A week or two ago, I saw a friend post a link to a discussion between Robert P. George and Cornel West on the liberal arts. Having spent my time in certain intellectual circles, I was correct in assuming that Professor George would provide a robust and well-articulated commentary on the liberal arts from his Catholic, natural law understanding. Not being familiar with him outside of his appearances on The Matrix and The Examined Life, I was mostly watching to hear Professor West’s understanding of the liberal arts. After hearing his thoughts, I have continued to reflect on the Professor West’s commentary.
In the video, Professor West claims, “To philosophize is to learn HOW to die, [for] he or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery.” He further notes, “In order to learn how to live, you must first learn how to die.” Thus, he states, “When you’ve mustered the courage to critically examine your assumptions, presuppositions, your prejudices and prejudgments and decide to let some of them go, that’s a form of death.”
Certainly, Professor West’s understanding of liberal education is morbidly challenging. Reflection on death and the emptiness of the world with which we are surrounded is always a difficult task. Our attention, often times, is centered on the material and pursuing that which the market values. For West, though, the “liberal arts help overcome the marketizing […] of the world by reintroducing non-market values and affirming the humanity of all.” A proper education, in West’s understanding, helps us die unto ourselves and find a new life through “paideia” where “the formation of [our] attention is shifted from paying attention to the surface and the superficial to focusing on death and the substantial.” Practically, this entails “the rejection of instant gratification and fleeting pleasure and focusing on genuine compassion and enduring joys.”
Professor West’s understanding of liberal education is deeply and robustly Christian, as it calls students to develop piety toward the truth. This piety requires that the student turn his attention away from the material that enslaves him and focus on the “enduring joys.” Ultimately, this approach toward liberal education finds further articulation in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange of his soul?”
Through denying himself and submitting himself to the Gospel, the Christian begins his liberal education and rejects the systems of the world. In doing this, he starts to develop a piety toward a metaphysical order that looks toward “non-marketed values” and “affirms the humanity of all.” The “paideia” of this Christian calling genuinely necessitates a shifting of one’s attention from this world to focus on the “Word-Made-Flesh.” By directing our gaze to the contemplation the “Word-Made-Flesh,” liberal education forms us in our calling to “reject instant gratification and fleeting pleasure” in hopes of encountering the “genuine compassion and enduring joys” of the Gospel.