2 professors, political opposites, urge concept of 'civic friendship'


Mary Beth Faller

Going to college should be an unsettling experience.

University students should be challenging their closely held beliefs in the classroom and among their friends, even when it’s uncomfortable, according to two prominent intellectuals who agree on that point even though they are political opposites.

Robert George, a professor at Princeton University, and Cornel West, a professor at Harvard University, visited Arizona State University on Friday to give a talk titled “Truth-Seeking and Freedom of Expression,” sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

West, who describes himself as a “radical Democrat and socialist,” told the crowd at the Student Pavilion in Tempe: “If while you’re here you haven’t realized for a moment that your worldview rests on pudding, then you haven’t been educated.”

George, a conservative, agreed: “If your experience at ASU … from your friendship circle, in your classes, from your professors and from your readings is one of constantly being reaffirmed in what you already believe … then you’re not being educated.”

Video of Robby George and Cornel West, 'Truth Seeking and Freedom of Expression, A Dialogue'

Video by Jamie Ell/ASU Now

The value of differing opinions

Challenging one’s own beliefs is crucial to maintaining a democracy, said the two men, who are close friends.

“You can’t get at the truth — you just can’t — whether it’s the truth about physics or biology or politics or justice or human rights, if you’re unwilling to expose your beliefs to criticism,” George said.

That means listening to the views of people you disagree with, he said.

Last year, the two professors became alarmed at the protests breaking out on college campuses over speakers. In March, several dozen students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down a speech by Charles Murray, who had been invited to talk by a conservative student group. After the talk, several protesters began pushing Murray and a Middlebury professor, who suffered a concussion.

Shortly after the Middlebury incident, West and George published a public statement in support of “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.” Their statement rejects what they said was an effort “to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities” and to exclude certain topics of discussion by “questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions.”

The two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. West has called himself a “non-Marxist socialist” and has been harshly critical of President Barack Obama. George is a past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage and policies that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that accord with their gender identity.

At ASU on Friday, the two men acknowledged that the country is in the throes of factionalism and Americans need to embrace the concept of “civic friendship.”

Paul Carrese (left), founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, moderated the talk by Robert George (center) and Cornel West. Carrese said the two professors' statement last year on freedom of expression on college campuses was an inspiration for his school's lecture series. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“The sense of civic friendship is, ‘I’m here because something bigger than me is using me' — love of truth and a beauty that’s soul-stirring,” West said.

“It’s important that people exemplify in such a bleak moment in our civilization that love and friendship is not reduced to politics and policy.”

George said the country is being tested.

“It’s a special challenge today because our differences are so deep that they go to fundamental questions of justice, the common good, human rights and right and wrong,” he said.

“What do we share? One thing is the belief in self-government itself. But that’s not enough. We had better share a belief in civil rights and civil liberties.

“I would think we would share belief in freedom of speech and the need to treat each other with respect even when we disagree,” he said.

Taking lessons from the past

Earlier in the day, West and George spoke to several undergraduates in the class “Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the Enduring Debate over American Constitutionalism,” taught by Zachary German, an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

George asked the students to consider Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“Why was he willing to fight the war at a nearly incalculable cost of treasure and blood?” George asked. “Lincoln was talking about the preservation of Republican government ... government by the people.”

Lincoln understood that Republican government was an experiment that had already failed every time it was tried.

“‘Shall not perish from the earth’ indicates that Lincoln believed that if it failed in the United States, all mankind henceforth and forevermore would take that as the lesson that human beings are not fit to govern themselves,” George said.

West told the students that it was slavery as an economic system that allowed the United States to experiment with democracy.

“This very fragile democratic experiment begins with tremendous, overwhelming obstacles and yet begins to generate unbelievable possibilities. People around the world were invoking the Declaration of Independence, invoking the Constitution.”

West said that Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther Party, used to read the Declaration of Independence aloud in public.

“He’s reading the words of a slaveholder. He’s a descendant of slaves. But he sees in that document a spirit that stays in contact with the dignity of ordinary people.”

What was unique about the United States’ system of government was that the Founding Fathers built in the possibility for change.

“If the Constitution had been frozen and petrified, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” West said. “But the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. We can grow and mature.”

For more information on events by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, click here.


Top photo: Professors Cornel West (right) and Robert George spoke about civic friendship at the Student Pavilion on the Tempe campus Friday in a talk titled "Truth-Seeking and Freedom of Expression." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now