No country for young intellectuals to spread their wings

2011-02-26 10:49

Having been raised Catholic, I cannot help but confess something every now and then: I sometimes wish I was living in London or New York and not in Johannesburg.

Unlike South Africa, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom place a decent premium on the role of intellectuals in society.

The likes of Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Shelby Steele, Tommie Shelby and countless others are part of an enviable public intellectual community which is valued by their society.

Ours, bluntly put, is no country for (young) intellectuals.

I find it hard to discourage mentees of mine from signing up with a corporate giant and living a quiet suburban life rather than becoming a writer, joining a research institution or even accepting an academic post.

No wonder, then, that our public discourse?is?in such a poor state.

Academia is in better shape, to be fair, but should not be confused with the public space.

Most of our academics are hermits. This leaves public debate at the mercy of the twitterati.

Academics, within the humanities and social sciences in particular, should be ashamed of themselves.

They have a social and intellectual obligation – partly because they get public funding – to make sure that their work speaks to, and reaches, the sociopolitical context within which their academic selves exist.

Their failure to do so in part explains why we do not have a decent public intellectual community in South Africa.

We do not even have a rigorous delineation of what it variously means to be an intellectual as opposed to a public intellectual and, in turn, an academic.

And, of course, in the context of an internet-spawned age of instant citizen commentary, there is renewed pressure to define, clearly, what the unique intellectual and social role of the public intellectual is.

All this brings the central question into sharper focus: why do we not have a more well-defined community of public intellectuals reflecting on these kinds of issues with greater skill and more demonstrable impact?

First, there are not enough resources available to attract talented students and scholars into a public life devoted to interrogating and generating ideas, reading, writing and debating.

Second, little social value is placed on being a public intellectual.

Grants, for example, to support a work of non-fiction – such as the kind of brilliant narrative journalism that Jonny Steinberg used to write – are hard to come by.

If you wish to travel the length and breadth of the country to produce an account of the current state of race relations by perhaps examining the rough textures of our mundane daily social interactions, you would struggle to find support.

This is a prohibitive structural obstacle for any talented would-be writer or researcher.

This is not to deny the good work that is done by many research institutions in spite of the lack of public appreciation or financial assistance.

Many academic institutions also host departments and thinktanks that manage to remain academically useful under trying circumstances.

However, very few academics care much for public discourse.

Researchers at thinktanks are better at public engagement; but these researchers are, by definition, full-time social scientists and so cannot become full-time thought leaders.

Hence, good ideas often get air play for fifteen minutes before being archived.

Public intellectuals should, in part, keep the conversation alive.

But society does not enable such a community of thinkers to genuinely come into existence.

Of course, the US and the UK have the wealth and education levels to allow for an intelligentsia to be appreciated.

But we surely want to get to a similar place.What then are we doing to get there?

Are we valuing the role of thinkers in our society?Our actions and attitudes, sadly, suggest that we’re not.

» McKaiser is an associate at Wits Centre for Ethics

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