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Cornel West, a philosopher and academic from Princeton University, speaks with Penn professor Christopher Phillips and a small audience of students in the Amado Recital Hall at Irvine Auditorium. Credit: Imran Cronk , Imran Cronk

When critical writing seminar instructor Christopher Phillips arranged a Skype interview with social change advocate Cornel West for his class, he didn’t expect that he would actually come to Penn to speak to students and other interested members of the public.

Last night, Phillips, who teaches the “Socratic Method and Democracy” seminar, hosted a public conversation on “The Rich Legacy of Socratic Democratic Practices and Procedures” with West at Irvine Auditorium to discuss the values that make up democracy.

Phillips had chosen to use West’s book, “Democracy Matters,” in his writing seminar because West uses the traditions of Socratic questioning to advocate for racial justice.

Around 100 people gathered to hear the intercourse between Phillips and West. During the conversation, Phillips questioned West’s ideas regarding relevant philosophical issues impacting Americans today.

West began by thanking Phillips for inviting him to speak. He first discussed the influence of Socrates on his philosophical thinking. He said he truly admired Socrates for his ability to think critically and his courage to share his ideas no matter what the cost. West vehemently urged the audience to follow this example.

Furthermore, he stressed that independent thinkers must be willing to analyze their own assumptions and prejudices to kill the parts of themselves that perpetuate problems in society with regard to gender, race and religion.

West continued to say that Americans must be unafraid to challenge authority and be active participants in solving the problems visible in society. He pointed to the recent presidential elections to prove his point. Though nearly $6 billion were spent, West argued that none of it went to discussing an extremely relevant problem that remains untouched by politicians: the fact that nearly 22 percent of children live in poverty. He begged his audience to take a stand on the critical issues that remain unaccounted for in society. In concluding, West shared his definition of democracy and urged his relatively young audience to find their voice and not conform to the ideas of others.

Phillips was really impressed by the turnout.

“I really like that members of the public and many students came out to this event. This was an unforgettable opportunity for students to meet an extraordinary man be the change he wants to see in the world.”

Members of Phillips’ critical writing seminar were also impressed.

College freshman Alex Meade said, “It was nice to see West elaborate on some of the perspectives he touches on in his book.”

In addition, College freshman Eliza Rothstein seemed to agree that seeing West in person added to her writing seminar experience.

“There were a lot of ideas in the book that I was not a fan of,” Rothstein said, “because I felt as though West made a lot of broad generalizations. But, in seeing West talk and elaborate on his ideas, I can now see his thinking more clearly.” At the end of the discussion, West said that if there was one thing he wished all the students in the audience would remember it was that students should have “the courage to think and be themselves and that they should never live a lie.”

Phillips will be teaching another writing seminar this spring called “Money and Democracy,” and he hopes to conduct another similar discussion next semester.

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