The dictionary says an intellectual is someone possessing a highly developed intellect; someone highly educated; an academic. Other synonyms were used. Words like: well-read, knowledgeable, bookish, scholarly, studious, enlightened, sophisticated, cultured, thinker. We think of Aristotle, Plato, Einstein, DaVinci, and Sir Isaac Newton—the great minds of history. Today we have Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Winston Churchill.
While great minds do great things, as indicated by the examples above, an intellectual is simply someone who uses their mind and exercises their imagination. Intellect is mostly the ability to think, create change, and form new ideas.
This week I had the opportunity to watch a video of the commencement address of Ibram Kendi, Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of Florida. His words turn the idea of intellect on its head—the idea most commonly associated with being an intellectual.
Professor Kendi’s address is one of the most profound speeches I’ve ever heard. I wish every single young person would listen to this address before embarking on their life’s journey—whatever it may be. For they would realize, they have been surrounded by intellectuals their whole life, ones that came in many shapes, forms, and sizes.
As Dr. Kendi points out in his commencement address, intellectuals need not be advanced in the English language with an extensive vocabulary or know all about literature. Intellectuals come from all walks of life. They cannot be defined by how much they know, but by how much they want to know, by their willingness to use their knowledge wisely, and to make a difference in this world—no matter how big the difference.
His address is well worth the fifteen minutes it takes to watch it.
Here is a condensed transcript of his address to the doctoral candidates at the Fall 2016 University of Florida commencement:
As you stand at this peak about to receive this prestigious doctoral degree from the University of Florida, I suspect you are not only celebrating, but you are also thinking about what is next.
When I say thinking about what is next, I am not talking about you thinking about what is next in your career. I do not want to talk to you about that today. Enough people have talked to you about that already.
I want to talk to you about what is next for your mind now that you are a doctoral recipient. What is next for your mind now that you will have those three letters by your name. What is next for your mind now that some people will call you doctor. I say some people because don’t expect your parents to start calling you doctor. You will still be your mama’s baby, even with a doctorate degree.
The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual? I know you have earned your doctorate degree, but I am asking: are you an intellectual?
I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. Becoming a professor does not make you an intellectual. Working in a research lab does not make you an intellectual. Thinking at a think tank does not make you an intellectual.
It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God.
Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?
Do not become that person.
Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.
When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. All of you, I am sure, know a lot. You know a lot about your discipline and your field and your research—otherwise you would not be here waiting for me to finish this speech so you can get your degree already and go to dinner. I’ve learned the hard way that standing in the way of students and their degrees is unwise; and standing in the way of American families and their food is really unwise. But please bear with me.
I do not measure a person’s intellect based on how much a person knows. I do not consider myself an intellectual because I know a lot about American history. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.
I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.
All of you will be getting your doctorate degrees. But how many of you have a tremendous desire to know? How many of your minds are wide open to new ideas? How many of you are searching for ideas that challenge how you see the world? How many of you are willing to look at the world differently with the blink of new evidence? How many of you are critiquing your own ideas as intensely as you critique the ideas of others?
Intellectuals are a nomadic people, constantly changing their conceptual location, constantly in search of a better conceptual space.
Intellectuals are constantly working out. We have work out warriors of the body, those who pump iron to break down old muscles to allow newer and bigger and better muscles to grow in their place. Well, intellectuals are work out warriors of mind, regularly breaking down old ideas to allow newer and bigger and better ideas to grow in their place.
Are you an intellectual?
If you would like to watch the commencement speech in its entirety, go here.