Going West

Cornel West Talks Technology, Globalization and Race

When the Division of Student Affairs invites you to a session of its Spotlight Series, you expect to hear an enlightening lecture and perhaps engage in a lively Q&A. You probably do not expect to witness the creation of a veritable jazz composition—comprised of words rather than musical notes. But that’s exactly what was in store for those who came out to hear Dr. Cornel West, who visited the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) on April 29, 2013.

West, an esteemed intellectual who currently teaches at Union Theological Semimary, and previously taught at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris, among other institutions, has long been passionate about the education of young minority students, and he made time in his demanding schedule to see for himself the strength and accomplishments of NYU-Poly’s K-12 STEM program. NYU-Poly, he acknowledged, has long provided great opportunity to those who have found opportunity hard to come by.

Chatting with Ben Esner, the program’s director, West quipped, “Some of my best lectures have been to people who are really on my level...kindergarten.” The talk took a serious turn when Esner explained that in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, with its median annual income of $32,000, only 20 percent of the adults have bachelor’s degrees. If just 10 percent of the community’s ten-year-olds eventually earn engineering degrees, he pointed out, it would generate $5 billion in new wealth over their lifetimes.

West praised Esner for his efforts, saying, “You are hitting so many nails on the head,” and hailed the program for maintaining “a culture where minority students can depend on each other.” 

West admires those of a technological bent—“I’m a Luddite, and I don’t recommend that,” he admitted—and while here he also took part in a session moderated by student Corey Harper, who serves as ambassador to the National Action Council for Minority Engineers (NACME). Taking the stage in the packed Regna Lounge, West applauded the NYU-Poly audience for being engaged in the pursuit of paedeia, or deep learning, rather than mere rote skills. He exhorted them to have “the courage, character, virtue and vision to be inventive and innovate,” but warned, “Don’t be seduced by technology alone. Consider that there are cowardly, xenophobic people using technology for ill and other people using it to do good.” Even if you win the rat race, he cautioned, “you’ll still be just a rat.”

And so began a riff that encompassed the Latin roots of the word ‘human,” the 20th-century Jewish sage Abraham Joshua Heschel (about whom West is writing a book), the works of author Norman Mailer (who, as West noted, trained as an engineer), the difference between being pro-science and scientistic, the necessity of acknowledging America’s fallibility, postmodernism’s relation to skepticism, the excitement of NYU extending beyond Washington Square into Brooklyn -- and a few highly entertaining impressions of Beethoven and Thelonious Monk.

Within West’s breathtakingly virtuosic verbal-painting was a clear message: the engineers of the future will need not just practical skills but the empathy and compassion to use those skills in the service of humanity. “You must acknowledge that a child in Yemen has the same importance as a child in Brooklyn,” he asserted. “It takes some work to get to that way of thinking, but there are many ways to get there — Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity — so you must.”

“You are all interested in globalization,” he continued, “but that doesn’t mean just markets or labor. Consider the virtues and values you are exporting at the same time.”

His words fell on receptive ears. “Meeting Dr. West and hearing him speak was an unparalleled experience that I am very grateful for,” student Stacey Johnson said. “His discussion was a potent reminder of engineers’ responsibility to humanism, and he is a tremendous inspiration to develop products and processes that will improve the quality of life for people around the world."