As someone with a graduate degree in philosophy, my natural curiosity led me to review Dr. Cornel West’s MasterClass. He is a well-known American philosopher, actor, and political activist. Given his concurrent role as a third-party candidate in the 2024 U.S. presidential race, his views hold substantial current relevance. I’m here to examine Dr. West’s ideas and teachings.
At the outset, I never doubt the competence of professors with a proven track record in their capacity to teach. Therefore, my expectations are set high. However, MasterClass is a specific educational platform with its own format and audience. Does Dr. West’s philosophy course align well with the MasterClass platform? In this review, I will discuss my thoughts and opinions on just that.
Table of Contents
What is the Cornel West MasterClass?
“Cornel West Teaches Philosophy” is an online course on MasterClass that explores fundamental questions about what it means to be human, what forms of love should be directed at humanity, and how people’s self-perceptions are shaped by community, tradition, and heritage. Dr. West is pioneering a philosophy course on MasterClass. He is, in a sense, becoming the Socrates of MasterClass.
While the course is adapted to provide an introduction to philosophy that’s digestible for any layperson, it also offers a unique jazz-inspired perspective that might be intriguing for philosophy enthusiasts. Dr. West proposes that this outlook allows you to understand how, for instance, music transforms suffering into an expression that connects with humanity at large.
The course showcases 15 video lessons and takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete. Although this might seem brief, each video lesson is packed with dense material. There are numerous references to other philosophers, playwrights, activists, musicians, and other relevant individuals. To unpack everything will require dedicated effort. In other words, if you were to follow the trail of these references and learn why they are significant to Dr. West’s MasterClass, you will undoubtedly gain valuable insights into the profound questions he poses.
Who is Cornel West?
Cornel Ronald West is a distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in three years and earned his M.A. as well as Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton University. After completing his education, Cornel West served as a former professor at Harvard and Professor Emeritus at Princeton.
Dr. West’s body of work includes most famous books, “Race Matters,” “Democracy Matters,” and “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,” where politics, love, culture, literature, and music are central themes. Upon closer examination, these themes also play a crucial role in his MasterClass.
Beyond academia, Dr. West has not only acted but also produced several movies, including some of the most well-known film series like “The Matrix.” He has also appeared on various media outlets such as the Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now.
As a prominent activist, Dr. West was arrested for protesting and voicing his views on contemporary politics, although the charges were subsequently dropped.
If all that isn’t impressive enough, Dr. West may reach the pinnacle of his career by winning next year’s presidential election.
At the outset, Dr. West doesn’t keep his philosophy in the clouds; rather, he grounds it in the earth. He is passionate about raising his voice with others and communicating his wisdom to the public. In many ways, his spirit embodies the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – “a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.”
Who is his target audience?
Initially, Cornel West’s target audience isn’t clear for his MasterClass. Since philosophy, in general, can be interesting and beneficial to a wide audience.
Now, Dr. West’s philosophy is rooted in a blend of Christian thought, Marxism, and pragmatism. So, it can be influential for a diverse audience. Specifically, I believe Dr. West’s MasterClass can benefit the following individuals:
- Scholars interested in contemporary philosophy, ethics, race theory, and social justice as a source of inspiration and critical analysis.
- Activists actively working on issues related to inequality, racism, and poverty.
- Anyone seeking a fresh perspective on the relationship between philosophy and music.
- Those who want to learn how philosophy can be applied to everyday life.
Dr. West elegantly demonstrates how philosophy can positively impact people’s lives, making it a valuable source of motivation for anyone on a journey of self-development striving to become the best versions of themselves.
What topics does Cornel West cover in his MasterClass?
Cornel West has been teaching philosophy – the love of wisdom – for almost half a century. In those years, he has explored philosophical and ethical concepts not just inside the classroom but also beyond its walls. You will quickly learn that the essence of humanity, the profound aspects of love, and the significant influence of music have had a major impact on his perspectives.
One of the central concepts in Dr. West’s course is the human struggle to combat greed, corruption, hatred, and fear, which he metaphorically refers to as the “hounds of hell.” He proposes that philosophy can pave the way for this by directing attention toward matters of significance, cultivating critical consciousness, and nurturing a strong moral character. We learn that compassion is a form of love in which we transition from being mere spectators of catastrophes caused by the “hounds of hell” to active participants in ameliorating them. The key lesson is to recognize the bittersweet truth that we aren’t born morally good and that negative influences surround us, but that we can actively engage in self-improvement and contribute to the betterment of others.
Furthermore, Dr. West provides a philosophical perspective on love, specifically distinguishing unconditional love from sentimental love. Sentimental love, he contends, is not an execution but a gesture, requiring the luxury of emotion without the price of the ego’s demise. Additionally, he explores the delicate interplay between hope, optimism, and despair. Despite facing despair or the sudden emergence of the “hounds of hell” in life, he asserts the importance of maintaining hope optimism, and leaving a trace of heaven behind.
The course not only offers course offer case studies of individuals who embody the kind of mature moral character described but also shares personal anecdotes from Dr. West’s experience regarding the significance of giving and receiving love. The transition toward self-belief and self-love is eloquently portrayed through the case studies and anecdotes.
In the final lessons, Dr. West underscores the idea that philosophy, to have a robust conception, must embrace various forms of wisdom. By this, he means that philosophy shouldn’t exclusively align itself with literature, science, and logic, as is traditionally conceived, but should also find resonance with music. After all, music transcends the human struggle and is itself a form of wisdom.
My favorite lessons from the Cornel West MasterClass
There are countless lessons in Cornel West’s MasterClass. The following are a few of my favorite lessons.
Humanity and humility
While I remain uncertain about Dr. West’s use of the term ‘humando,’ which, in Latin, refers to burial and burying within the context of humanity and humility, I do recognize that the acknowledgment of human significance stems from the concept of death.
As far as we know, death is an inevitability beyond our control. The lesson he imparts about embodying humanity and embracing humility in the face of the inexorable reality of death and how philosophy can be seen as a rejection of denying death is a compelling point. I find meaning in life, and I think others do too, knowing that I will someday die or knowing that the important people in my life will one day no longer be alive.
Pity vs. compassion
In this lesson, the distinction between spectatorship and participation is crucial. Dr. West aptly emphasizes that compassion delves deeper, surpassing the mere superficiality of pity. His case study using Eugene O’Neil’s play underscores this difference. I think this theme resonates with the pervasive issue of homelessness today. Daily, countless individuals pass by numerous homeless people, often with a lack of compassion. It’s a stark reality that far too few are willing to pause and address the needs of the homeless.
Overcoming grief with music
People can use music to overcome grief in order to move forward.
However, Dr. West proposes that following the death of a beloved one, the transfiguration of suffering, either through silence or music, comes before discourse using words. While I don’t particularly agree with this, as I can imagine cases of death after which people talk through their grief rather than strictly using music to process the silence, he does allude to a paradoxical truth: joy can emerge from music in the face of indescribable monstrous reality. The takeaway here is that music has the power to push back against the very catastrophe that might otherwise utterly devastate us.
From our roots, for our routes
In the final lessons, Dr. West explores the role of community, tradition, heritage, and legacy that influences what it means to be human in our lives. The idea is that our optimal approach is to continue building upon the strengths of the past, to build on top of the best of one’s roots. This is, he suggests, how we can mobilize ourselves to create a better present and a better future for the world we live in.
Indeed, by critically examining the best of our roots, our most valuable foundations, we can chart the best routes moving forward or the most optimal path ahead. Not just for our individual journeys but also for our lives collectively.
How much does the Cornel West MasterClass cost?
To gain access to the Cornel West MasterClass, you must purchase an annual subscription to MasterClass. Currently, they do not offer the option to buy individual classes.
The yearly subscription starts at $120. While $10 per month probably doesn’t sound like a substantial expense, this pricing is most advantageous for individuals who plan to explore a wide range of courses offered by over 185 instructors, all expertly produced. If you are solely interested in Dr. West’s course, an annual subscription may not be the most cost-effective choice for you.
However, the subscription provides access to the MasterClass community, where you can engage in discussions with fellow students who are progressing through the same materials. I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in these discussions yet, so I cannot speak about how useful they are.
It’s worth noting that some courses on MasterClass include a free class guide. The Cornel West MasterClass booklet is particularly helpful. It offers a summary of Dr. West’s life and work and provides insights into prominent Western philosophers and key concepts in his course. This is a plus!
What I liked about the Cornel West MasterClass
Now, I turn to my own reflections on the Cornel West MasterClass, the only course that explicitly teaches philosophy. The following are several aspects that I appreciated.
Like all other philosophy courses I have taken, this course didn’t fall short in providing abundant information. I learned a lot about the interplay between philosophy and music in a way that I haven’t been exposed to before. Dr. West’s passion for his work is evident, and it allowed me to learn about the importance of music and its relation to philosophy.
As I mentioned previously, Dr. West is a candidate in the run for the U.S. presidency next year. This means that at least some of the lessons we learned warrant his overall conceptions of the human condition. In the context of politics, his thoughts on compassion, combined with his heritage of truth-telling and standing witness to love and justice, provide a framework from which he will likely depart. Whether or not this pursuit is noble deserves an entirely separate essay.
Excellent production quality
Minimal distractions are crucial for online courses. The MasterClass production is always top-notch, allowing me to easily tune in to the courses. Dr. West’s course was no different.
Appeal to a diverse audience.
The course is tailored to be accessible and relatable to a broad audience. Dr. West’s ability to effortlessly dissect complex philosophical concepts into relatively short videos is impressive. With this kind of philosophy course, more people can begin to appreciate its value.
Educational course handbook
Understanding the layers of any philosophical work can be challenging. Often, you need to have some basic knowledge of the history of philosophy or revisit key concepts more than once. Luckily, Dr. West’s MasterClass offers a comprehensive written guide to do just that, enhancing the learning experience.
What I didn’t like about the Cornel West MasterClass
Although the Cornel West MasterClass aligns closely with my educational background, I ultimately found it somewhat unsatisfying. Here are some reasons as to why.
Many professors adopt a deliberate pace when covering the material, allowing students ample time for note-taking and participation in class discussions. While the approach may be effective in traditional classrooms, Dr. West proceeds with his online class at such a slow pace that I had to increase the video speed to absorb the content.
Relatively short duration
In my view, not only are some of the videos too short to adequately address the topics Dr. West introduces, but the entire course is also too brief for him to thoroughly explore all the themes he delves into. Consequently, much of the substance that would otherwise be presented in a longer video format is condensed into the class handbook. From a pedagogical perspective, it might have been more effective to have longer videos, allowing students to listen to Dr. West actually present the material.
Lack of interactivity
Personally, what I found to be the deal-breaker is the inability to ask questions of the instructor or engage in real-time discussions with other students. Philosophy is a discipline heavily reliant on discussion, and without the ability to interact, a significant part of the learning experience is lost.
Conclusion: Would I recommend the Cornel West MasterClass?
To conclude, Dr. West expertly navigates complex philosophical concepts and relates them to the pressing issues of our time. His teachings on ethics, activism, and the pursuit of truth are intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. Notwithstanding my personal reasons for complaint, I would recommend his course, especially for those eager to explore contemporary philosophy. Students will find themselves enriched with knowledge and inspired to effect positive change in the world.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this MasterClass is Dr. West’s informative and enthusiastic approach to philosophy and music, offering a fresh perspective compared to traditional philosophy. The contemporary relevance of his teachings and ideas is particularly valuable as we approach the U.S. presidential elections. Perhaps we can identify connections between the government policies he endorses and his broader views on humanity that will resonate with voters.
Importantly, this MasterClass isn’t just for philosophers or scholars; it’s for anyone with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to make a difference. Dr. West’s teachings transcend traditional academic boundaries, offering universal insights into the human condition and our moral responsibilities.
In the end, the Cornel West MasterClass on Philosophy is a journey of intellectual discovery, social awakening, and personal growth. It has the potential to change lives in a positive direction, and for that reason, I endorse it – let it be a part of your roots and your route.