If there’s a university that has a better line-up of lecturers year in and year out than we do at Millersville, I haven’t yet found it. Coming to campus soon are accomplished animal behaviorist Temple Grandin and Yevgeni Yevtushenko, whose willingness to speak out through his poetry encouraged generations of Russians to recognize Soviet atrocities toward Jews.
Last Thursday we heard Princeton Professor of African American Studies, Dr. Cornel West who delivered the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Lecture in Pucillo Gymnasium to a crowd of more than 1200 people. Just a look at Thursday evening’s audience made it clear that the MU family and the Lancaster region had come together in a moment of community engagement.
And in that moment, Dr. West employed Dr. King’s life and work as a metaphor for a simple but challenging point about living well: Composing a meaningful life for oneself is a function of one’s efforts to make a meaningful life for others possible. This is not a simple call to a volunteer spirit. It is a complex call to intelligent action, to the recognition that I cannot live well unless all in my community also live well.
Dr. West is serious about “prophetic pragmatism,” a phrase that he made famous in a 1993 book about American philosophy. He argues that the best American philosophers are “organic intellectuals” who recognize that their thought comes from and feeds into the challenges of human living. Dr. West argues that American pragmatist philosophy is most effective when it is “prophetic,” that is, when it calls each of us to justice and service. And Dr. West’s prophetic temper was on display on campus. Dr. West spoke in a cadence stimulating an active response from his audience. Some in the audience may have found him too much for an academic sensibility, but I assure you those surrounding me were ready and willing to hear his call and respond.
His call is too challenging to cloak in comfort. But growth is a function of challenge, not comfort.
Dr. West said that it is far more than “getting involved.” It is that we each have a responsibility to “respect, protect and correct” those in positions of authority, and the only way we can do that is if we are in the community, engaged in its life and challenges.
MU’s various annual lectures invite each of us to interact with people who have changed the world for the better. Dr. West went one step further this week to embody not only his own message but also the message that represents the best of the university as we move into a new and challenging decade: Intelligence employed in service to the least among us serves justice.