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Skidmore College

Cornel West, Robert P. George discuss the future of liberal education

March 24, 2021
by James Helicke

Robert P. George and Cornel West, two leading public intellectuals with strikingly differing political opinions and philosophical views, discussed their enduring friendship and shared commitment to the values inherent to a liberal arts education.  

George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, spoke live with West, a leading philosopher, author, activist and social critic, during a virtual discussion about the future of liberal education with the Skidmore community. 

The March 23 event was part of the Periclean Honors Forum’s ongoing Policy Debate series, which brings distinguished thinkers, writers and practitioners to Skidmore to debate and discuss a philosophical, political or ethical topic of great public concern.  

Despite differences of opinion on important political and social issues, George and West are close friends and staunch supporters of the continuing relevance of a liberal arts education in contemporary society. 

“One of the things that brings Cornel and me together — that brought us together originally and keeps us working together — is a concern for liberal arts education and the future of liberal arts,” said George. Liberal arts educations are “soul shaping. They teach us to seek and to love truth. They teach us to be lifelong learners; they equip us with certain qualities of mind and soul.”  

Throughout the evening, George and West discussed their differing philosophical and political views and emphasized the importance of dialogue. They answered a variety of questions on topics ranging from religion to favorite books and George’s love for the banjo. President Marc C. Conner and Associate Professor of Political Science Flagg Taylor moderated the discussion.  

Although the conversation was filled with references to philosophical treatises, works of literature and speeches, the tone remained light, with the two longtime friends often joking with each other. 

“Thank you so much Brother Rob. It's just always a blessing to take in what you have to say, always a blessing to be able to let the world know that my love for you is not reducible to your politics — even when you're wrong,” West said, drawing laughter from George. “We learn from each other. Our friendship cuts so much deeper than any disagreement on public policy.” 

Both bemoaned increasingly political and social tribalization in the country and stressed the importance of advancing strong arguments while taking positions on important issues.  

“In a liberal education, the question has become how do we attempt to get people out of their egos, out of their tribes, out of their silos and out of their narrowness and broadening — not by erasing their roots, but by building on the best of the roots for the routes that (they) take,” West said.  

West and George said the purpose of dialogue is not to refute another’s position but to inch toward truth.  

“I don't think of how do I get Cornel to think like me — that's just not my goal. That's not my job. It’s not even what I want because I could be wrong,” George said.  “We need to model the love of truth over the love of one's own opinions.” 

George has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He also served as the U.S. member of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. His honors include the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal, the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland and Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. 

West has published more than 20 books. Professor emeritus at Princeton University, West recently announced that he would leave his position as professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and return to Union Theological Seminary, where he started his teaching career and will hold the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair. 

The event was sponsored by the Periclean Honors Forum and the Office of the President and made possible through a gift from Janice Billingsley ’68. 

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