Classical Education as a Means to Justice: A Conversation with Dr. Cornel West

On August 4, Brilla Schools had the distinct honor of hosting Dr. Cornel West for a wide-ranging conversation entitled “Classical Education as a Means to Justice.” Dr. West is the former Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Cornel West graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has written twenty books and has edited thirteen.  He has a passion to communicate to a vast variety of audiences in order to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.

We are pleased to be able to share with you the full recording of the inspiring conversation here. Dr. West was interviewed by Brilla’s Chief Academic Officer, Mr. Michael Carbone. As this is an exclusive interview for the Brilla community, we ask that you please refrain from sharing the recording on social media. Check out some highlights of the conversation below!

Mr. Michael Carbone: Can you tell us a little about your educational journey and the role a classical education played in your own success?

Dr. Cornel West: “I am who I am because somebody loved me, and they cared for me, and they attended to me, beginning with Irene and Clifton West . . . So when I think of education at its deepest level, I think of that formation in the West family. The concerns about integrity and honesty and decency. Generosity to others. Trying to be kind and gentle and sweet to others. And it was inseparable from Shiloh Baptist Church, which was on the Choctaw side. The side where I grew up, in the Choctaw ghetto, in Sacramento . . . the two great legacies—the Socratic legacy of Athens, and the prophetic legacy of Jerusalem—were fundamental in terms of my formal intellectual education. But it was already rooted in what had taken place in the West family and the Shiloh Baptist Church there in Sacramento. And so in that sense, you know, you’ve got this yearning for learning. And linking the learning to giving and loving was always a part of my own formation. Now I’ve fallen far, far short . . . No one of us has a monopoly of truth, or a monopoly of beauty, or a monopoly of goodness. But together, accenting our common humanity in our society or public life, we might be able to be forces for good.”

MC: What do you mean by classics and by classical education? 

CW: “Well, I think any time we use the word classical, we mean two things. We mean that it is on the one hand timeless, and on the other hand, timely. Which is another way of saying there are certain truths that are perennial, that are timeless, but are applicable to every particular historical moment. So they’re as timely as one can conceive of, but they hold across culture, across individuals, across societies and so on, what you are calling enduring truths. And I think that’s very, very important. I think it’s very clear that we all have a deep need to be loved and to learn how to love. Not just ourselves, not just our friends and family . . . So any time we use the word classical, associated with timeless and timely, the question is: what are the ways in which we can cultivate the forms of love, self, neighbor, stranger, enemy, truth, goodness, beauty . . . And I don’t think there’s any higher conception of being human than that kind of wrestling with these forms of love. And that sits at the center of classical education.”

MC: Brilla has three principles: human dignity, enduring truths, and free choice. Can you offer us your reflection on these principles and their necessity for living a flourishing life?

CW: “What I love about the stoic talk about dignity, or the Judaic and Christian [and] Islamic talk about the sanctity of life, is that it gets us to see our humanity, which is always deeper than skin pigmentation and sexual orientation and class position and national identity.”

“Free choice [is] the ability to grow, develop, and mature by means of the decisions we make, the commitments we make, the choices we make. [We are] not reducible to just our environment. It’s not reducible to whatever neighborhood or hood we grow up in. No. Not at all. Louis Armstrong comes from the hood-hood in Astoriaville, and ends up being one of the greatest revolutionary musical artists of the twentieth century . . . it’s the choices that he makes. It’s the cultivation of his gifts. It’s the realization of his dreams. But he reminds us, of course, dreams come true, but [they are] not free. Not free. There’s a cost. There’s a risk you have to take. There’s a burden you have to bear. And then you gotta cut against the grain.”

MC: In a recent Op-Ed in The Washington Post, you wrote: “Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline, and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization, or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.” How do you reconcile the best of Western civilization for Black and Brown students and families while still honoring its shortfalls in a way that might still inspire confidence in the best ideas of western civilization?

CW: “Every empire by a human being has been tied to some forms of cruelty, barbarity, or crimes against humanism. So when we talk about the best of the West, we’re talking about those persons who mustered the courage to think critically. To have a compassionate soul in their quest for truth, goodness, beauty, and the holy. And they all did that under circumstances of civilization and empire. And so these days, there’s such a preoccupation with the crimes [of the West]. And we understand that the crimes are ugly and vicious and atrocious. But it’s not as if we should ever allow the crimes to downplay the best of the ideals, and the values and the virtues. Even when the people themselves didn’t apply it.”

MC: What would you say to a teacher who might feel uncomfortable teaching students classical texts in which their students are not represented racially or culturally?

CW: “Well one is that we want to recognize what [the Roman playwright] Terence said when he said: ‘Nothing human ought to be alien to us’ . . . So the idea that Socrates and Plato somehow are not part of my tradition, because they don’t look like me, needs to be radically called into question. And it cuts the other way too. Toni Morrison. Ralph Ellison. Prince. And Prince just dropped a record yesterday, Welcome To America.  And you got people all around the world –  white, red, yellow, brown, indigenous peoples – they say, “Prince is my man.” They’re right. But they’re not Black. But they have a human connection… Wherever human beings find themselves in a serious conversation they learn from one another. All of our cultures are hybrid cultures. Which is to say they proceed by means of cross-fertilization from one culture to another.”

MC: How can a classical education have, or why maybe, does a classical education have the most potential to bring about justice and liberation for Black and Brown students in their communities?

CW: “Classical education in the end is about the unleashing, and the freeing, and the liberating of that which is inside of one, and trying to direct it toward wise and compassionate quests for truth, goodness, and beauty. And so there is a connection between truth and freedom. There’s a connection between goodness and liberation. There’s a connection between beauty and being in power. And we want persons to be free. We want them to be liberated. We want them to be in power and enabled and ennobled in that way . . . So the idea that somehow, you know, classical education is not for a certain group in and of itself has its own narrowness, really. And it cuts the other way. The people who think, for example, that classical education is only for Europeans, then it shows the degree to which they have not been liberated from their own parochialism. Because there’s a whole host of non-European sources of high classical achievement, high classical wisdom, insight, compassion, love and so forth. Again, back to our common humanity. Back to our public life. And back to our need for each other’s voices.”

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