Are You an Intellectual?


Ibram X. Kendi, assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida and winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, will be the plenary speaker at the AAUP’s Annual Conference on the State of Higher Education, June 14-18, 2017. The 2017 conference will focus on the rights and freedoms of students; Professor Kendi is also the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972.  Professor Kendi’s article, “Why Standardized Tests Have Standardized Postracial Ideology,” appears in the current November-December issue of Academe. 

On December 16, Professor Kendi addressed recipients of the PhD. at the University of Florida’s doctoral commencement, asking the graduates “Are You an Intellectual?”

“When I say intellectual,” Professor Kendi told his audience, “I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information.”

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. . . .


The task of intellectuals is to transcend political labels. The task of intellectuals is to transcend political ideology and economic interests and cultural traditions.  The task of intellectuals is to transcend comfort.

The task of intellectuals is to fashion a clear and unadulterated mirror of humanity, so we can see ourselves for what we really are.  The task of intellectuals is to investigate the problems of our world. The task of intellectuals is to solve the problems of our world.

Are you up for these tasks doctoral recipients? Are you up for the task of being an intellectual?

We are here at the mountaintop of the doctoral process. So I ask again what is next for your mind? Will you continue the never-ending climb that is being an intellectual? Or will you start making your way down the mountain towards the valley of anti-intellectualism, thinking you know it all, thinking you have the world figured out, thinking you are beyond critique.

It is certainly much easier to be an anti-intellectual, to go with the flow of the academic current, to reinforce what people already think. You can have a nice career as an anti-intellectual, and the energizers of the academic current will certainly reward you.

But know that the academic current will engulf you. Your work will not be remembered. You will not make history.

I want you to make history, not be history. I want your work to be remembered, not be forgotten. I want you to power and steer the academic current, not be engulfed by it.

I want to be celebrating you one day. I want your family and friends to be bragging about more than their child has a doctorate degree. I want your family and friends to be bragging about how your groundbreaking work is changing the world.

But in order to break new grounds, we must break from our old grounds. In order to change the world we must critique the world.

But before we can change or critique something else, we must have the capacity to change and critique ourselves. We must have the capacity to be intellectuals, to be on the perpetual climb towards the always rising peak of truth.

Congratulations on receiving your doctorate degree. But in all honesty, that is not enough for me. I don’t want you to leave UF with just a doctorate degree. I want you to leave UF as an intellectual.

You can read the full text of Professor Kendi’s talk here or watch and listen to his talk on YouTube below:

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