November, 2011 Issue

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Dr. Cornel West


We all need not forget that despite being co-opted by our political system, the term democratic does not apply only to a polarizing debate over our country's political system. In fact, the term was used far before the "left" adopted it as their own, a word that represents everything our country stands for no less, regardless of what side of the aisle one is on. Dr. Cornel West considers himself, with hopes of others thinking likewise, as a true democratic intellectual. He is one who strongly feels that political discourse, no matter topic, agenda or "side" is one that is not only healthy for our country and culture, but necessary.

Dr. West is considered one of the most insightful, developed and respected intellects in our society, regularly depended upon by the likes of CNN, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Partners with Tavis Smiley, he is a foremost expert on social justice, race relations and democracy. The Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in just three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. Writer of 19 books and editor of 13 more, he has appeared in over 25 documentaries and films, has made three spoken word albums and is a passionate jazz enthusiast, working on music projects with artists like Prince, Andre' 3000, Talib Kweli and more. He has a passion to keep alive the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He speaks to Campus Activities Magazine in an exclusive interview about what he hopes to instill in America's students, how he tries to inspire positive change and what a visit to your campus might entail.

Dr. West has been extremely high profile as of late, with the incredible Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept the country, captivating the minds and hearts of America's youth and downtrodden. While the movement has been criticized for lack of direction or a concise message, the core of Dr. West's message is one of macro thinking, and one that resonates with the spirit of the Occupy movement. "I always begin with the fundamental question of what it means to be human. That is a very, very difficult and in many ways frightening question, because we all have to come to terms with who we are and who we choose to be, and how we wrestle with the context under which we choose. It is true that something like Occupy Wall Street happens to be a crucial dimension of my conception of who I am, only because of my deep commitment to justice."

Justice comes in many forms and under many pretenses, however Dr. West has a very clear and specific notion of the underlying and overarching principle of the word. "When we talk about justice, we are really talking about what kind of persons we choose to be; what kind of integrity, loyalty, fidelity and magnanimity to we attempt to exemplify in our lives. It begins at a very basic level in terms of my reflections for students in my presentations."

It has long been said a society is not judged by the conditions of it's higher class or well-off members, but in fact by the treatment of those least fortunate. "That comes from the 25th book of Matthew," Dr. West confirms and recites, clearly engaging his encyclopedic knowledge to nail down the source of and recite a quote I only made a vague and bumbling reference to. "That latter part I take very seriously: 'He or she that is greatest among you will be a servant to the least of these; what you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me even.' That is a direct quote from Jesus, so yes, it is true that the treatment of the weak and the vulnerable in our society is a fundamental measure of the greatness of that same society."

Unfortunately this is not a view held by all members of OUR society, seemingly one held least by those who are in fact the most fortunate among us. "Many would not agree with this principle, as you know," he laughs, somewhat sardonically.

One huge component of Dr. West's talks on campus is the role he hopes to inspire students to engage in. "I think that student activism is enormously important in our country and world. What we mean by that term is students who have chosen to think and act in such a way that they are motivated by deep love and committed to promoting justice for all. That kind of student activism, which connects the life of the mind to bearing witness in public life, is a noble calling."

The amalgam of the two aforementioned principles, our treatment of the downtrodden and the outspoken activism of students, dovetails nicely into exactly what we see in the Occupy movement. "Absolutely. But, keep in mind there is an intellectual dimension and there is a practical dimension, because when you are committed to 'the least of these' it also means you are trying to explore ideas and arguments and visions that are highly complicated. They are challenging and sometimes very difficult, but still though in the end, are connected to acting practically in such a way that you leave the world better than you found it."

One of Dr. West's most deeply held beliefs is in that which the Ancient Greeks called Paideia, or "deep education" and coming to campus to speak to young open minds to plant this seed of lifelong learning is one of the reasons Dr. West insists on teaching a freshman seminar every year at Princeton. "Even as a university professor where I could simply teach graduate courses if I wanted to, I insist on freshman seminars where students are 18 years old. My calling as a democratic intellectual is wedded to what the Greeks call Paedeia, or deep education. It is not the same thing as ordinary schooling, this is a principle that has to do with trying to touch souls, hearts and minds at the same time, so that they undergo transformations to find their own voices. Not to have them echo my voice; I don't want to produce echoes. Ralph Waldo Emerson said 'Imitation is suicide.' I want each and every one of us to attempt to find our own voices and be an original, not a copy, you see. Paedeia is the notion of constantly undergoing critical reflection about yourself, society and the world so that you find your own voice. This means there will not be a cheap sort of uniformity, but rather a cacophony of individual voices that can find a common harmony, much like a jazz band, where everyone is exploring on their own, but together."

A few resources Dr. West recommends for those who wish to seek enlightenment in correlating areas: "First, when it comes to philosophy, one would want to read Alfred North Whitehead's 'Adventures of Ideas.' The direct connection between creative discontent and philosophical reflection is explored here. The second text I would suggest would be James Baldwin's 'The Fire Next Time,' where you have a literary genius tied to prophetic witness."

One thing you can guarantee won't be a part of Dr. West coming to your campus is a canned speech. "Oh no," he says emphatically, "It shifts from speech to speech and context to context relative to the campus and what the event is, as well as relative to the group that invites me. I happen to be highly flexible in that regard."

Perhaps it is this flexibility (obviously combined with his great intellect) that leads so many "talking heads" to have Dr. West on their programs. CNN's Anderson Cooper, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and many other major media presences regularly tap Dr. West for a measured and balanced opinion on the issues. In fact Dr. West takes great pride in his ability to bridge the gap and become a middle ground between extremes. "Oh sure, that is part of my calling as a democratic intellectual. I believe in connecting the life of the mind, where often we can have our heads in the clouds, while our feet remain on the ground. We work on the ground and the connection between head and feet is an important one and something I view as very important in my own calling."

Greg Polvere, of Global Talent Headquarters, who has worked with Dr. West for over 15 years, comments on how well he adapts to any situation and why he is an ideal choice for campus. "Dr. West gives a completely unique experience to each campus he attends. He offers literally a lifetime of memories and ideas and anyone that listens to him will carry those forever. These are ideas that might pop into someone's mind 15 or 20 years down the line when a particular situation arises and the words he spoke are going to resonate still."

Working with Dr. West for so long, one understands this intimates how genuine, personable and gratifying he is to work with. "The reason I have worked with Dr. West for so long is because he is completely honest, personable and impassioned. That is exactly what you want when working with a speaker, whether booking or buying. My relationship with Dr. West started in 1994, he has always been someone I wanted to be affiliated with. From a working standpoint he is a man with many varied interests and passions, but he is an amazing person."

A firmly held tenet for Dr. West is that we should not divide and create a war between sides, but learn that open and honest communication between differing views is the key to our goal of cultural harmony. "Robert George is one of the leading conservative intellectuals in America. We teach courses together at Princeton and have lectured all around the country. We have a magnificent time and in fact just spent some time at the Catholic Diocese in New Jersey a couple months ago. I believe in dialogue. Again as a democratic intellectual, democracy survives by means of high quality public exchange and debate, mediated with respect."

BOOK IT! Let Dr. Cornel West open up these ideas and principles to the students on your campus, who surely will not walk away with the same notions as when they entered. Spirited, intellectual debate and continuing lifelong education are endeavors we can all get behind, and this is one intensely inspiring man with the ability to set us on that path. Contact Greg Polvere at HQ Speakers for more information at (347) 385-6879 or