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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Examined Life at Age 8 or 98: Dorothy Height Rest in Peace

The New York Times reported today that Dorothy Height, Activist, Educator, Civil Rights Leader, and quintessential black feminist, has died at the age of 98. You can read the NYT obituary of Dorothy Height here.

Miss Height (and she was a Miss, not a Ms.; Dorothy Height reminded us that words such as “miss” and “Negro” need not be relegated to the dustbin) was for 40 years the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Many people are aware of her work as a quiet but determined worker for the cause of black progress. Far fewer understand that she was also instrumental in helping to forge bonds between black and white women and between people of differing religious beliefs. She championed causes both large and small, and was a counselor to presidents as well as an advocate for the rights of poor children. As the New York Times reports, for much of her early life she was pushed to the background by the male leaders of black civil rights groups and the female leaders of white feminist groups. But she kept working nonetheless.

The report of Dorothy Height’s death follows close on an article in the New York Times about Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College and his program that teaches philosophy to young children. You can read about it here. Professor Wartenberg uses common children’s books to introduce children (many of them apparently children of color) to basic philosophical inquiries, including aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics. It is Professor Wartenberg’s belief that these children, and all children, have the capacity to understand philosophical ideas and to put them into practice in their daily lives. He is quoted as saying: “A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline.” He goes on to say, “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.” In this regard, Professor Wartenberg’s work is of a piece with that of Dorothy Height. Dorothy Height embodied, perhaps better than anyone of her time, Socrates’ (and later Robert Nozick’s) notion of the examined life, for hers was a life involving public discussion of and engagement with life issues both great and small. Moreover, and more importantly, hers was a life of active service to both the great and the small. She reminds us that the seeming proliferation of fake progressives is not new, for there is nothing new under the sun. Our times now call for the same thing called for in Miss Height’s early career: eschewing labels and limelight and putting our shoulders to the wheel to effectuate genuine change.

Miss Dorothy Height, rest in peace.