Philosopher, prominent Princeton professor comes to Columbia
Civil rights activist, philosopher, author and social critic Cornel West struck an inspirational chord with an audience of well-over 1,200 students, faculty and public guests during the fourteenth annual Robert Smalls lecture Thursday night at the Koger Center.
The lecture was sponsored by the African American Studies department and Carolina Productions, with assistance from the Department of History, Institute for African American research and the Women's and Gender Studies program. Among those who packed into the Gonzales Hall of the Koger Center were University President Harris Pastides, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, and sociologist and former professor in the African American Studies program Andrew Billingsley, creator of the annual Smalls lecture series.
West, a Harvard graduate and professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University, devoted his lecture to honoring the legacy of Robert Smalls, a native South Carolinian, civil war hero, U.S. Congressman and advocate for public education. West introduced Smalls' legacy with Socrates quote in defense of philosophy: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
"Smalls knew, the examined life is painful, and he wrestled with the question that affects all people – 'What does it mean to be human?'"
West referred to Smalls' proliferation of the spirit of "paedeia," a Greek term for educating humans in their true form. He warned against the propagation of conformity and the loss of what he calls "deep education."
"[Education] is a shift from superficial to substantial, frivolous to serious, 'bling-bling' to 'let freedom ring'.... it's learning to die in order to live more critically and decently," West said. "We don't have enough young people willing to connect to that tradition. The last thing we need is another wave of students who are well-adapted to indifference."
West also addressed the civil injustices that continue to exist with little notice in America, such as child poverty levels, racism in the criminal justice system, welfare and wealth distribution. He also criticized President Barack Obama for not having "enough backbone" to take more of an active stance.
"When you allow suffering to speak, you say that you're looking at a world in a way that's different from the main stream," West said.
Second-year political science student Natalie Griggs, an aspiring civil rights lawyer who attended the lecture, took to heart West's message to USC students — to continue practicing paedeia and become courageous citizens.
"We are the people going into these offices, but if we don't try to make changes, nothing will happen," Griggs said. "We can't just talk about it; we have to make an effort."