The Essential Ingredient for a ‘Deep Education’

About a year ago, Princeton philosopher Robert P. George came to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to speak about civil discourse and diversity of thought with the UNC system Board of Governors. He returned on February 8, but this time he came with Cornel West, a long-time friend and philosopher at Harvard University, as guest speakers for Duke University’s Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics.

Instead of directing their message to policymakers, George and West came to speak face-to-face with students, faculty, and local citizens. The two spoke about how they navigate their vastly different political views while maintaining a strong friendship, a skill seemingly rare on most college campuses. Their message and example isn’t just a much-needed antidote to an increasingly polarized culture, either. It also contains an essential ingredient for what George and West call a “deep education:” the desire to be challenged in one’s most fundamental beliefs.

Indeed, George and West argue that students can’t receive an authentically “deep” or “liberal” education unless they look for opportunities to be “challenged and unsettled.” So, even though their talk touched on the importance of courteously engaging with one’s intellectual opponents, the heart of their message went beyond mere platitudes to the importance of civil discourse. In their view, civil discourse is much more than politeness or putting up with others’ opinions. Far from simply tolerating those who challenge one’s beliefs, George and West insist that they should be considered one’s “truest friends.”

Why? Because actively engaging with an ideological opponent refines one’s own understanding of an issue and can lead one closer to the central goal of all education: the pursuit of truth. In a 2014 essay, George elaborates on this point:

[Our interlocutors] are friends precisely because they challenge our beliefs and question their presuppositions. If we are in error, they can help lead us in the direction of truth. If we are on solid ground, engaging people who disagree will deepen and enrich our understanding, even if they are the ones in error. Even people who profoundly disagree can form what Professor Cornel West and I call “the bond of truth seeking.” It can provide a secure basis for deep friendship—friendship built around the collaborative (if dialectal) pursuit of a common objective, a common good.

The notion of respecting and befriending those with different opinions, however, is not unique to George or West. Their ideas are rooted in the philosophies of both Plato and John Stuart Mill.

In Plato’s Gorgias, for instance, Socrates demonstrates how he values truth above all else and considers the act of being corrected as a kindness done by a friend: “Then I shall be very much obliged…to you if you refute me and deliver me from my absurdity. Pray now don’t shrink from the trouble of doing a friend a kindness, but refute me.”

Interestingly, George told the Martin Center that reading Plato’s Gorgias as a college sophomore was “a very transformative experience of mine” because “[Plato] made the case for the intrinsic value of truth.” And in On Liberty, Mill makes the case that openness to other viewpoints is vital because it enables one to more fully grasp the truth:

If the opinion in question is right, [the dissenters] are robbed of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; and if it is wrong, they lose a benefit that is almost as great, namely the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth that would come from its collision with error.

West emphasizes that he and George don’t have a “Disneyland kind of friendship.” Instead, they have what he describes as a “deeper kind of friendship, in the Aristotelian sense.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as “reciprocated goodwill,” where true friends will the good of the other for the sake of the other. Aristotle also says that  “concord”—like-mindedness or agreement—is a “feature of friendship.”

Importantly, Aristotle doesn’t mean that friends must agree on all matters. Rather, they share a general unity of purpose toward a common goal. Sharing a common goal, however, doesn’t mean that George and West—or any friends—must always agree on how to reach that goal. In terms of their friendship as thinkers and scholars, George and West share the common goal of truth-seeking. They are of “one mind” in the sense that they, according to Aristotle, “wish for what is just and advantageous, and seek it in common.”

Even though West says that true friendship “cuts much deeper than any agreement on policy,” the professors’ differences in political views should not be downplayed. As philosophers, they don’t just disagree on mere policy issues—they’ve dedicated their lives and their professions to deeply examining the underlying principles that guide various bodies of social, moral, and political thought.

Arguably, the two professors became friends because of their fundamental differences of opinion. It all began when the Princeton student newspaper planned a feature where one Princeton professor would interview another. The newspaper asked West to act as the interviewer and choose any professor. Even though they were only acquaintances, West chose George. The two ended up talking and debating for hours—well past the parameters of the interview’s length. Since then, the self-described “radical democrat” and the stalwart traditional conservative have been close and trusted friends.

Over the years, they have taught a Great Books seminar together designed to teach students to look at issues from multiple points of view. Each professor chooses six primary texts for the students to read including Sophocles, St. Augustine, John Dewey, and John Stuart Mill.

Students in North Carolina have ample opportunities to emulate George and West’s Aristotelian friendship. Take Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS). The center created an initiative called the North Carolina Leadership Forum to facilitate conversations on contentious issues. The forum co-chairs, John Hood of the John William Pope Foundation and Leslie Winner of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, conducted a “mini version” of the forum in 2017 with students and young professionals in the Research Triangle area. The primary purpose of the forum is, according to Hood, to “model civil dialogue.”

Another promising project out of POLIS is the “Devil’s Discourse” podcast, which records Duke students participating in civil discussions on contentious issues such as abortion, taxes, and immigration.

While coordinated events may facilitate a culture of friendly dialogue across ideological lines, the majority of students don’t need officially organized programs to find their “Robby George” or “Cornel West.” There are countless opportunities every day to talk with an ideological opponent—whether it be a classmate or someone handing out fliers on campus. However one finds these encounters, the importance of cultivating friendships with those of different convictions is vital for true learning to take place.

And as academics in a field dedicated to debating ideas, George and West are an ideal example of the traits all discourse—and friendships—on college campuses should have: rooted in a love of truth over opinion and a respect for the other’s common humanity.

Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.