Black Voices in Classical Education: How the Black intellectual tradition has been shaped and been shaped by the classical tradition.

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 12, Eastern University had the privilege of hosting three distinguished guests for a conversation on classical education and the Black intellectual tradition. The event was organized and hosted by the Templeton Honors College, and the conversation was led and moderated by Dr. Brian Williams, the dean of the Templeton Honors College and the dean of Eastern University’s college of arts and humanities. Dr. Williams is also the co-director of Eastern’s Masters in classical education program. The event also featured Dr. Eric Ashley Hairston, an associate dean and professor of humanities at Wake Forest University as well as Dr. Angel Adams Parham, an associate professor of sociology at University of Virginia. Perhaps the biggest privilege of this event was that Eastern University was able to also host Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and is the author of “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters”. 

Dr. Williams opened the event by welcoming the three guests and giving a brief introduction to what classical education is and its connection to the Black intellectual tradition. After his introduction, Dr. Williams presented a water-color painting to Dr. West that featured West and the 19th century Danish theologian Søren Kierkagaard enjoying a conversation over tea. West warmly and enthusiastically laughed at the painting and accepted it before moving to the podium to give his introduction to the importance of classical education and how it is closely tied to the black intellectual tradition. West has been a prolific voice in the Black intellectual tradition as well as the classical tradition for many years and sparked controversy in April of this year when he spoke out against Howard University’s decision to dissolve their classics department. In his opening speech, West emphasized the importance of “raising every voice.” West layed out the significance of classical education in three parts: the formation of attention, the cultivation of a critical sensibility and the maturation of a loving soul. He outlined how the questions raised in classical texts are not only timeless questions, but timely questions: they are “enduring and timeless and timely questions.” He laid out that we need to turn our minds and souls and attention to things that really matter; we need to attend to things that are truly important as we ask the question “what does it mean to be human?” Questions in classical texts provide the formation of attention away from our “quest for insatiable pleasure” and towards what is important. Next, West affirmed that classical education also helps cultivate critical sensibilities in us, and most importantly, leads to the maturation of a loving soul. West went on to emphasize that the “black freedom movement is an important leaven in the democratic loaf.” He plainly admitted that we don’t know if the American experiment will last, but that every single generation must be up for the task. West concluded his speech with a question: how do we sustain hope? West answered his own question by saying that we sustain hope by coming together, and having conversation (not chit-chat).

The conversation was opened up to all three guests as Dr. Williams began to ask Dr. Hairston and Dr. Parham about their own work in their respective fields. The conversation stayed centered around the values of classical texts and the power they have to promote a better society. Dr. West spent some time discussing how the figures in the Black intellectual tradition provided themselves as examples of integrity and virtue and how we need to come to terms with suffering, not just in our education but in our daily lives. He contrasted popular figures in the past with celebrities by comparing current celebrities to peacocks: “peacocks strut because they can’t fly”; we need to fly, we need to leave the Aristotelian cave in order to fly back in and have influence on those still in the dark. Dr. Parham spent some time discussing the reality and dangers of “historical amnesia,” and how ancient classical texts along with black literary classics can help counter historical amnesia.

Before opening up the conversation for a very brief time for audience questions, Dr. West gave a message to our generation of students and young adults: be great, not successful; let awards and titles go because “great is the highest level.”

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