When Cornel West defines "education," he is quick to point out that there's "schooling" and there's true education -- paideia, to use a Greek term.
Schooling is how we acquire skills and knowledge. Education is what stirs the soul.
In this sense, West, a noted Ivy League intellectual, liberal, activist and media personality, presented "education as a human right" as a concept Thursday before a full house at Northern Arizona University's Ardrey Auditorium. His "education" is a transformative set of deep feelings and courageous self-examination -- springboarding from a line from Plato's "Apology," roughly, that "the unexamined life is not worth living."
In lyrical oratory, West's ideas and words curved like a river flowing over topics like class and poverty, greed, strength and fortitude, race, imperialism, courage and justice, and education.
Education, he said, came through the decision of Emmett Till's mother to hold an open casket funeral for her lynched teen son, bloated and mutilated after being pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955. She took the higher ground in wanting justice but not revenge.
"Are you ready for that turning of the soul, that transformation?" he asked.
EDUCATION OF NATIONAL CONCERN
"I do hope I say something that unsettles you," West purred as he started his two-hour lecture and question-and-answer session.
If they were unsettled, the hundreds of people who turned out at least seemed rapt, nodding and murmuring affirmative responses to his turns of phrase and laughing at the pop culture references he wove among the highbrow concepts.
Although he approached "education" in a philosophical sense, West also addressed it in the more practical use of the term:
-- In addressing a representative from NAU's student government who asked him what college students can do in response to climbing tuition and falling funding, West recommended that they mobilize and learn from the Occupy movement.
He added that in Finland, a country known for its high test scores, teachers are revered (and, he included, unionized). He also said the U.S. education system is better, but only for the most privileged children, and to focus on K-12 education is to show love for young people.
-- West said that the U.S. can fund prisons and wars, but can't find the money for housing, job creation or K-12 education. If wars are a matter of national security, he said, "what do you think education is about? It's about national security."
An ardent supporter of the Occupy movement, West railed against corporate prominence and praised the demonstrations. He has, himself, been arrested more than once at Occupy rallies
"It's a beautiful thing to be a part of in my life," he said.
From the front rows, an audience member held up a colorful "99%" sign.
West, who holds degrees from Harvard and Princeton universities and is most recently a professor at Princeton, will return to his previous employer, the Union Theological Seminary in New York, this year. He appeared at NAU in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, co-sponsored by the Martin-Springer Institute and other campus organizations, including the Black Student Union and the Student Activities Council.
Hillary Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2261.