The University Record, June 5, 1995

Education should be a 'training ground for citizenship,' West says

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Academia is an integral component in overcoming multicultural problems that plague American society today, Harvard scholar Cornell West told administrators at a recent campus meeting.

"I believe, frankly, that we're living among the most frightening and terrifying moments in history," he said. "The level of polarization and increase in cold-heartedness and mean-spiritedness is, in fact, the making of the unraveling of democracy.

"I do believe that institutions of higher learning, especially elite institutions of higher learning, can play a very important role in trying to renew, regenerate and rejuvenate democratic responsibility."

West, professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Harvard, said that academic institutions must be committed to high-quality scholarly input in the quest for truth and knowledge.

"With issues of race, gender and sexual orientation, it's very important to cast any such reflection on those issues at an intellectual level," he said. "So when we're talking about race and the legacy of white supremacy, the ways in which that legacy is inseparable from the rest of the development of democracy in America is not a matter of being psychologically sensitive, it's an intellectual issue.

"We can't understand modernity, we can't understand the age of Europe, we can't understand the American experience without understanding the legacy of white supremacy, which includes the suffering of people of color, but also includes the various moral choices and political commitments of Americans of all colors, vis-a-vis this dividing issue, both in this country and in Europe. These are not in any way PC issues to be jettisoned, but rather to understand these issues as part of what it is to be human, what it is to be modern, what it is to be New World, what it is to be American."

West said that institutions of higher learning must try to facilitate "a broad intellectual conversation based, in part, on the high-quality, scholarly input that goes far beyond the academy, contributing to the public culture to ensure that we're confronting some of the most difficult facts and tragic truths of the past and present."

Many academicians, he added, must have a broad sense of the interrelationships and interdependence of different peoples and institutions.

"This is not the calling of every academic and ought not to be, since there's a division of labor," West said. "But at the same time, if we lose sense of the whole of how things hold together or what it means to relate life to the mind or what it means to be a citizen in a highly intellectual civilization, then I think we are in deep trouble."

West also said that public service, in terms of shaping and molding the minds of students, plays an important role in fosteringunderstanding of multiculturalism.

"Education should not simply be a site where we acquire skills, but should be a training ground for citizenship," he said. "Public service forces us to affirm the way in which we are linked, are bound together. We have to convince each other that we're all on the same ship, even if it has a huge leak in it."