Common ground and liberal education
By Scott St. Louis
Glancing at the labels affixed to professors Robert George and Cornel West makes their fruitful working relationship appear a surprising one. George, the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, has been described by the New York Times as “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” West is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary – a prominent activist and prolific scholar of religion, gender, class and race in the United States – and identifies more fully with the left side of our society’s much too simple (and often downright tribalistic) political dichotomy.
On the evening of Thursday, April 2, the two self-described “sparring partners,” who have taught classes together, came to the Eberhard Center for the finale of this term’s “American Conversations” series, hosted by the Common Ground Initiative of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.
Though they disagree – sometimes profoundly – on a number of serious issues, both George and West recognize that the vapid, stereotype-ridden labels we apply to public figures often facilitate a persistent, and even willful, neglect of the world’s complexity.
When, in George’s words, citizens of any background “fall in love with their own opinions” and abandon intellectual humility and honest dialogue in search of (hollow) victory, our society falls further into cynicism and apathy, exacerbating the sclerotic tendencies of our political system. Ideological battle lines are drawn between entrenched camps eager to find heroes, turning complicated and ever-changing human beings like George and West into men of marble. Striving only to win, we all lose.
Later that night, I spoke with Dr. West for well over an hour while he enjoyed a meal. Our conversation engaged many subjects. We discussed the power of oral history as a pedagogical tool to provide students with a frame of reference for understanding difficult postmodern theories on power and oppression. We discussed our mutual concern that, in an age of STEM frenzy, the challenges faced by humanities disciplines come not only from daunting external pressures, but also from an arguable failure of the academic tenure and promotion system to reward sufficiently public engagement when it is seriously attempted by humanities scholars.
Most importantly, we discussed the lasting value of the liberal arts, including an emphasis on broad learning, critical thinking, transferable skills and honest exploration of enduring questions about the human condition. It was here that the common ground I share with Dr. West made me proud to be a Laker.
I am optimistic that GVSU can further strengthen its liberal arts tradition in a number of ways. We must recruit and retain a more diverse body of students in order to enrich our intellectual culture. We must acknowledge that empathy is a feasible and indispensable learning outcome of the liberal education experience. Perhaps most importantly, we must believe in the importance of searching for common ground in a society that is severely fragmented in so many contexts. Discussions of this nature will change our institution for the better.