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February 9, 2002
6:35 AM   Subscribe

Some undiluted Brother Cornel West for ya. Now, who could give this man a professional reprimand? A great 3 hour clip from CNN's Book Tv. "Between Coltrane and Chekov is where I live... think in love, fight in justice". Shameless big-name-dropper: total genius. And the controversial CD? Mnnff... preachy performance, watery r'n'b. Not quite Gil Scott Heron or Last Poets. But not a firing issue, President Summers.
posted by theplayethic (19 comments total)

 
> But not a firing issue, President Summers.

Who said anything about firing? In the linked Globe article it says some professors are considering walking off in a snit:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and two other prominent members of Harvard's Afro-American studies department - Cornel West and Anthony Appiah - are considering leaving for Princeton University, The Boston Globe reported.

The group has reportedly fallen out with Summers, who they claim has acted abrasively and suggested West has acted in ways unbecoming to a Harvard professor.


That "abrasive" claim could mean anything, and in contexts like this very frequently means "insisted on having an opinion of his own, different from ours."


Summers, inaugurated in October as Harvard's 27th president, also reportedly rebuked West for recording a rap CD, for leading a political committee for the Rev. Al Sharpton's possible presidential campaign, and for allowing grade inflation in his introductory black studies course.

The CD isn't worth a rebuke, except insofar as it makes a Harvard professor into a popcult joke (imagine Richard Lewontin releasing an album of terrible C&W) but if there's any evidence of grade inflation that's certainly a legitimate concern of a university president. Summers should make the evidence public.

And if I were president of the H-school and learned that one of my professors was actively supporting Al Sharpton you better believe the prof would get "rebuked" -- just as fast as he would if I learned he had joined the White Citizens' Council.


Jesse Jackson plans to come to Harvard University to seek clarity on the university's diversity policy.

Jackson said he does not consider the issue a conflict, but told The Associated Press on Sunday night "we need to clarify the situation." He said he planned to contact Summers to seek a meeting.


Oh my Ghod, here comes Jesse for another round of self-promotion. What a vulture. I have here a suggested statement for President Summers, which I hereby release under the GPL:

"A certain private citizen having no slightest connection with Harvard, namely Mr. Jesse Jackson, proposes to obtrude himself into the midst of a Harvard faculty dispute. If it proves to be the opinion of the general Harvard community that I should permit and cooperate with this obtrusion, I am fully prepared to resign."
posted by jfuller at 8:25 AM on February 9, 2002


On sharpton: watch the tape, about 20 mins in, someone asks the pertinent question. West says something like, "who else [than Sharpton] is bringing up the question of the prison-industrial state? Can't we separate the man from the issue, and try to find a humanity in him which can raise itself to the issue?" (not exact paraphrase, but near enough). Perhaps he's being very ethical in trying to ensnare a populist in his reason and learning, than just sitting on the side producing perfect analyses. Wouldn't be the first time someone tried to do that.

On Jackson obtruding into faculty dispute: gimme a break. From William Bennett on down, how many right-wing mandarins keep "obtruding" into educational institutions they think are too radical or left? It's called cultural politics, friend, and it requires the contest of positions.

Grade inflation: show the numbers/provide the research, sure. Otherwise, it's just sub-racial slander (these undiscplined black scholars, etc).

Summers is a neo-liberal tight-ass who couldn't be expected to do anything other than recoil at a vibrant, ethnically-self-conscious intellectual community, making waves at the heart of the nation's top elite institution. I hope this scandal cranks up even more.
posted by theplayethic at 8:43 AM on February 9, 2002


Perhaps it's bad form during Black History month to criticize "Brother Cornel" as he is want to be called. But, I for one am glad someone called this gadfly on his pimp roll through the halls of academe. As for the outrage, God forbid a university president might insist on standards.

When Cornel occasionally writes a book without the benefit of a co-author we are left with something like Race Matters, a collection of words which would make equal sense in any other order they might be arranged.
posted by Real9 at 9:07 AM on February 9, 2002


Hold on, Real9... The American Evasion of Philsophy is a brilliant argument about "America as improvisation" (and one which Louis Menand just recently rehashed with his book, 'The Metaphysical Club'). Stands with anyone's work on the subject. And as for all the co-writes - what co-writes! The Future of American Progressivism, with Roberto Unger - the best book of left US political theory since C.Wright Mills. Another, The War Against Parents, is wise beyond belief about the strains that modern American life puts on those who care for kids. And if you get to the end of The Cornel West reader, you'll see that the next book is a radical re-reading of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

Boy I love defending Professor West's intellectual props against sophomoric wise-asses. Bring-it-ON!
posted by theplayethic at 9:28 AM on February 9, 2002


Not quite Gil Scott Heron

Hardly a criticism.
posted by y2karl at 9:34 AM on February 9, 2002


Grade inflation: show the numbers/provide the research, sure. Otherwise, it's just sub-racial slander (these undiscplined black scholars, etc).

Actually, it isn't. As has been widely reported, Harvard, at present, awards As or A-s to nearly half of its undergraduates. 91% of its students graduate with honors. This is a faculty-wide problem; there's nothing racist in Summers' suggestion that West might kindly consider helping out.

(Incidentally, the claim that "Harvard has smarter students, therefore they get more As" is based on a fallacy. I taught for a year at a prestigious Big Ten university before getting my current position, which is at what we politely call a "third-tier" school. But when I work out the respective grade distributions, they turn out to be nearly identical. Grades are always partly relational: a "C" indicates "average" or "acceptable" performance at that particular school. The only reason that the Big Ten distribution skews higher is because, to be blunt, it was gently hinted that the short-term employees were expected to inflate the grades in one particular course.)

Back to West: he may qualify as a "public intellectual" of sorts, but he isn't really a research-oriented scholar. And Harvard is interested in the latter, not the former. Strictly speaking, qua intellectual, the quality of West's thought doesn't even begin to approach that of the recently-departed-to-Princeton Kwame Anthony Appiah (a far more rigorous thinker), or even Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (the Harold Bloom of Black Studies.)
posted by thomas j wise at 9:44 AM on February 9, 2002


Professor West's intellectual props

Exactly. And, not everyone shares theplayethic's superlatives in describing West's most famous work.

"West's work is noisy, tedious, slippery (in The American Evasion of Philosophy, "evasion" is a term of praise, a description of an accomplishment), sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared. " - Leon Wieseltier, 1995

And, what thomas j wise said.
posted by Real9 at 10:12 AM on February 9, 2002


Appiah/Gates vis-a-vis West as rigorous thinker: that's largely a taste call. Yes, West's a political and cultural theorist, primarily - but don't tell me there's no such thing as theoretical research, even in Harvard.

Also, that's a pretty backward notion of intellection, tj west. Ever heard of fellow Harvard academic Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences?
You can have an emotional, aesthetic and rhetorical intelligence, as well as a strictly logical-linguistic one.

West's basic rigour, plus his multiple sensitivity to the forms of black culture, is what's made him stellar. West rhetorical "moves" have as much weight as his propositional logic. That's a settled theme in black scholarship - how the "content" of black culture comes through non-elite cultural forms (jazz, hip-hop, name it) - and if you ignore that, you ignore the full contribution to American civilisation.

That's what West tried to do with the record - unsuccessfully, in my opinion: another taste call - but it's the emotional and psychological richness of his academic language that allows clowns to use words like 'pimp roll' about him. West is literally "walking the talk" of the major themes in black scholarship. As such, he's made himself a target. Thus, he needs defending.

Sometimes a thinker can be both rigourous/and popular, rather than either/or. People, get over it.

Wieseltier: well known for his contrarian abuse. Also, whuppin Cornel's ass was part of his general move to turn the New Republic into the New Republican. Which has suck-seeded.
posted by theplayethic at 10:24 AM on February 9, 2002


Wieseltier's essay on West is a notorious and gratuitous hack-job. There's a lot of credible criticism of West's work, none of it to be found in the Wieseltier piece.

And, speaking of gratuitous:
I for one am glad someone called this gadfly on his pimp roll through the halls of academe.

Have you been waiting to use that one, real9? Pimp roll...oh, I get it, West is black...pimp. Ha. How deft! We're all very impressed. Reminds me of what Malcolm X said "You know what a liberal calls a black man with a PhD? Nigger."

"Sketches of My Culture" is unfortunate, I've seen him speak several times and his natural flow seems to have been completely subsumed inside the studio. And why he decided to take beats almost exclusively from a mid-80s Casio keyboard is beyond me. Couldn't he have given DJ Spooky a call?

Yes, West can be overly pedantic. This is often the case when an intellectual refuses to speak down to an audience: the tendency to over-explain in an effort to raise the level of discourse. But his completist approach to culture and philosophy is postmodern in the best sense, and his work is consistently compelling, whether or not you agree with it.
posted by Ty Webb at 10:42 AM on February 9, 2002


> On sharpton: watch the tape, about 20 mins in,
> someone asks the pertinent question. West says
> something like, "who else [than Sharpton] is bringing up
> the question of the prison-industrial state? Can't we
> separate the man from the issue,

Once more, kindly read your own link. The Globe article mentions a rebuke "for leading a political committee for the Rev. Al Sharpton's possible presidential campaign". Asking us to "separate the man from the issue" while supporting the man for President? What theplayethic said -- (when he said "gimme a break.")
posted by jfuller at 11:45 AM on February 9, 2002


When the Summers/West imbroglio hit the press a month(?) ago articles said that Summers called on many professors he thought weren't producing Harvard-quality research. (One article I read also said Summers wanted to get rid of some of Harvard's eminent names whose good work is well behind them (usually at other institutions) and take more risks on promising researchers whose best work is yet to come (if it does come), though that's beside the point.) However, I've never seen any mention of how many professors Summers called on to shape up and how many of them reacted indignantly. Anyone know? AFAIK West is the only one who got press.
posted by mlinksva at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2002


Question: I don't follow all this academic wrangling. What purpose does it all serve to the average person?

I'm really asking because until I saw Cornel West's name on someone's blog about this whole thing, I'd never heard of him.
posted by owillis at 2:01 PM on February 9, 2002


Boy I love defending Professor West's intellectual props against sophomoric wise-asses. Bring-it-ON!

Why do I get the feeling that you started this thread more for the opportunity to engage in some rhetorical one-upmanship than out of any genuine desire to debate the merits of West's body of work? Like owillis, I know little about him, so instead of the name calling and overly aggressive cheerleading, why don't you tell us why you think we should give a damn?
posted by MrBaliHai at 2:26 PM on February 9, 2002


Cornell West spoke at my college graduation. . . on a personal note the man scares me. It strikes me that he uses verbose language and a preachy delivery to drive home his point rather than solid facts or investigation.
posted by KnitWit at 4:18 PM on February 9, 2002


Anyone interested in the West brouhaha could do worse than to read over the many, many posts about the mess on Instapundit.com.
posted by aaron at 4:40 PM on February 9, 2002


Hmm. The problematic thing about the discussion of West is that the evaluation of West as a scholar rests too much on the dismissive New Republic article. There also is the fact that we have very little to go on about what exactly the meeting was like, and never will.
As for grade inflation at Harvard, the whole matter was already polluted with a racial slant before Summers allegedly accused West of contributing to it. (A professor complained about it, and then needlessly attributed it to the past influx of black students at Harvard, which of course had predictable results). The question of what causes grade inflation is complex, and probably attributable partially to the rise of meritocracy.
posted by Charmian at 7:15 PM on February 9, 2002


CNN's Book Tv? Don't you mean C-SPAN?
posted by alethe at 7:34 PM on February 9, 2002


> The question of what causes grade inflation is complex,
> and probably attributable partially to the rise of meritocracy.

Speaking as someone who has actually attended the H-school being discussed, I can testify to the truth of the rumor that it's much much harder to get into Harvard than it is to stay in.

Note that this applies to Harvard College, the undergraduate part of Harvard, and not to any of the graduate or professional schools of which I have any experience. Coming out of a typical Podunk U (specifically Georgia State College) I was admitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences on the strength of good GRE scores. I found my Harvard graduate level courses shockingly hard - I had no life at all, all I did was study. By contrast I also had occasion to sit in on several undergraduate classes, because they had Famous Professors. I found the Famous Professors' lectures were fine and dandy but the teaching sections, taught by section men (TAs) were just stupifyingly easy -- and your grade in a given class was heavily based on your "performance," heh heh, in the sections. Section men handed out A's like Altoids.

You can, of course, squeeze an absolutely tippy-top undergraduate education out of Harvard but it's strictly up to you to nag the system into giving it to you, and nobody's going to bother you (least of all throw you out) if you don't.

The experience I describe was acquired in the early nineteen seventies. At that time one was aware of some black faces among the undergraduates (along with some Hispanic faces, South Asian faces, Chinese and Japanese faces, etc.) but there was no sign of any massive influx of Black students. Therefore I conclude that Harvard College has been a notably mushy, no-more-effort-than-you-want-to-give sort of place, once you overcome the initial hurdle of getting in, for quite a long time; and any subsequent increase in the number of Black undergraduates has nothing whatever to do with the issue.
posted by jfuller at 6:03 AM on February 10, 2002


Therefore I conclude that Harvard College has been a notably mushy, no-more-effort-than-you-want-to-give sort of place, once you overcome the initial hurdle of getting in, for quite a long time; and any subsequent increase in the number of Black undergraduates has nothing whatever to do with the issue.

Speaking of quite a long time: one of my relatives back in the great-greats went to Harvard during the first decade of the twentieth century. As a Jew, he rapidly wearied of the rampant anti-Semitism there. But what he remembered about the anti-Semitism was this: the Christians resented the Jews not just because they were Jewish, but because they actually did their work. How, pray tell, was a man to get a "Gentleman's C" with those Jews screwing up the curves? (This antipathy to minorities who, horror of horrors, work hard has in more recent decades spilled over to Asians.)

It is probably fair to say that the Vietnam War era did influence grade inflation, given what I've been told by people who were teaching at that time: given the choice between failing someone and putting their lives in danger, or lowering grading standards, they lowered grading standards. None of them ever mentioned race as a factor. (Even Harvey Mansfield's worshipful ex-student Andrew Sullivan grudgingly had to admit that Mansfield was probably over-estimating the racial aspect of grade inflation.) That doesn't mean it wasn't there--but most of the faculty I've talked to also don't recall having that many black students thirty-five or forty years ago.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:57 AM on February 10, 2002


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