Guest lectures have been a staple of my Princeton experience thus far. I go to 1-5 of these every week, however this one has stood out and probably will remain as my favorite for some time. Princeton’s James Madison Program sponsored this particular lecture. It featured two very distinguished guests who are well respected in political philosophy, on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and very good friends with each other.
Dr. Cornel West attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and went to Princeton to obtain a Ph.D. He is one of the last Martin Luther King Jr.-style activists from the 1960s-70s. Dr. West is a colossus in racial activism and was the chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. Currently, he teaches at Princeton and Union Theological Seminary. Listen to his 60 Minutes interview.
Dr. Robert P. George is the founder of the James Madison Program and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. George attended Swarthmore College as an undergraduate and earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University. He is one of the most influential conservative Christians in the country for his conservative academic work on controversial social issues. He is also a constitutional scholar.
Both of these men are academic titans. They also are good friends for +13 years despite the fact that they have opposing political beliefs.
Today’s lecture was about the meaning of a liberal arts education. When I arrived 30 minutes before it began, the room was practically empty. It was full by the time the lecture started. McCosh 50 is the largest lecture hall in Princeton.
A funny note: Dean Dolan listed each of the professor’s accomplishments in the introduction. Dr. West made a witty comment about Dr. George’s extensive list of honorary doctorates. My friend said, “only at Princeton do you have a debate over who holds more honorary doctorates.”
For over an hour, they spoke with an eloquence that I have never heard before. Their language was packed dense with knowledge and their ideas soared to the lofty heights of the arches in the room. Dr. George spoke for 2/3 of the time. Even though Dr. West spent most of the time listening, when he spoke his monologues were short yet powerful.
During this time, they discussed what a liberal arts education is and the need for all education to not merely become preprofessional training. Throughout it all, they made references to Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, scripture, and more. This was the kind of discussion that I imagined occurs at Princeton.
Listen to the lecture here.
I learned two lessons from this lecture:
- As a Princeton student, I will not starve from studying philosophy, English, history, etc. and not getting a job (though I will most likely stay with geosciences). It is perfectly fine to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
- There is a real need to feed students’ intellectual curiosities. Not all classes have to be useful for a job. Creating a society that focuses on preparing students for professional careers limits the expansiveness and diversity of thought in all aspects of life.
This discussion explored the true meaning of an education: a deep understanding of a subject at its philosophical level. It is something that can only be pursued by a willing student who dedicate much time to the acquisition of truth and knowledge.