June 6, 2007: Features
What’s the big idea?
Professors Cornel West *80 and Robert George, ideological opponents, are unlikely partners in this popular freshman seminar
By Merrell Noden ’78
Having touched upon such profound notions as free will, autonomy, and the alienation of man from God, the discussion of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” is humming along nicely when Cornel West *80, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion, poses the afternoon’s toughest question. “Who’s been deeply in love?” he asks, leaning so far forward in his chair that his goatee is almost touching the table as he looks around him at the rapt faces of 15 Princeton freshmen.
That’s not a question most students feel comfortable answering in a setting as public as a freshman seminar. There is silence until Dov Kaufmann, showing the sort of pluck you’d expect from a former first sergeant in the Israeli army, raises his hand, tentatively at first. If he is about to fall into a trap, it will be particularly awkward to climb out, since the climbing will have to be done in front of 14 curious classmates. But Kaufmann is spared having to make any further confessions when West steps in and rescues him: “Now, this brother knows!” he exclaims. “You fall in love, you stop looking at those other girls. They became uninteresting.”
“Now, let’s not look too closely,” laughs Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, who teaches the course with West and is sitting next to him.
But West is not to be deterred. He wants to bring the point around to the freedom that comes, paradoxically, from surrender. “When you fell in love, you became free,” he tells Kaufmann. “Before that, on Saturday night, you’d be looking at all the girls. You were a slave.”
It is a witty eureka! moment, one that deftly links Augustine’s 1,600-year-old autobiography to life on the Princeton campus today. Kaufmann remembers it fondly: “Professor West seemed to maybe have some hidden story of his own, because he was really smiling too,” he says. “I thought that was neat.”
While the discussions in Freshman Seminar 164 — “Great Books: Ideas and Arguments” — do not always hit so close to home, they inevitably yield some of the deepest, most probing conversations on campus. Later in the discussion they turn toward Monica, Augustine’s mother. “Why,” asks Bobby Addis, “is Monica able to be so faithful when she hasn’t gone through all that Augustine has?”
“Right,” George says, then focuses the question. “How can Monica get to a quiet heart without going through all the weeping and anxiety, when it takes Augustine all that sinning and wrestling to get there?”
Sam Borchard has an answer. “I would posit a difference in human experience. Monica found it earlier and was satisfied, whereas Augustine had to struggle for it.”
“I’d argue most people have some sort of struggle,” adds classmate Jordan Moses. “Monica’s would be watching her son go through the struggle.”
“There is so much in here that Professor West and I have trouble keeping our mouths shut,” George tells the class, referring to the Confessions, though he could just as easily have been talking about Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato’s Gorgias, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, or any one of the other great works of literature and philosophy the class has wrestled with.
“This class is the reason I came to Princeton,” says Addis. “You’ve got two of the most distinguished faculty members, and they’re teaching freshmen, in a small class. It was the last seminar in the course listings. The name jumped out at me first. Then, when I saw it was [to be taught by] Cornel West and Robert George, I was shocked. I thought, ‘Wow!’ I know people who would have applied but thought they had no chance of getting in.” The registrar’s office won’t say how many freshmen applied for those 15 coveted spots, but Deputy Registrar Robert Bromfield acknowledges that it was a “wildly popular” choice.
And no wonder: Not only are West and George two of Princeton’s finest teachers and best-known public intellectuals, they are also — outwardly at least — one of its oddest couples. “He’s tall and I’m short,” jokes George before acknowledging that their differences run deeper than that. “He’s a man of the left and I’m on the conservative side of the ledger. We certainly have many important differences on moral and political questions, but there have been points of similarity and agreement that have come out as well.”
Of course, in this time of venomous political polarization, it’s their differences that make them such an intriguing pair. George is a conservative Catholic and a member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. He is an extremely articulate advocate for conservative causes. Indeed, during the class on St. Augustine there was no time for the usual coffee break because George had to rush off to catch a plane to the Vatican, where he’d been invited to give a talk on “Democracy and Human Rights,” the only American scholar to be so honored. Despite the thrill that this must have been for him, George had to be virtually pushed out of the door by West to catch his ride to the airport. “It was almost as if he didn’t want to leave,” recalls Addis. “Professor West said, ‘We’re talking about the pope. You’ve got to go meet the pope.’”
A few weeks later it was West who was off to meet a world leader, though of a very different stripe: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
“There’s no doubt that ideologically we’re an odd couple,” allows West. “There’s no way he’s going to be working with Bush and I’m going to be such a strong critic of Bush and [we would] not have strong ideological differences. But we’re discovering in the class that we even have similarities we didn’t realize. One is having a deep Christian faith, but Christians have always been at odds with each other. But you have to have a strong personal chemistry in order to teach a class together and, most importantly, to unsettle your students with these texts.”
If the students thought they were signing up for ringside seats to a sort of ideological duel to the death — the undercard to Ann Coulter mud-wrestling Noam Chomsky — they have mostly been disappointed. “I was expecting right from the start that they’d be battling it out, and I was excited to see that,” admits Becky Harper. “But I’ve been really surprised at how consistent their ideas have been. And I’ve found that their different viewpoints tend to augment the discussion more.” Though she came to Princeton leaning toward majoring in civil engineering, Harper has found the class so exciting that she now is considering going in a different direction and studying the humanities.
What she and her classmates have been watching is the blossoming of a deep friendship, based on a shared passion for intellectual inquiry. “It’s a labor of love for both of us, and I have found it extraordinarily rewarding,” says George. “It’s wonderful for a scholar and a teacher to have the opportunity week in and week out to engage with a very serious intellectual with whom one has serious disagreements, but also important points of commonality. You just learn so much; you refine your thinking so well in the process.”
The professors’ friendship began a few years ago when a student both had taught, Andrew Perlmutter ’06, approached West for help with the magazine he was starting on campus. It was to be called Green Light, and each issue was to include an interview of one faculty member by another. When Perlmutter asked West to pick someone he’d like to interview, West didn’t hesitate: “I told him I’d like to have a dialogue with Professor George because he’s viewed as such a conservative.” The two men knew each other slightly, but never had had a long conversation about anything serious.
On the appointed day, Perlmutter and West came to George’s office with a tape recorder. The two professors talked for an hour, turned the tape over and talked again. When the tape ran out, they kept right on going, out the door to George’s car, where they stood for another half hour, debating everything from life on the Princeton campus to deep questions of religion and politics.
“We wore each other out and were exhausted,” recalls George. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Not long afterward, George was asked to teach a freshman seminar. Still tingling with the exhilaration and excitement of that long talk, George immediately thought of West, who wasn’t just game, but eager. Each nominated books that had meant the most to him during his own intellectual development — not only the staples of Western civilization, but also more obscure works, like the Prison Notebooks of the early 20th-century Italian communist Antonio Gramsci and the American Catholic philosopher John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. Every text has worked very well, they say.
“We teach what we call ‘Great Books,’ but we don’t teach them as museum pieces in the history of ideas,” says George. “These are living arguments for us. St. Augustine, Sophocles ... they are as alive now to Professor West and me as they were in their time.”
West and George say they are relishing the feeling of déjà vu they get from revisiting their own intellectual awakening. George first read Plato’s Gorgias while an underclassman at Swarthmore. “It was so important to my intellectual odyssey. It just turned me around,” he says. “It’s a wonderful book that raises the question of why we engage in the enterprise of argument: Do we do it for victory? Seeking to persuade? Or do we do it in pursuit of truth for its own sake, as something to be desired even if it yields results that you wish were otherwise? It’s Plato presenting the sophists at their best, not as straw men, but as people with a serious point of view.”
The one book on the list that George had not read previously was Martin Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and that, too, was a big hit. “I was just so pleased that [West] put it on the list,” he says, “since I think I was missing the most powerful piece of polemical writing, whether in religion or politics, I had ever read. I could see Luther’s genius in a way I hadn’t before. He makes a very powerful case for the Reformation. As a Catholic, it’s interesting for me to read something like that.”
The two professors are enthusiasts, a fact that comes across not only during the seminar but any time they get rolling on most any subject. No sooner does a visitor to West’s office remark upon the copy of Middlemarch sitting on his desk than West snatches it up and begins rhapsodizing about the final sentence, the one extolling small acts of goodness. “You’d have to go to Tolstoy to find something deeper than that,” he says.
When they get on a roll, the allusions fly: In the class on St. Augustine, there were references to Weber, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Hume, Plato, Shelley, Beckett, and even Sly and the Family Stone. When West brought up John Dewey, they turned to each other, possessed simultaneously, it seemed, by the same excited thought: Maybe next time they could include Dewey’s A Common Faith on the syllabus? It’s all such a dazzling display of effortless erudition that one worries it might intimidate freshmen. But the students say that they don’t mind being the audience.
“There are definitely times when they get going and you don’t want to interrupt,” admits Addis. “A lot of the class is about asking their opinion on something. That’s what we’re interested in.” Merritt Hummer agrees: “We actually like it because it shows their brotherly affection for each other.”
The two have very different pedagogical styles. While George is a fairly conventional presence in the classroom, West is a born showman, as befits someone who appeared in two Matrix movies. He uses his long fingers like busy batons to conduct a symphony of ideas. They point up, then trace circles and point down. At other times they resemble spiders scuttling excitedly across the table, tracing webs of ideas.
You might suppose that the two professors’ growing friendship depends on their steering carefully around certain delicate subjects, but you’d be wrong. “We have a friendship and respect for each other that means not only that we don’t have to tread carefully, but that it wouldn’t be right to tread carefully. It would be disrespectful to tread carefully,” says George. “We’re in the business of speaking candidly to each other and engaging our differences. It wouldn’t dawn on either of us to express any incivility toward each other because we have too much respect for each other.”
In a sense, they complement each other. When freshman class vice president Fatu Conteh, who fled civil war in her native Sierra Leone, brings up the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, West quotes directly from Luke 15:17: “ ‘And when he came to himself ...’” says West. “That’s a powerful phrase in the King James Version.”
“That’s why I’m always glad to have my Protestant brothers around,” George says with a laugh. “They can recite chapter and verse.”
Indeed, one wonders whether what makes the class work so well is that they are so different. Would George be quite as excited if he were teaching alongside someone who agreed with him right down the line? It’s the contrast that strikes sparks.
“It’s two smart people seeing the same thing in a different way, which is really a main theme of the class,” says Addis. “Professor George asked us, ‘Are you entitled to your opinion?’ Someone said, yes, and he went on to say, no — not unless you can make the case for the other side just as well. You have to earn the right to hold an opinion.”
West points to the Greek concept of paideia, which George defines as “the idea that we move forward toward understanding, toward knowledge and truth, by engaging the very best considerations and arguments to be made on one side of the question and the very best arguments to be made on the other side.”
While both men are devout Christians, that presents no problem for the students who do not share their faith. “I like being in a class where both professors are religious,” says Hummer, who came to Princeton from a Catholic high school but says her own faith has faded, “because there’s a stereotype of the Ivy League as secularized and godless. I might not agree with them, but I like [hearing their opinions].”
Everyone seems to agree that some of the liveliest discussions are those that touch upon contemporary subjects. In the middle of the semester the students read W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which produced a conversation about race, a topic that abounds on the Princeton campus.
“Would an ideal society be colorblind?” George asks. “[In an ideal society,] would we even notice that Professor West is black, that Professor George is white? And if we did, would we lose some of what makes life interesting?”
Here is one subject on which the two men do disagree. George believes that a colorblind society is worth striving for, while West disagrees, arguing that race is, at least in America, an inescapable fact and about much more than skin color. “Once you make the distinction between race as phenotype versus race as culture and history, then there’s no doubt that the Louis Armstrongs and the Duke Ellingtons are going to be different from the Paul Whitemans and the Benny Goodmans,” he says. “Not because they are better human beings, but because they are bringing a culture and history that Goodman and Whiteman are not. They are bringing a very rich history, but not the same history. So it’s not just a matter of phenotype.”
After alluding to certain groups that feel alienated on the Princeton campus, West finally identifies one such group as African-Americans.
“Ahhh,” says George, as if finally seeing the light. “I thought you were talking about conservatives.” Everyone laughs.
“We had a wonderful dialogue about it,” recalls West later. “And we began to see that actually there was significant overlap [in our views]. Robby wanted colorblindness precisely because he wanted to affirm humanity.”
The seminar has gone so well, for students and professors alike, that the two friends plan to teach it again, and are discussing ways to accommodate more students. “We are toying with the idea of doing it as a lecture course,” says George, “of arguing back and forth with each other over the course of the lecture while leaving room at the end for questions and comments. And then try to do something about the precepts together.”
When George made that trip to the Vatican, he came home bearing gifts: two rosaries presented to him by the pope himself. He gave one to West, who, for once, was almost speechless. “Even a Protestant like myself is very moved by that!” West says later. “The pope gave him two and brother Robby came back and gave me one! I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Brother West, we are having such a good time together!’”
West shakes his head again, as if he can’t believe his good fortune. “Woooo!” he exclaims. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to have that wonderful chemistry with somebody.”
Freelance writer Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.