West did more than live up to his reputation as being a great speaker. In a true tour de force, he spoke for more than an hour without any notes, citing Seneca, Plato, Anton Chekov, Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill, and Alfred North Whitehead.
His lecture was more than merely interesting. It was profoundly intelligent and he delivered it with humanity and passion. As one student described it, it was poetry. We were moved, we were pierced, we were shaken, we were lifted, we were humbled, and we were challenged. We laughed, and some of us nearly cried.
As a public intellectual figure working in an academic setting, West took a unique approach in appealing to us as moral beings. He posed fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of our individual lives: what does it mean to be human? Whom have we helped, whom have we served, and what greater vision have we served? Do we have a vocation or a career in mind? What is the purpose of a college education?
He started by proposing something startling: the idea that education is about facing death. He defined "deep education" as facing the fact of death — both the inevitability of our own deaths, as well as the many forms that death can take, namely in social and political oppression.
So, if you're an American, you have to grapple with the centuries of social death imposed upon African-Americans and many other minority groups. It's not a comforting thought. At the end of the lecture, he asked if we have what it takes to do so. Can we endure such an education and allow it to affect our personal decisions?
To some ears this would sound pretty radical. But it is entirely traditional, and West reiterated this point throughout the lecture. The most essential human endeavor is to pass on tradition, which he summarized with the expression "Socratic questioning and prophetic witness." How traditional — Socrates and the Bible!
You probably know all about Socrates and the idea of critical thinking, but do you know what West meant by "prophet" in the phrase "prophetic witness"? The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures — such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos — maddened kings and their subjects alike by criticizing exploitation and the widespread abandonment of religion. These God-intoxicated prophets gave voice to God's empathy for those who suffered. They spoke of doom for these delinquent leaders, but also promised them comfort if they were to repent their sins.
The disconcerting message of the prophets was that "few are guilty, all are responsible," which held everybody accountable. As West said, their words were like "a scream in the night," but also assured people of God's compassion. The prophets ultimately sought the redemption and reconstruction of social and political life, a mission inspired by the divine. West is not only a modern Socrates, but a bona fide prophet as well.
Being a "Rev." on campus myself, I joked with him afterwards, asking him whether we should call him "Rev. West." He emphatically declined. I suggested the title "evangelist for justice" instead. He said yes. Like James Baldwin before him, West may have left the church of his upbringing, but the church never left him at all.
You can read all about the lecture's content in West's 2004 book, "Democracy Matters." You might wonder, then, why you should bother to see him speak in person. To me, the answer is obvious: to be questioned personally by someone who takes the kind of risks that he wants us to take. To hear someone speak of hope who has survived the lash of discrimination and the boot of derogation. To be in the same room as this remarkable man, and to leave in awe, entering into a new Skidmore day.
Rick Chrisman is director of Religious and Spiritual Life, teaches occasionally in the Religion and Philosophy departments and suspects art is the one true religion.