Observing Doctor West

HGSE student and Communication Fellow Grace Tatter (left), with friends (Photo: Iman Rastegari)

HGSE student and Communication Fellow Grace Tatter (left), with friends (Photo: Iman Rastegari)

My tombstone will probably read “Here lies Grace, a journalist who never knew where her pen was.”

This was the case last Wednesday, when I met Cornel West before he spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Askwith Forum — and, of course, wanted to write down everything he said.

Fortunately, Dr. West is memorable enough that no notes are required to recall his personal warmth or piercing words.

Despite being, as my dad said, “the most famous professor at Harvard,” Dr. West had zero pretensions when he walked into the conference room where I, fellow communication fellows Josh and Lucia, Matt Weber (Preceptor on Education and host of The Harvard EdCast) and Iman Rastegari (Multimedia Producer and VOICE program teaching fellow) were waiting. He hugged each of us, asking our names and where we were from. (“North Carolina! Like John Coltrane,” he said when he met me and Josh.) When we asked him if he wanted any water, he tried to give us a bottle of water.

West says that he doesn’t buy into the message that we can always find hope, and that hope has been commodified, a jab at President Obama, whom West famously has disavowed. He says he just tries to be hope, by showing love. When West’s daughter called during Matt’s interview for the Harvard EdCast,  Matt asked if he could answer — she’s taking a class on Nietzsche at Princeton, he said, in German.  (I later looked her up — she’s only 16. When I was her age, I didn’t know who Nietzche was.) He was only on the phone with her for less than a minute, but he said “I love you,” at least times, in quick succession, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” be-bopping it out not unlike Coltrane played the sax.

West clearly values intelligence, but not for status sake.A common fear I’ve heard from my classmates at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and have myself, is that we will lose sight of why we’re here. Most of us are here to break down barriers to opportunity, but once we’ve crossed them ourselves, we see their allure. It’s nice to feel special, to feel smart. But West said more than once, because it bears repeating, that being the smartest person in the room is not important. Being the most courageous person is. He invited both listeners of the Ed Cast, and later, the audience at the Askwith Forum, to never become complacent with what we know, and to embrace uncertainty. People, especially in rarefied spaces, love to throw around the word “obviously,” he said, but few things are obvious. The very use of the word often makes people feel like they’re on the outside. Education doesn’t end with a degree; it should never end at all. We should never stop questioning, never feel satisfied with “obvious.”

It was a message that could have felt unsettling: You know less than you think you do. Hope is overrated.

And to me, it was unsettling. But delivered with West’s energy, his transparent joy in the act of questioning and his love for people, it was also exhilarating, and even comforting, all at once.


Before beginning the Specialized Studies program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Grace Tatter lived in Nashville, Tenn., where she wrote for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that covers public education. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in history. She enjoys telling and sharing stories that highlight the importance of public education