Conversations with Robert George '77 and Cornel West

Amid the difficult campus conversations at Swarthmore in Spring 2013, many students, alumni, faculty, and staff grew concerned about the ways in which community members were (and, in many ways, weren't) engaging each other. Alumni and friends of the College expressed support, and a few offered to help in whatever ways they could. Princeton professor Robert George, Swarthmore Class of 1977, and fellow Princeton professor Cornel West talked about how they were teaching together and working with students to develop the skills of talking fruitfully across political, ideological, and other differences. Conversation ensued about the possibility of their discussing their experiences with our students, faculty, and staff. Professors George and West agreed to visit campus and help us think about what it means for intellectuals to learn from each other despite deep differences on important questions.

Dr. George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and "this country's most influential conservative Christian thinker," according to The New York Times. His books include Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, In Defense of Natural Law, and, most recently, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. He is Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and previously served on the President's Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He has been awarded the United States Presidential Citizens Medal, the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland, and many honorary degrees. He is an accomplished bluegrass banjo player and finger style guitarist.

Dr. West is a professor emeritus of African American studies at Princeton and is honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. His books include The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Race Matters, and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. He has taught at Harvard and Yale, as well as Princeton, and is currently a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has appeared as "Councillor West" in two Matrix films and has done hip hop, soul, and spoken word recordings. He holds more than twenty honorary degrees and has received special recognition from the World Cultural Council. He is co-host with Tavis Smiley, of the radio show Smiley and West, and is co-founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. His autobiography is entitled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

Together, Professors George and West have co-taught seminars at Princeton and have built a close friendship. Recently, when Professor George was sworn in at the Supreme Court as Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, Professor West accompanied him to hold the bible-a bible that had been owned by the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Professor West quipped that this was the first time he had been to the Supreme Court to do something other than be arrested in a protest! Despite their serious political differences, the two scholars and activists share a passion for pursuing truth, living with integrity, and engaging in honest, thoughtful self-critical dialogue.

The Institute for the Liberal Arts is pleased to welcome these two distinguished guests to campus to continue to help us think about who we are as a college and to help us talk fruitfully despite our differences of opinion. We hope to learn from them how better to learn from each other. They will visit campus twice, once to meet with smaller groups of students and faculty and a second time to participate in a community-wide Collection open to all students, faculty, and staff. Their visits to campus will help stimulate discussion on these and other important questions:

  • Why are we here at a liberal arts college?
  • What does it mean to be committed collectively to justice when we have different conceptions of justice?
  • What is our role in a changing world?
  • What should a Swarthmore education be? Job training? Education for citizenship? To be a learned person?
  • What does it mean to communicate across differences regarding what is "right" or "wrong"? How do we talk about ethics and morality without resorting to calling others stupid or evil?
  • How can we remain true to our own deep convictions while maintaining respect for, and civility toward, those who have reached sharply different conclusions?
  • Can reasonable, well-intentioned people disagree fundamentally on ethical or moral issues?
  • How do we maintain an intellectual milieu that welcomes dissent and is free from orthodoxies of opinion that stifle discussion and encourage conformity of thought?