Dr. Kim Wilson gave this year’s keynote speech at NYU PEP’s 2019 graduation at Wallkill Correctional Facility. Dr. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in Urban Affairs and Public Policy, a Master’s in Education in Adult and Organizational Development, and a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Human Resources. Her doctoral research focused on the effects of incarceration and reentry on communities. Dr. Wilson has twenty years experience teaching in the humanities and in education.
By Dr. Kim Wilson
Wallkill Correctional Facility
Monday, October 28th, 2019
Good afternoon! I’m delighted to be here today to celebrate the achievement of the students in the PEP Program. Today is for you and about you, so I hope that my words work on you.
What does it mean to be an intellectual? For some to be an intellectual conjures up images of old men sitting in dusty libraries doing work in isolation from others. This image perpetuates the idea that learning is done in a quiet, disciplined manner, and that lone individuals are or should be responsible for the ideas that shape the world. It also reinforces the idea that the work of one person matters more than collective effort. That image is antiquated and it leaves out the work that is and has been produced by people working on the margins.
I want to present you with a contrasting image of what it means to be an intellectual. In Black Studies we draw upon the rich historical past given to us by our African ancestors. In this context we are the heirs to a tradition of the activist intellectual, or what the ancient Egyptian’s called the sesh. The sesh were expected to be morally and socially committed to using their knowledge in service of the people. As Maulana Karenga teaches us, the sesh were expected to care for the vulnerable and to respect all human life, and their work is rooted in truth, justice, and rightness.
This image of the intellectual shifts the way that we are taught to imagine who gets to do this work from one that assumes that only some people can or should– to one that believes that anyone can do this work.
Learning in this model is not done for individual gain, but for the purpose of social uplift. In the words of Karenga, “the commitment to learning is based on the conception of knowledge which values knowledge not simply for knowledge’s sake, but rather knowledge for human sake. In a word, knowledge is considered important not simply to enjoy oneself or even simply to get a job, but because of its value and role in improving the human condition and enhancing the human prospect or human future.” W.E.B. Du Bois put it this way,
“education must not simply teach work—it must teach life”
To work in this tradition means to consider the needs of our communities and the world around us, and to place the needs of human beings above everything else. This is not easy work, and it is not work that we can do in isolation from one another. We need each other.
When we work together to learn we are rejecting the idea that our lives are disconnected. The classroom is not a factory, but a laboratory of sorts where as critical thinkers we get to test ideas, explore new concepts, develop theories, and refine arguments. This work requires that we engage with others so that we can sharpen our analysis, and build on each others contributions. When we approach learning as something that we do with other people we are more likely to ask questions and feel less afraid to say that we don’t know something. In this space, everyone has something to contribute. Collaboration empowers us because it means that we all have a role to play in the learning process. When we draw upon all of our skills and talents we are saying unequivocally that no one is to be left out, that no one is better than anyone else, and that no one is a failure.
To be an intellectual in this regard is to be someone that sets about the task of learning in order to transform things, and whose deep love for humanity is rooted in both theory and practice. To operate in this tradition means to engage with others in good faith. It also means that you develop the habit of asking questions, and reject the facile idea that all that one has to do in the face of problems is to focus on solutions. I would also add, as someone that teaches research methods, that you continue to hone your research skills so that you understand the problems that you are studying. In this way knowledge is not simply about the acquisition of information, but it has a social function. To paraphrase bell hooks, knowledge is related to how we live and how we want to live.
One of the most important tasks the sesh has before them is that of imagining what is possible. This imagining is what some scholars refer to as intellectual creativity. This in my view is where pleasure, playfulness and possibility meet. To approach learning in this way is to embrace joy in education and in doing so we reject the idea that education has to look a certain way.
Do not be passive consumers of knowledge instead see yourselves as having agency in the production of knowledge. You are not doing this work alone. You have a long, rich tradition of intellectuals to guide you, to nurture you, and to reassure you.
I want to encourage all of you to continue learning. Do not be intimidated by difficult books or difficult subjects, instead help each other to understand them. I want you to see yourselves as intellectuals working in a long tradition that honors lived experience as an important epistemological space. Continue to sharpen your critical thinking skills and use that knowledge to create the world that we all need.