Cornel West Counsels Unity at Dartmouth
Hanover — Author and philosopher Cornel West, one of the country’s leading public intellectuals on social justice, gave a talk yesterday to a Dartmouth College crowd for whom the tumultuous events of the past week still resonate heavily.
Several hundred students, faculty and others packed into a Tuck School of Business auditorium, lined its walls and covered its floors to listen to West’s take on last week’s student protests against a perceived campus culture that tolerates racism, homophobia and sexual assault as well as his thoughts on the disparaging online comments and threats made afterward.
During his speech, West, a Princeton religion professor, lent his support behind the protestors, after asking where the “holy anger” in the world was.
“Well, we’ve got a little bit of that at Dartmouth,” West said to loud applause. “It’s stirring up.”
West also spoke about the necessity in society of those who “cut against the grain” in his lecture, which had been planned prior to the protests and was titled “Scholarship, Diversity, and Social Change.” It was one of seven discussions in the “Seeds of Change: Gender, Scholarship and Social Justice” series put on by the school’s Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth. The first two discussions, with activists Zainab Salbi and Leslie Adelson Lewin, occurred on April 8.
The next one, on May 7, will feature Seattle University School of Law professor Dean Spade, who will give a speech entitled “Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law” at 4:15 p.m. in Carpenter Hall.
But West’s talk was the first non-panel discussion of the series, an occasion that the head of the Gender Research Institute said yesterday shouldn’t have had to have been colored by the recent events at the school — which included a highly unusual cancelling of classes on Wednesday as students were urged to attend “teach-in” sessions and reflect about a campus culture that many see as turning a blind eye on hateful attitudes against students who don’t reflect the white and heterosexual majority.
“This should have been a celebratory moment,” said Annabel Martin, also the chairwoman of the women’s and gender studies program. “The launching of something new usually is.”
“But no,” she continued. “A lurking ugliness came to the surface with overpowering vitriol.”
Last Friday, a group of about 15 protestors interrupted a show that was part of Dimensions, a program aimed to persuade prospective students to choose Dartmouth, in order to draw attention to the cultural issues they said are extremely problematic on campus.
Afterward, some students posted comments on an online, anonymous message board not run by the college, some of which contained threats to the physical safety of the protestors.
Martin decried what she yesterday called “Dartmouth nationalism,” a phrase that elicited a round of applause.
“Fear, intimidation and hatred are not the right kind of ingredients for good learning,” she said. “But maybe, just maybe, this might be a revelatory moment.”
When he took to the lectern, West agreed, but noted that those not on either of the issue’s extremes are important to reach.
“The majorities, for so long, have been lukewarm,” he said. “Too much fear, silence, among the middle. And the middle needs to wake up.”
After West finished, an impromptu question and answer session sprung up, where students touched upon the past week at Dartmouth and how to draw the attention of those who do not want to engage in the issues.
“The closed mind,” said Saaid Arshad, a sophomore who said that many of the people who should have heard West’s speech likely weren’t there yesterday. “How do you deal with that? To what point do you forgive ignorance?”
“I just don’t give up on people,” answered West, adding that it’s always important to find some common ground with another person to connect on some level. “I really don’t.”
After the session, Eduardo Najera, also a sophomore, said it inspired him to commit more heavily to the issues that affect him, such as that of undocumented immigrants.
“To see him talk brought back life to something that had been dead for a while,” Najera said.
West’s speech yesterday was introduced by Martin and Russell Rickford, who teaches history, both of whom gave fiery talks about what they saw as a critical moment for the college.
“Here at Dartmouth, we have constructed an elaborate veneer of civility,” Rickford said, adding that it is used to maintain an “illusion of social harmony and justice.”
“It is a product of our breeding,” he continued. “It preserves our arrogance, our amorality. How self-satisfied we are. How devoid of self-critique.”
He then mentioned last week’s protestors, who he said “punctured” that veneer.
“They said that we are a rape culture,” Rickford said, and paused. “And we are.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.