Vassar Today

On Campus: Cornel West

By Peter Bronski
From left, members of Vassar Has Soul performed before the lecture; Cornel West; and West with Ed Pittman '86, associate dean for campus life and diversity, and Diane Harriford, professor of sociology.

Noted academic and political activist Cornel West addressed the Vassar community in a packed Chapel on November 30. The author of 19 books—including Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and most recently, the memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud—graduated from Harvard and Princeton before embarking on a career of teaching and activism that has seen him at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, the University of Paris, and Union Theological Seminary.

The evening began with a performance by Vassar Has Soul, a new a cappella group whose repertoire includes gospel and soul music. The musical prologue proved fitting, given West’s own sensibilities. “I came from a spiritual tradition, where the spirit cannot descend without song,” he told the crowd.

His wide-ranging lecture, “The End(s) of Oligarchy: On Spirituality, Citizenship, and the New Democracy,” touched on introspection and spirituality, apropos since he had just announced his departure from Princeton and return to Union Theological Seminary, where he began his teaching career as a professor of philosophy and Christian practice. “It’s a question of one’s spiritual vocation, as opposed to one’s professional career,” he said of his departure from Princeton in a press release. “My calling has always been fundamentally that of a prophetic Christian, as much as I love and revel in the life of the mind.”

That “life of the mind” took center stage in West’s talk, which, in part, emphasized the importance of “deep education”—a lifelong posture of learning and thirst for knowledge, rather than seeing education as merely a way to serve one’s economic aspirations. His talk also touched on issues of poverty, social change, and democracy.