After his childhood in Cameroon left philosophy professor Ajume Wingopondering some of life’s deepest religious and political questions, he came to the United States in search of answers by exploring political philosophy. Today he is director of the Center for Values and Social Policy. He shared some of his fascinating experiences with Coloradan student writer Alex Bak.
How did your childhood in Cameroon influence you to become a philosopher?
As part of one of the [Fondom kingdom] influential political families, I was faced with questions of governance even as a child. I grew up around members of what was more or less the Supreme Court [shown in the photo to the left]. I started studying law and economics in Cameroon because it increased my understanding of people and governance. When I left my home, I remember the elders said to me, “You should go and bring back the secret of how the white man governs his own society.” That is what really drove me into political philosophy because I thought it went into the deep fundamentals and roots of government.
What was your favorite part about growing up in Cameroon?
My favorite part was the stories from my childhood. There were no TVs and few radios, so after dinner everyone sat by the fire to tell stories and folk tales. Today TV makes it possible to send one universal message to everyone, but the art of storytelling is that every story can be tailored to a situation. This makes stories apply to the people to whom they are being told. These messages taught us how to live alongside one another and how to tolerate people who were different from us.
How do you incorporate philosophy into your children’s lives?
I have two girls, and someone once asked me if I wanted a son to succeed me. But what have men done that women haven’t? I taught my daughters that the mind is something infinitely renewable and valuable, and it’s something men and women have in common. I taught them the life of the mind is the most important.
Why should students study philosophy?
Philosophy deals with elusive questions about justice, values and reality that have been examined for thousands of years. Exploring these questions requires patience, courage, curiosity and expansive imagination, and these are not the kinds of things that people in this fast-moving society are used to. If you explore philosophy, you are more likely to discover the nature of reality.
What is the most rewarding part of being at CU-Boulder?
CU-Boulder is one of the leading universities by all measures, and I say this having seen many around the world. I haven’t seen such self-driven students anywhere else. What I find rewarding here is the fact that this is a first-class university but unpretentiously so.
But as wonderful as it is, what worries me is the lack of ethnic and racial diversity. The place looks like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and that is not good for a first-class university. I think a university like this one needs to have different people working together and sharing ideas because these conversations lead to innovation.
Photo by Glenn Asakawa