On March 14, 2017, Dr. Robert George and Dr. Cornel West, high-profile scholars from opposite ends of the political spectrum, published a statement in support of truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought. Their statement (https://jmp.princeton.edu/statement ) begins, “The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.” To date, the statement has more than 5,000 signatories.
Dr. George and Dr. West have been described as an ideological odd couple. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, is one of the country’s leading conservative intellectuals. Dr. West, a professor of public philosophy and African and African-American studies at Harvard University, is a self-described “provocative democratic intellectual.”
Yet, despite their differences, they have been teaching a course together at Princeton for a decade. They do this, in part, to model the kind of integrity, openness of argument and love of truth that their students are going to need, not only in their education but also for the preservation of a free society.
In my interview with both of them, they modeled to me all of this and much more. I was so moved by my conversation, I decided it was necessary to print a transcript of the full hour-long dialogue I had with Professors West and George. The dialogue is long, but worthy of your full attention. I believe it will inspire readers to once again — or, perhaps, for the first time — fall in love with learning for learning’s sake, and to rededicate themselves to the project of civic renewal. I believe this work has never been more important than it is right now.
Julie Silverbrook: What motivated the two of you to issue your statement in support of “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression”?
Robert George: Brother Cornel and I are both what he aptly describes as “old school humanists.” We believe that education is fundamentally about truth seeking, about seeking knowledge of the truth, about seeking wisdom, about seeking understanding. And we recognize that that can only be done in circumstances of freedom — that is, circumstances in which people are free, and know they are free, and feel free to follow the evidence and the arguments wherever they may lead. And people need to be able to interact with each other honestly, expressing opinions, marshalling arguments, offering criticisms.
Knowledge seeking is not an individual enterprise. Of course, we as individuals seek knowledge, but we do it — and we do it best — when we’re collaborating with other people. That’s why we have universities, and research institutes. We need circumstances of freedom in order to do that. And when we restrict freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought — we undermine the conditions that make truth seeking possible.
And what I’ve just said about truth seeking and education is also relevant to the democratic enterprise, the enterprise of self-government. If we are going to govern ourselves as people, in a democracy, we need to feel free and be free to communicate with each other, to marshal evidence and arguments, to go out into the public square and make one’s case. If we restrict speech, even if our motives are good, even if we are trying to prevent people from being offended, or prevent people from being insulted, or prevent people from suffering what is sometimes called “dignitary harm,” no matter how good our motives are, if we restrict the honest expression of ideas and arguments, we undermine our capacity for democratic governance. So Cornel and I brought those two concerns together in our statement.
Cornel West: Brother Robby and I long ago fell in love with the quest for truth, and so we recognize truth is bigger than all of us — bigger than politics, ideology, race, gender, sexual orientation. That the quest for truth is one that requires always taking a risk, always being open-minded and vulnerable in the quest, given our fallibility, and, at this particular moment, in which America is so polarized, Balkanized, that it was a wonderful idea. Brother Robby brought it to me, and I said yes, indeed, let’s do this together. We’ve been doing this for more than a decade together. We’ve been teaching together, and we’ve been lecturing together, and it’s all motivated by that shared love of truth.
Robert George: We are not afraid to express controversial opinions — out loud and in public — but both of us recognize that, on any particular issue in dispute among reasonable people of goodwill, we could be wrong. And the only way we are going to be corrected, if we are wrong, is to engage with other people in circumstances of freedom, so they have the opportunity to identify a flaw in an argument I have made or a defect in the evidence I have presented.
And we both recognize that if somebody does that — someone shows us that we’re wrong about something or we’ve drawn a conclusion that isn’t rationally warranted — that person is not our enemy. That person is our best friend. Even if it’s embarrassing to be refuted or contradicted in public, there’s still nothing more important than the possession of the truth.
So someone who has moved you by argument, by reason, by evidence, from error to truth or nearer to truth, is someone whom you should honor and to whom you should be grateful. Because, as Cornel rightly says — the truth is bigger than all of us, and nobody is going to get it perfectly right all the time. So we must all just do our best to get as near to truth as we can.
Julie Silverbrook: How many signatories does the statement have as of the date of this interview?
Robert George: Nearly 5,000.
Julie Silverbrook: Are the signatories primarily academics or do they represent a much broader cross-segment of the general population?
Robert George: We invited everyone to sign. We didn’t restrict it to academics. Now, the majority of the signers are academically affiliated — faculty members or current students or people involved in university life at some level. But we also have people from all walks of life who have heard about the statement and signed on.
The one that is most moving to me is a janitor who works at a university in Ohio. He sent an email saying that as a person who works for a university, albeit not in a professorial role, just as a member of the janitorial staff, he feels that he has a stake in the success of the educational process and that he believes every word of what Brother Cornel and I say in the statement.
So he wanted to add his signature. Let me tell you something — that signature means more to me than the signature of the president of Harvard (who, as it happens, has not signed). Here is a person who understands the importance of intellectual life, the importance of our educational institutions, and the importance of the values that Brother Cornel and I are defending here.
Cornel West: That’s beautiful.
Julie Silverbrook: I think people like that are moved by what they are seeing on college campuses, and the perception that there is growing intellectual intolerance on college campuses across the nation. I’m curious what you think are the root causes of this trend today?
Cornel West: I think there are a number of explanations. One of the explanations has to do with the fact that we live in a predatory capitalist civilization, which makes it difficult to sustain high-quality public life. It has to do with public health care and public transportation, but especially public conversation. Once you begin to lose the art of public conversation, then you end up with finger-pointing and name-calling. And this leads to a shutdown of conversation, and you end up staying in one’s own silo or one’s own bubble and not wanting to enter the public debate without humiliation.
There’s a wonderful line from Walt Whitman that the benchmark of a democratic society is the feeling that people can enter the public space without humiliation and that they will be respected. And that’s very much what we are losing. There are a bunch of causes, but one of them has to do with the impulse to privatize, privatize, privatize. Of course, the private sector does play an important role, but once a predatory capitalist society spills over and becomes a soulcraft and begins to shape how we organize ourselves — just toward the private, just toward ego rather than community and public space, and connecting with others. I think this is one of the explanations. There are others having to do with politics, the low quality of politics on both sides of aisle.
Robert George: I want recall a very important point that Cornel made earlier in the conversation. He used that word “vulnerability.” When we enter into truth seeking and debate, we render ourselves vulnerable. We can be embarrassed, we can be humiliated when it turns out that a point we thought was valid, under scrutiny and criticism from an interlocutor, turns out not to be valid.
Now we human beings, we wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is good because it motivates us to act for the things we believe in, but it also has a bad side, when we become too attached to them and too resistant to criticism. We can worship our opinions and value them above truth. We can turn our opinions into an idol, and engage in a kind of idolatry of the self with respect to our opinions. If we are going to avoid all of those vices, we are going to have to accept vulnerability when we enter into discussions and dialogue and truth-seeking. Of course, we human beings, we don’t like that and aren’t comfortable doing that, so we want to put up a protective barrier. When someone expresses an opinion that offends us, we want to do something about that; we don’t want it to be heard. It’s an assault on that vulnerable spot.
What Cornel and I have come to understand through long experience — we’re a couple of old guys; we were the young rebels, but now we’re the old guys — what it has taken us many years to understand fully is that you cannot get nearer to the truth without accepting that vulnerability. And the protection of free speech is required so that we do not let that feeling of vulnerability cause us to shut down others’ expressing critical opinions about things we believe in. If the truth-seeking enterprise is going to go anywhere in our institutions of higher learning, then we need the conditions of freedom to be in place, despite that vulnerability.
A word on politics — my own take on this is that we need to recover a sense of the fundamental importance of education as intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally, valuable. We need to recover a sense of liberal arts education as inherently enriching. And to do that, we need to recover the conviction that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake, and not simply as a means to other ends, such as rising up the socioeconomic ladder or getting a better job or working at Goldman Sachs, or getting a position at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore…
There’s nothing wrong with having these ambitions. As a matter of fact, I encourage my students to have vocational ambitions. But we mustn’t treat education as something whose value is merely instrumental to something else. Even if that instrumentalization of education is in the cause of justice-seeking, that’s also a problem. There’s nothing wrong with seeking justice, so long as you have a sound idea of what justice truly is and what it truly requires. But even assuming you’re right about what justice requires, educating yourself so you can be a more effective advocate and activist, that’s a good thing, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if the result is that you treat your education as a mere means, and you lose a sense of the intrinsic value of knowledge and the fundamental purpose of education as seeking the inherent enrichment of the person through knowledge-seeking, then education has lost its way.
And our educational institutions have increasingly lost their grip on the inherent value of education, and are increasingly focusing too much on creating (a) people fitted out to serve in the workforce of the new globalized, technology-driven economy or (b) people who are fitted out to be social activists. And, again, I have no problems in principle with either of those things, but they should be secondary from the university’s point of view. Liberal arts universities have to be fundamentally concerned with the central importance of truth seeking.
I also want to raise a concern I have about identity politics, of which I’ve been intensely critical — whether on the left or the right. Universities have become battlegrounds in a kind of politics that is rooted in identity, that encourages people to think or suppose that they have to think a certain way or embrace a certain ideology because of their race or sex or ethnicity or some other factor about themselves. I see this on the right when it comes to the so-called “alt-right,” of which I’ve been ferociously critical on Twitter. I think the problem here is that they are trying to, from my point of view, hijack the conservative movement and the conservative tradition in the cause of a “blood and soil” type of conservatism, and displacing the traditional American conservativism that is founded in the creed set forth in the Declaration of Independence and effectuated by the Constitution. They are trying to displace what I think is so beautiful and fundamental — the idea of E Pluribus Unum — from many different races, religions, and backgrounds, we are still one. Our unity isn’t based on blood and soil, or a common ethnicity, or a particular religion we all share, but on our common commitment to the ideals and principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. You see it on both sides. You also see it in the identitarian movements on the left — movements that the alt-right is very effectively copying.
Julie Silverbrook: We seem to be getting away from educating our nation’s young people about our shared history. We aren’t teaching this in K-12 education anymore. Do you see a connection between this and the decline in civic virtue and increase in political polarization?
Cornel West: I think so. That’s part of the relative collapse of public life. The decline of civic virtue has to do with the decline of education that is oriented toward truth seeking. A lot of this also has to do with the spiritual blackout that we are experiencing; the eclipse of integrity, honesty and decency. Once you downplay integrity and mendacity is given free reign, you can’t have civic virtue if it’s really about manipulation and trying to be successful by any means, and being obsessed by the Eleventh Commandment — “Thou shall not get caught.” Part of what I call neo-liberal soulcraft, to be the smartest or richest in the room. It’s tied to a foreign policy that puts too high an opinion on bombs. There is less and less space for “old school humanists” like Brother Robby and I in a predatory capitalist society, where the egoism and the narcissism is running amok, and the public life is collapsing. And the interest in engaging in the quest for truth looks like it’s anachronistic rather than something that is indispensable.
Robert George: I agree that the decline of civic education at the K-12 level is extremely worrying. But there is another dimension. It’s not just civic education. It is wisdom seeking generally. What we tend to reward in our educational system — from kindergarten to the doctorate — is smartness, cleverness, skills, but smartness is not the same thing as wisdom or depth of understanding. Now here again, I am not saying we shouldn’t teach skills. And I certainly don’t see any contradiction between rigor of thinking and wisdom seeking. But genuine wisdom seeking has too often been laid aside, so we tend to take more and more technical approaches, narrower approaches, even to humanistic subjects; even the study of Shakespeare or Plato becomes a technical business rather than what it should be — trying to figure out what we can learn about the human condition and about beauty and justice and truth from Shakespeare, Plato and any of the great teachers of humanity. I think we should move toward richer civic education and toward an understanding of education as more oriented toward wisdom and truth seeking and less directed to the acquisition of technical skills.
Cornel and I sometimes teach seminars together at Princeton, and when we’ve done it, we’ve had the joy of inviting our students into dialogue with St. Augustine when they read his “Confessions” or with Machiavelli when they read “The Prince” or with John Stuart Mill or with C.S. Lewis. We’re not teaching them to do a technical analysis or teaching them facts or having them memorize passages. We want them engaging with these thinkers. We don’t want them to just report back to us about what St. Augustine said about the sinfulness of human nature. We want them to use St. Augustine’s thought as the fulcrum to think themselves about the sinfulness of human nature. It doesn’t matter where they come down on that question. Our job is to get them to engage with these great existential questions and to be in dialogue with the great thinkers of history. And that’s a million miles away from technical education or from teaching them to know what St. Augustine said and being able to report that back to us.
Julie Silverbrook: Let me ask a tough question: How do we get back to that and how do we end up with more people like both of you?
Cornel West: I think it comes down fundamentally to example. Immanuel Kant said examples are the go-karts of judgment and we need to have more exemplary people, movements, schools, temples, mosques, synagogues, churches, that inspire people to opt for wisdom over smartness, opt for courage over cowardice, to opt for compassion over cowardice. And if those grand examples can become contagious, it can lead to the kind of moral and spiritual transformation that we need.
Brother Robby and I, we get up like John Coltrane and say, “How can we be forces for good?” And, of course, Brother Robby and I are ideologically, politically different and we fight and disagree on a whole host of things. He thinks I’m wrong, I think he’s wrong. OK. Let’s continue to wrestle with these things. But we’re trying to be forces for good, trying to be examples of persons who are somehow connected to a great tradition — the legacies of Socrates, of Jerusalem and Jesus and Muhammad and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. How can we exemplify the best of that tradition? And it becomes contagious for the younger generation when they see it in motion. It has everything to do with people opting to be certain kinds of human beings and opting for a kind of life oriented toward truth and beauty.
Robert George: That is beautiful. I could not agree with Cornel more. We recognize that we are a couple of badly cracked vessels. We don’t want our students just to mimic us. We have too many flaws. But we do try to give them a model of the stance you should take toward your education. We try to model for them an approach that does not treat education as merely technical, that does not try to replace wisdom with smartness. It’s by setting that example that we hope to inspire them and show them the beauty that is possible if you do take that stance toward education.
One way we try to do that is just by doing what we do together. Our students know we don’t agree on politics. In fact, part of why they are drawn to our class is that they want to see what goes on when two rather outspoken characters who disagree about so many things get together. Despite being cracked vessels, we can at least model intellectual integrity, openness to argument, and love of truth.
Now there is the broader cultural question. One of the areas where Cornel and I disagree is in our attitude toward markets. I’m a lot friendlier to the market economy than Brother Cornel is, although, he recognizes there’s an important role for markets to play. And, although I am a lot more friendly to the market, I do recognize that there are also dangers with a market economy, especially in its modern capitalist mode. It can promote values that are hostile to the spiritual, moral and humanistic values we stand for. We can begin to treat the whole of life on the market model, and if we allow the market mentality to be imperialistic, and transgress its own boundaries, and start to take over the whole of life, and shape people’s attitudes toward each other in their friendships and family relationships, then that’s a very bad thing. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Despite my friendliness toward markets and belief that the market system of production and exchange has pulled millions of people out of poverty, and despite my resolute opposition to a command economy or a socialist model, I still recognize that if we operate our educational system in the context of the modern capitalist order, then we must be vigilant in protecting non-market values, to ensure that market values remain where they belong and do not intrude into areas of life where they are not appropriate.
Some people think you have to buy the whole thing or nothing. Either you think the modern market economy is beyond criticism and poses no dangers, or you have to go the opposite extreme and embrace Marxism. That seems to me to be entirely wrong. For the same humanistic values that are informing everything else that I’m saying, I want the best that the market can provide — especially when it comes to lifting people out of poverty and creating general prosperity — but I also want market values to remain where they belong and not veer into areas of life where they can only bring corruption and dehumanization. I certainly want the market itself to be purified of the elements that corrupt it, the crony capitalism that has become rampant, for example, and the monopolies and oligopolies that impede true competition. But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t know if you agree with what I’m saying here, Cornel.
Cornel West: I think there is strong overlap. I think both of us would argue that when market models become ubiquitous it produces that spiritual blackout that I was talking about. At the same time, I think markets are indispensable. They just have to be under very strong regulations of justice to protect the vulnerable.
Robert George: The whole reason I want the market is that I believe it does, when functioning properly and properly regulated, benefit everyone in the community. Millions of people really have been lifted out of poverty by the market system.
At the same time, it can also create vulnerability. Joseph Schumpeter talked about the nature of the capitalist economy as involving “creative destruction.” He didn’t say this to condemn it. The “destruction” part of it means that there will be people who are going to suffer some adverse consequences as a result of the dynamic change that you’re going to have constantly in a free economy, at least in an age of industrialism (and we certainly see it in the post-industrial age as well). I don’t think the answer is to destroy capitalism, but you do need supports and protections in place to ensure those who are on the losing side of the “creative destruction” are not reduced to penury or humiliation. And that’s a task not just for the government, but also for civil society. Civil society includes universities, religious institutions, civic associations, the family and all educational institutions.
Cornel West: And trade unions that are visionary and courageous enough to work to ensure that workers are being treated decently, given what goes on at the workplace, and the vulnerabilities of the children, the elderly, the poor. Educational institutions are also fundamental.
Robert George: And, of course, the trouble is that you have to be constantly vigilant about these institutions because they themselves can become corrupted. I grew up in West Virginia. My grandfathers both spent many years in the coal mines. We were brought up to worship the unions. The United Mine Workers was third in line behind Jesus Christ and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Well, of course, we had no idea how corrupt the mine workers union had become. And I remember, as an adolescent, being shocked by the corruption of the union because we had been brought up to believe the union only had the best interests of the workers at heart. When it turned out that the leader of the union, a man named Tony Boyle, had ordered the murder of the leader of a reform movement, a man named Jock Yablonski, we could scarcely believe it.
Cornel West: Exactly. That’s why the quest for honesty and decency is a perennial one; it’s constant because all of us as individuals and institutions can decline in that way.
Robert George: The other thing it takes is courage, and courage is in short supply. It takes courage because very often you risk branding yourself as an outsider in the very institutions to which you belong. It can be a political party. I’m a member of the Republican Party, in part because of the party’s position over against the other party on the sanctity of human life, but here I am today in a party led by a president of whom I have been intensely critical.
And within the party, they want you to be a team player. You’re treated as traitor if you criticize the leadership. Cornel saw it on his side when he refused to back Hillary Clinton after she won the primary. Too often people, even if they know that what’s going on in their party or union or company or educational institution is wrong, lack the courage to say anything about it. And that means people aren’t going to do anything about it. So we have to encourage people to stand up. “Encourage” literally means “put courage in” people. People have to stand up against what’s wrong, even in institutions that they view as their ideological or professional homes.
Cornel West: Absolutely. And I would add just one more thing about courage, going back to the classical tradition that courage and magnanimity constitute fortitude. And the moral and spiritual dimension of the right kind of courage leads to the kind of fortitude people need. It has to do with the kind of person you are. The kind of ethos that Aristotle described of certain speakers.
When I was in Charlottesville and when I looked directly in the eyes of those neo-Nazi brothers and sisters who had so much hate coming at me and the others, I did see in their eyes a certain determination, and they were courageous. Nazis can be courageous. They just have gangster-like ends. I said to myself this courage is so important, but we need magnanimity. What we didn’t see in the neo-Nazis was greatness of character. What Brother Robby is talking about is the courage that is connected to magnanimity that generates a fortitude that is self-critical and not self-righteous. It’s self-critical, but it’s sustaining. It is what Jane Austen called constancy.
Robert George: Oh, this is so true. This is why the great classical and medieval philosophers put so much emphasis on the unity of the virtues. You can have one virtue in abundance, but if it is isolated from the other virtues, it can become as dangerous as a wild animal. It’s not just something like courage. Take something like compassion. We wouldn’t want to be without compassion. Who would want to be callous? We’re for compassion. But when compassion is cut off from the other virtues, especially when it’s cut off from truth, well this is what unleashed the eugenics movement. Many eugenicists didn’t lack compassion. They had compassion for people who were suffering and therefore they wanted to do immoral things — introduce euthanasia, for example — that were motivated by that compassion.
Julie Silverbrook: One final question: How do we imbue society with these values, with this habit of mind? I think we need to activate all of the mediating institutions of society, and maybe there isn’t a crisp, clean answer, but how do we activate them to revive civil society? We’re at a point in world history where we have to do that.
Cornel West: We can regenerate and revitalize and revive the best of tradition. We can try to exemplify the best of the traditions that have been bequeathed to us. You imbue it by means of trying exemplify the best in such a way that it generates a yearning in others to also try to exemplify the best.
Robert George: I think that’s right. The word I’d use is renewal. Revitalization or renewal is not a matter of going back to some mythical good old days when everything was fine. There have never been such good old days. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that history is not moving forward in some predetermined direction, always toward moral progress.
Today, we are better in some ways than people in the past, but there are some ways that people in the past were better than we are. Revitalization is about what Brother Cornel just said — recovering the best in the past and using that as the foundation for building the future. Those of us who are conservatives have a certain reverence for certain traditions — here in America, a reverence for the founding tradition: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Judeo-Christian moral values. That’s our forte, and this is a role we should be proud to play.
The left has an important role to play, too. The alt-right is not interested in reviving these values; they have a different ambition and ideal. That’s my problem with them. They tend toward an ethno-nationalist, blood and soil view. I don’t think that’s what conservatism should embrace. It’s not the contribution that conservatives are especially positioned to make in the larger project of cultural and political renewal.
The project is fundamentally a spiritual one. I think Cornel would agree with this. It has a lot of dimensions to it — political, economic, and other dimensions and they shouldn’t be given short shrift — but at the base, at its most fundamental level, it is a spiritual one. That means our institutions of faith — of all religious traditions — have a very central role to play. And we’re not going to get anywhere if they don’t play that role. At the same time, we can’t say this is a only religious problem, and so it’s only up to religious institutions to address it, as if the rest of us don’t have to worry about it. People in positions of social, educational, business and professional leadership have a role to play in the spiritual renewal of the nation. Indeed, we all do.
This means getting our values straight. Market values need to be where they belong; non-market values need to govern in places where market values do not belong. We all need to be responsible for communicating to our young people, beginning with our own children, the virtues they need to lead good lives and to be contributing, successful citizens.
Cornel West: Amen.
• Julie Silverbrook is Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource.org). Robert P. George, Ph.D., is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Cornel West, Ph.D., is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in the Divinity School and the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.