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Paul D. Williams on the role of intellectuals in African academic institutions

Truly academic institutions and their intellectuals should aspire instead to genuine education and systematic learning. They should perform the roles identified here and not be afraid to critique dominant modes of thought and action.

Analysis

31 October 2017

The core mission of academic institutions should be education and systematic learning, as opposed to indoctrination or training for predetermined roles. They should seek to educate various audiences by developing and testing ideas to help inform and influence politics and society. As workers in ideas, the personnel in academic institutions in Africa, as elsewhere, are intellectuals. Asking what roles academic institutions should play in contemporary Africa thus also involves exploring what roles intellectuals should play.

 

I would argue that intellectuals should play several interrelated roles in contemporary Africa. They should engage in a process of reflection about the existing order that may lead them to challenge orthodox views on particular issues; they should provide public interpretations of the political world to advance popular understanding and explanation of what is going on; they should construct visions of possible futures (both desirable and undesirable); they should devise strategies and tactics to bring about their preferred visions; and, they should engage with a variety of individuals and groups in order to persuade them to take action in support of their preferred visions.

 

Intellectuals have long been understood as those people who use their brainpower to better understand and explain the world and, crucially, to intervene in public life for a just cause. Some philosophers have depicted intellectuals as largely detached from society, often in “ivory towers,” searching for some abstract truth. In reality, people engaged in the creation, transmission and criticism of ideas are never fully detached from society; they are unavoidably entangled in its political cleavages. Nevertheless, as the famous Italian thinker and politician Antonio Gramsci put it, although all human beings engage in a degree of creative intellectual activity, not everyone has within society the social function of an intellectual.[1]

 

Educators working in academic institutions have the social function of intellectuals to their students but also the wider public. Since they help teach society to accept particular modes of thought and action, intellectuals have a role to play in what Gramsci referred to as the struggle for “hegemony.” Arguably their most important role is to influence the collective mentality of society. Gramsci called this “common sense” or the “philosophy of the multitude”– the conception of the world held by the majority of any given population. Once certain ideas have become established as common sense they become incredibly powerful because they help determine what courses of action are considered plausible, legitimate, and sensible.

 

With these insights in mind, academic institutions and the intellectuals within them should play at least four roles.

 

Reflection: Periodically, intellectuals should engage in a process of reflection about what passes for common sense on particular issues. This will most often occur in light of unexpected or novel political developments and social interaction with other individuals and groups. Reflection provides intellectuals with an opportunity to challenge or consolidate the prevailing common sense. Periods of reflection can thus produce moments of originality and help induce turning points in the historical drama.

 

Interpretation: Intellectuals should provide public interpretations of the political world for their particular audiences. Interpreting the political world involves making ontological and epistemological commitments; deploying a particular language or terms of communication through which to comprehend and discuss what is going on; and, adopting a set of methodological or analytical criteria to analyze information.

 

Vision: Intellectuals should explicitly construct visions of possible futures, both desirable and undesirable. Visions of the future are never politically neutral. To recall Professor Robert Cox’s useful phrase, they are “always for someone and for some purpose.”[2] They contain a conception of a better world, an image of what the world could (or should) be and they involve claims about how such a world can be realized via the agents and actions necessary to bring about such a change. Depending on their political persuasion, intellectuals will promote visions of possible futures that tend to conserve or challenge the status quo and prevailing common sense.

 

Action: Visions and interpretations without supporting action risk political irrelevance. Intellectuals should therefore offer ideas about the most appropriate strategies and tactics that may turn a particular vision into a reality. They also provide reasons and justifications for them. Intellectuals must therefore engage with a variety of individuals and groups whom they consider to be (at least potentially) politically significant in order to persuade them to take action in support of their preferred interpretations and visions.

 

Understood in this manner it is clear that all intellectuals – and hence all academic institutions – produce politically charged knowledge but some will seek to erase or conceal the interests that have shaped it. Intellectuals who see their principal role as serving their government or other institution usually go to special lengths to claim their objectivity. Their goal, however, is not education and systematic learning but to serve and legitimize existing power structures. As Edward Said noted, it is particularly important for governments to have as their servants intellectuals who can be called on to defend the government’s policy, to spew out propaganda against official enemies, and disguise the truth of what is going on.[3]

 

Truly academic institutions and their intellectuals should aspire instead to genuine education and systematic learning. They should perform the roles identified here and not be afraid to critique dominant modes of thought and action.

 

Paul D. Williams

George Washington University 


[1] Antonio Gramsci, Letters From Prison. Selected, translated & introduced by Lynne Lawner. (London: Quartet Books, 1979).

[2] Robert W. Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Millennium, 10:2 (1981), 128.

[3] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (London: Vintage, 1994).

 

About this series

IPSS is celebrating its 10th year anniversary in 2017. As part of our celebrations, we invited select individuals who have contributed to the success of IPSS and who have also made an impact in the area of peace and security in Africa to contribute an article on the anniversary's theme: "The role of academic institutions in tackling the intellectual challenge potsed by Africa's peace and security dynamics".

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