On being an intellectual

A few weeks ago, I met with a UF professor who was uncomfortable with my occasional use of the word “prayer” in editorials and messages to campus. We met over a cup of coffee and had a robust and stimulating discussion on why I sometimes say “my prayer” instead of “my hope” and “in my prayers” instead of “in my thoughts” when I wish to convey a strong personal sentiment.

After nearly three years of graduate theological studies, I know there is language with which I may be comfortable but could distract others from the intent and meaning of my message.

We also had a good discussion about evidence-based knowledge and belief systems and UF’s role in educating students to be intellectuals. Dr. Ibram Kendi, a professor of African-American history, gave a powerful commencement address on this same topic to graduating doctoral students in December 2016. Kendi won the National Book Award this past fall for his second book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” His commencement address was about what it means to be an intellectual.

Kendi said, “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.”

He closed his commencement message with the words, “I don’t want you to leave UF with just a doctorate degree. I want you to leave UF as an intellectual.” I agree with Kendi. My desire is that every member of the UF community will learn to be an intellectual — not defined by just how much we know, but rather by our persistent lifelong willingness to be critical of what we know and believe. If you are like me, it is easy to be critical of what others know, but I’m not so comfortable critiquing my own knowledge and beliefs.

The words of Kendi challenge me: “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.” The world will indeed be better if it is filled with intellectual Gators.