Having touched upon such profound notions as free will, autonomy, and the alienation of man from God, the discussion of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” is humming along nicely when Cornel West *80, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion, poses the afternoon’s toughest question. “Who’s been deeply in love?” he asks, leaning so far forward in his chair that his goatee is almost touching the table as he looks around him at the rapt faces of 15 Princeton freshmen.
That’s not a question most students feel comfortable answering in a setting as public as a freshman seminar. There is silence until Dov Kaufmann, showing the sort of pluck you’d expect from a former first sergeant in the Israeli army, raises his hand, tentatively at first. If he is about to fall into a trap, it will be particularly awkward to climb out, since the climbing will have to be done in front of 14 curious classmates. But Kaufmann is spared having to make any further confessions when West steps in and rescues him: “Now, this brother knows!” he exclaims. “You fall in love, you stop looking at those other girls. They became uninteresting.”
“Now, let’s not look too closely,” laughs Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, who teaches the course with West and is sitting next to him.
But West is not to be deterred. He wants to bring the point around to the freedom that comes, paradoxically, from surrender. “When you fell in love, you became free,” he tells Kaufmann. “Before that, on Saturday night, you’d be looking at all the girls. You were a slave.”
It is a witty eureka! moment, one that deftly links Augustine’s 1,600-year-old autobiography to life on the Princeton campus today. Kaufmann remembers it fondly: “Professor West seemed to maybe have some hidden story of his own, because he was really smiling too,” he says. “I thought that was neat.”
A lot of college classes present intimidating vistas of endless drudgery, but occasionally you get ones that really, truly, make you think, deep down into your core. Those are magical, and are why the undergraduate experience can be like nothing else in your life. Celebrity professors are not required; I certainly had several such experiences at Villanova.
The news hook for the story is actually not “here’s a cool class,” but “look at these ideological opposites co-teaching a course.” West (who quit Harvard after clashing with Larry Summers) is a charismatic leftist, while George is an influential conservative. But they apparently have a good time coming together with students to engage seriously with Great Ideas, and have struck up a friendship “based on a shared passion for intellectual inquiry.”