Princeton professor, author and activist Cornel West urged the 300 people who gathered for his Nov. 16 talk at Green River Community College to go beyond getting credentialed and pursue a "deep education."
It would not be easy, he warned his audience, about half of them students: "In the process of being educated you have to learn how to die in order to live."
Drawing on Plato and Malcom X, West said the death process is part of real education -- paideia -- a concept developed by Socrates that means deep, critical thinking.
It is the antithesis of contemporary culture: "The problem in American society is we are a culture of death-denying, death-dodging... a joyless culture where pleasure-seeking replaces what it means to be human."
Fresh from a trip to Occupy Seattle earlier in the day, West praised the movement, which he said represents "a deep democratic awakening where people are finding the courage to find their voice."
Greed has corroded society, he said.
"Market moralities and mentalities -- fueled by economic imperatives to make a profit at nearly any cost -- yield unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation and sadness. Our public life lies in shambles, shot through with icy cynicism and paralyzing pessimism. To put it bluntly, beneath the record-breaking stock markets on Wall Street and bipartisan budget-balancing deals in the White House, lurk ominous clouds of despair across this nation."
West said that in this age of fear, economic instability and employment challenges, young people must learn "to have a love of wisdom, love of your neighbors and love of justice."
Such love, embedded in our cultural and social justice traditions, is powerful, he said.
"That Coltrane love, that subversive love. It's there in the Occupy Wall Street movement. ... When it's organized and mobilized, love is a threat."