Cornel West, Harvard, and the Pursuit of Greatness

Cornel West and Joshua Garriga

by Joshua on November 12, 2011

The Daily Garriga classic!

The first and only time I ever met public sage and Princeton professor Cornel West was when he spoke at Harvard Law School with Tavis Smiley a few years ago. I happen to think that Dr. West is one of the most provocative and inspirational public figures who has ever lived. His relentless pursuit of truth, morality, and justice gives me hope that it is still possible to find public leaders who seek leadership for the right reasons – not because they wish to be rich, famous, and powerful.

I sat through Dr. West’s speech attentively and then got my camera ready to snap a quick shot of him before he left. To my surprise, West stayed and started signing autographs and taking pictures with folks who approached him. I moved closer, but my path was blocked by a throng of female undergrads who were screaming like groupies and practically climbing over one another to hug the legendary professor. The crowd was huge and kept growing. Dr. West stayed for more than an hour before he eventually tired and decided it was time to go. It was amazing to watch West make his way through the crowd with arms outstretched saying: “I just want to touch everyone before I leave.”

Okay, so I may have entered groupie mode myself, but I did manage to get a picture, a short conversation, and a man-hug from Dr. West. I remember how he put his arm around me and asked how things were going for me at Harvard. I told him that it was a struggle, that I was still adjusting to the environment. He looked me straight in the eye and said: “Don’t adjust too much!”

I spent a lot of time after that thinking about what Dr. West meant when he advised me not to adjust too much to the environment at Harvard. I thought about how Harvard’s then president Larry Summers pushed Dr. West out because West cared too much about hip-hop and the young people who listen to hip-hop. I thought about how so many of the students of color in my graduate program came from other countries, thus leaving Black and Brown Americans painfully underrepresented in the student body. I thought about how many of the Latino students I knew were proud to be Latino in private, but then seemed to conveniently lose interest in their Latino identity when around white students – almost as if they were determined to avoid being a minority. I thought about how Harvard granted generous public service scholarships to students who then went on to accept six figure salaries in the private sector immediately upon graduating, while many students who took low-paying public service jobs received no scholarship and struggled with six figures of student loan debt. I even thought about the folks who would gravitate toward me when I talked about my story of perseverance and redemption, but who then demonstrated a perfidious attitude toward me when I assumed leadership roles.

I’m not saying that Harvard is the epicenter of injustice in the world. Rather, I mean to say that folks at Harvard are easily caught up in trying to be successful within the world instead of focusing on changing what is wrong with the world. Too many folks arrive at Harvard intent on trying to “fit in” with the elite class in order to become agents of change and then become perpetually lost in a shifting tide of acceptance and affiliation. In order to maintain standing in the elite class, individuals seem to follow the Drake school of thought and just want to be successful. I think Dr. West understands this better than anyone.

Cornel West has written extensively about the importance of people striving for greatness instead of success. According to West: “When you end up obsessed with success rather than greatness, prosperity rather than magnanimity, security rather than integrity – you end up with a generation of peacocks.” The problem is “peacocks strut because they can’t fly.”

It’s a fairly straightforward idea. American society has set financial prosperity as the standard for achieving success in this country. If you make money, you’re successful; if you don’t make money, you’ve failed. If this concept is damaging for Harvard students hell bent on achieving success, imagine how deadly it can be for ordinary school children who don’t believe they can achieve financial success through traditional academic paths. These kids often abandon their God given talents because no one has convinced them it is more important to be a great person than a financially successful person. Imagine how many more painters, poets, scientists, and philosophers our inner city schools would produce if only our kids believed that helping other people mattered more than making money.

I try to reinforce that message whenever I speak to young people. I usually include a version of the following passage when I do public speaking events for high school audiences.

You were born to be great. Greatness is in your essence – it’s in your spirit. Are you willing to reach down inside of you and bring out that greatness? Are you willing to share your gifts with the world? Are you willing to be a leader in your community and support all of the brothers and sisters out there who desperately need your help? We need leaders; we need great people; we need young people who believe in personal integrity and who want to serve others because they understand that how we live is all about what we give. We need all of you. Stand strong. Be proud of yourselves and keep your heads held high. Take control of your education and be there for each other. Today is your day – today is the beginning of your journey toward greatness.

Those words usually go over pretty well with my audiences. In the end though, I know I have to work more on myself than on the kids I speak to. I don’t want to end up as a peacock who struts around all day but can’t fly. I want to fly. I want to be someone who gives more than he takes. I want to be provocative and inspirational while I pursue truth, morality, and justice. I want to pursue greatness.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

JD Miner November 13, 2011 at 11:29 am

Loved this blog. I remember how angry I was when Law and Order had an episode using a character clearly based on Cornel West, whom they presented as a peacock! That’s when I stopped watching the show.

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Joshua November 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Thanks JD!

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Maria November 19, 2011 at 6:50 pm

It was really sad that he felt he had to go, but Harvard’s loss was Princeton’s gain. Now Cornel West can rub elbows with one of my favorite economists, Paul Krugman. BTW, I love the photo with you and Prof. West.

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Joshua November 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Thanks Maria! Btw, it looks like Dr. West is moving on from Princeton and going back to Union Theological Seminary, where he began his teaching career. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/nyregion/cornel-west-returning-to-union-theological-seminary.html

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