From Plato’s “Apology”:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
This is the quote Dr. Cornel West used to open his speech on February 11, 2011 at the University of La Verne. Walking into the newly refurbished Morgan Auditorium before the event began, I knew he was going to speak about Black History, but other than that I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know too much about him, only that he is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Princeton University. However, after hearing him spout off lines of Plato and Socrates like he wrote them himself, I knew that I was going to enjoy this experience.
“Life is all about growing and changing,” he said, “what kind of human will you choose to be between the womb and the tomb.” I never really thought about it that way. Sure, I grow physically and change in certain ways, but I always assumed that this just comes with getting older and accumulating knew experiences and developing as a human being. I was hoping he would elaborate on this subject, and he did… for about an hour and a half.
He used education and schooling as an example, in order to make his words more clear to the audience. I was wondering why he used the terms education and schooling as if they had two different meanings. Schooling, he said, “is learning skills for the workplace and education is learning how to die.” I’m not a wordsmith like Dr. West, but a philosophy I’ve developed during my high school and college career, is that you go to school to learn how to follow. By that I mean follow directions, follow schedules and follow whatever else there is to follow. These are the skills Dr. West is talking about when he talks about schooling. As much as we don’t like it, there are lessons to be learned. I assumed he meant this is the boring, monotonous part of learning that keeps a lot of people out of school.
What Dr. West meant when he said, “learning how to die,” is that an education helps us understand how to think critically by ourselves, come up with our own opinion and make our own decisions. This is easier said that done, of course. He goes on to talk about courage, and how it plays a major role in getting a true education.
In today’s society, Dr. West explains, we are very interested in spectacle, or the image that we portray. This spectacle is a big part of American culture, and hinders people from standing up and having courage. “Spectacle has no sense of history, no pride,” he says. People will do whatever they have to in order to attain the image that society has deemed as important, that status, that spectacle. In the process of doing so, they lose their ability to think critically, and with that, they lose their individual identity as well. In a society based on materialism, it is easy to follow blindly; after all, everyone else is doing it, and so nobody is really going to chastise you for doing it too. We live day to day in the presence of other people’s opinions, and we rarely think for ourselves. Courage is what allows growth and change in a human being, without it we cannot live up to our potential, and essentially die improperly.
“Courage is fighting for something bigger than yourself,” West said, when he started talking about Black History. He used the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as an example in order to explain further what courage is. The Civil Rights movement involved groups of people coming together and analyzing the situation they were in and changing that situation. His speech was trickled with examples of powerful figures during the Civil Rights Movement, explaining that these individuals had courage.
The last lesson I received from Dr. West had to do with racism. He explained that racism happens because of a Revolution of Priorities. We make finding differences in people important, and racism occurs when we view differences in such a way that cause tension between people. Just because we are different does not mean that we should treat someone differently. We try to avoid this problem trying not to notice peoples’ differences, for example, skin color, by telling ourselves, “I don’t see color when I look at someone, I just see another human being.” That would be okay to do if that were possible, but unless we’re literally blind, that can’t happen. Saying, “I didn’t even notice your skin color,” to someone will most likely offend them, even though you didn’t mean to. “What do you mean you didn’t notice my skin color?” Differences are a good thing, but in order to live cohesively we cannot talk about those differences in a way that downplays the individual, because when we do that, we downplay society in the process.
What I didn’t expect out of an Ivy League professor was a sense of humor. A lot of Ivy League professors have the reputation of being very intelligent, but extremely dry and boring. Dr. West was anything but dry and boring. His humor made hearing him speak so enjoyable. He spoke seriously and assertively, but not so much that he created tension in the room. He spoke with such enthusiasm and fervor it made me wish I were black, so I could completely understand where he was coming from, so I too could feel the way he feels. I was very lucky to hear him speak that day. There were hundreds of people in line, waiting to hear him, a lot of which did not get a seat. I got a seat, and I’m very glad I did. Hey, Cornel West… FANTASTIC!
You can follow Dr. West on Twitter: @CornelWest