We are aware of his most public spats -- with Lawrence Summers at Harvard, and latterly with President Obama -- as well as of his modestly eccentric public persona. And, to be sure, we are aware of his Christian convictions, which are (along with and inseparable from his concern for Americans of African descent) the seeming core of his message.
So the longish profile in New York magazine came a pleasant surprise to us. One reason for both the pleasure and the surprise is that we have long considered New York the worst magazine in America, narrowly edging out Esquire and Leg Show. Any article there worth reading, let along one on a significant public intellectual, comes like a warm day in February. But beyond its mere existence, Lisa Miller's article was a pleasant surprise because it manages to treat both West and his detractors respectfully and, so it seems, objectively.
In particular, West's faith is not mocked, although some readers will doubtless mock it on their own. When asked which of the disciples he desires to emulate, West answers "I want to be like Jesus." To the devoutly secular, this may sound grandiose. But the rest of us recognize the familiar pious ideal of the imitatio Christi when we hear it. Miller describes West as a prophet, or at least a man who believes he is a prophet, as well as a proponent of the theological school interested in Jesus principally as a social revolutionary.
Although Miller shows great interest in West's criticisms of the president, she does not present them with much specificity, which is a shame. Criticism of Obama from the left has been a steady drumbeat over the years, and needs to be understood. On the other hand, she does point out -- without much editorializing -- that West's personal life, including multiple broken marriages and an illegitimate child -- falls short of the Christian ideal.
One detail that hit us, hard, is that West's recent move from Princeton University to Union Theological Seminary has entailed teaching a full course-load at half his prior salary. Although we do not gather that the prolific author and frenetic lecturer is hurting for cash, we are still heartened by his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, in the education of pastors and theologians.
For us, though, the two most impressive paragraphs were these:
At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non- instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”
In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”
We don't much care what a philosopher thinks of the president, or why. Nor are we terribly surprised when his life matches imperfectly with his philosophy. But we do care, passionately, about how he teaches. Good teachers -- not merely teachers of good ideas, but those who teach them well -- are a blessing to the world, and bad ones are a curse. George's description leads us to believe that the students at Union will be blessed indeed.