Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: The rise and fall of campus intellectualism

Can we all be intellectuals?

My place as an immature, sheltered freshman, combined with the unreliability of Instagram, contributed to a vision of my perceived notion of college as a place where materialism yielded high social status, exclusive tailgates celebrated the freedom of being young and having the coolest game day outfit seemed to be of utmost importance.

I entered my freshman year in trepidation of being outwardly vocal about socio-political issues, in part because I did not feel the urgency to fight for something broader than myself, perhaps stemming from an inability to recognize my privilege in the broader system of American inequality.

I held aspirations to find a great group of friends, maybe a boyfriend, and yes, to be happy academically. I planned on studying sports business and become a woman working in the NBA. As my coursework in sociology inspired a fight within me, I soon, and luckily, realized that keeping up with Instagram and such wasn’t that important and veered down a path of intellectualism. I never thought that fighting against institutional oppression would be central to my aspirations in life.  

To some, the notion of being an intellectual is an untouchable status that only those with high academic positions can uphold. To others, it is a feared and intimidating word that conveys holding strong opinions and having a high amount of knowledge.

According to Ibram Kendi, acclaimed author and historian, knowing a wealth of information or having a doctorate, becoming a professor or working in a research lab doesn’t make you an intellectual. Rather, an intellectual is a person of any status who has a tremendous desire to know and seek the truth. An intellectual has the capacity to change their mind on matters, is open to new ideas, challenges themselves on their own world view and is constantly “changing their conceptual location.” If this is an intellectual, then shouldn’t we all strive to be one?

At BU, hundreds of on-campus organizations are a direct portrayal of desired social change as students strive to shed light on issues that matter to them. Spaces like the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground make it possible to facilitate free-flowing intellectual conversations surrounding America’s most pressing social problems. On Fridays, the HTC hosts an event called Coffee and Conversation, in which a different topic is introduced and students are encouraged to share their opinions. But how many students truly attend these conversations and what makes people care? Has on-campus intellectualism declined?

The civil rights era was a movement fueled by the intellectualism that Ibram Kendi talks about: a tremendous desire to know and seek the truth and an openness to challenge your own world view. In the 1960s, budding college students feared stagnation, big business and consumer culture. In an era characterized by campus unrest, it was student groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society who propelled the civil rights movement and brought about true change in the fight for racial equality. College students were willing to relocate their conceptual place in the world in the recognition of their own privilege in order to become allies with those affected by the ills of our racist society.

Today, rising intellectualism seems to be less of the zeitgeist, and more-so a way to fuel one’s narcissistic credibility or status. Joining clubs and activities is the trend because it develops our resumes. There are certainly students fighting for all types of equality and justice, but human rights issues such as detaining families and children at the border, mass incarceration and overt sexual assault cases have become increasingly politicized and polarizing issues. This is very different from the culture of the civil rights era where the idea of a “revolution” was universal.

Being able to change your opinion by locating truth is crucial to the upkeep of democracy. In order to bring about real change, we must first be able to see the other’s point of view. College, specifically Boston University, facilitates opportunities to broaden our intellectual curiosity safely — and I urge all students to take advantage.

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