Vice President for Communications Ruth Jackson sat down with Cornel West in April, shortly before he delivered the keynote speech in Lorimer Chapel for the 2018 Center for the Arts and Humanities theme Origins. After catching up on all things Colby (this was Brother West’s fourth visit to Mayflower Hill since 1993), they dove into a few timely issues. Excerpts below.

Cornell West

Free expression on campuses—you’ve written about it, you had that wonderful statement with Princeton Professor Robert George last year. Do you have any advice for us?

I think the most important thing is to cultivate an atmosphere where people are respected, cultivate a context in which people feel free and vulnerable enough to speak from their hearts and minds and souls. So, before one jumps to an issue of freedom it’s very much an issue of what kinds of relations and the quality of those relations in the culture and context within which we find ourselves. I think the last thing you want to do is make it a legal issue. Because with students, education is not simply a legal and a formal process, it’s informal. It’s learning how to learn, learning how to listen, and wrestle with people you disagree with, try to find a common ground with people that you have very little common ground initially in your mind. And that’s always a step-by-step, stage-by-stage process.

One of the things that we wrestle with is lack of diversity of political thought on campuses, frankly. How do we ensure that we’re including a breadth of voices and opinions?

The important thing is not just voices in faculty, which is very important, you want diversity, but I think you already have a variety of voices in the curriculum. I mean, if you’re reading Plato you have not just a genius among geniuses and foundational figure, but he is as conservative as it gets. If you’re reading Thomas Hobbes you’re getting a deep conservative view, if you’re reading Edmund Burke you’re getting a deep conservative. The whole canon itself is one in which you have a variety of voices. The important thing is you want to expose students to a variety of voices and viewpoints. Both with faculty but also curriculum.

You’re here to deliver this keynote for our Center for the Arts and Humanities, which is really a centerpiece of the academic life of the College. What are your thoughts around what’s happening to the humanities when so many students and their families are worried about the perennial question: “What are you going to do when you graduate?”

It’s true—science and technology are major forces in modern societies, and there’s a lot of pressure on our students, but we’ve got to fight. You got to fight for the arts, fight for humanities. And convince them that the kinds of issues raised, the kind of challenges that they’ll be wrestling with, be they in the laboratory or be they writing poems, are central, are indispensable.

I mean, the most fundamental questions we’re able to raise to each other—what does it mean to be human? And how do we live, what do we know? What are the grounds for any hope that we can have? Those questions are perennial, they’re inescapable, they’re unavoidable—to scientists, biologists, or anybody else. And, in addition to that, I also think that there’s something very dangerous about an education that’s reduced primarily to the instrumental. And science is very much about instrumentalizing nature, and predicting nature, and in some ways even dominating nature in order to squeeze what you can out of it. Whereas the humanities is all about vulnerability, it’s about humility, it’s about acknowledging the mystery of something grander than you that you may not ever comprehend, you certainly will never fully comprehend. So it’s different kinds of attitudes and orientations at work.

Cornell West speaking at Colby CollegeIssues of racism and police brutality are back in the news this week, again raising questions about what it means to be human. Can you share your thoughts about not only what we can do as a society, but also what white people can do? Because we need to do more.

Well, we all need to do more; we’re human beings no matter what color we are so we’re gonna be defined in part by the choices that we make. I think of a place like Colby. I mean this is a college that had the first abolitionist organization of any campus in the nation. The Class of 1826 had one of the greatest freedom fighters of the nineteenth century, Elijah Lovejoy. For him it wasn’t a matter of his whiteness, it was a matter of response to an injustice. Of course he died, he was a martyr, one of the early, grand martyrs that died for, not just for the fight against injustice, but he died because he also had a love for black people; he had a love for hated people as a white brother. Well, those stories need to be highlighted so that white brothers and sisters know that there have been and there are white persons who are fundamentally committed based on integrity, honesty, and decency to fighting against injustice. Then the question becomes, do you want to join the cloud of witnesses? Do you want to be a part of that group, carry on that tradition? And also, most important, not to think that, if you do decide to fight against injustice, you’re not the first wave. People have been doing it a long time.

What makes you optimistic?

I’m not optimistic.

There must be a kernel!

I’ve never been an optimist, no, no. I don’t believe there’s ever enough evidence to allow us to infer that things are going to get better. It depends on what we do. And even depending on what we do, see, the world’s incomplete and unfinished so our actions are part and parcel of the process. The evidence is always overwhelmed by the suffering and the misery and the vicious forms of domination and oppression—every moment that we know in the history of the human species. So the difference between being a prisoner of hope versus an optimist is a big one. Because hope and optimism are very different things. Hope is participatory, it’s engaging. But even these days it’s hard to have hope because these neofascist stirrings all around the world, and nuclear and ecological catastrophes intensifying. In the end this takes you back to the arts and humanities—there’s not going to be a matter of just calculation of a victory. But it has to do with the quality of the life lived. And you don’t measure quality of life in terms as simple as result and consequences. It’s the process.

So, 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, 25 years since your book Race Matters came out… Has anything changed?

Oh sure. Things have definitely changed. There’s been some great breakthroughs, there’s been some major setbacks. But the legacy of white supremacy is strong as ever. So is true the legacy of male supremacy. You’ve got women with unbelievable talents and so forth in various places, but we know that, my god, misogyny and sexism cut so deep. So does transphobia, so does homophobia. Escalating anti-Jewish hatred around the world; Arabs and Palestinians treated like they’re less than human so often. You see what I mean? That’s the kind of world we live in. So all we can do is choose to be a hope.

Choose to be a hope. I like that. All right. I want to get you to the rest of the crowd because everyone’s excited to hear you. Thank you for sitting down to talk.

And you stay strong in your work!

Thank you, we shall.