Monday, February 1, 2016

On Intellectualism and our Universities

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the Programme for African Leadership forum (PfAL , hosted at the London School of Economics) in Kampala Uganda, where one of the Panel discussion topics was “Developing African Intellectualism, Research and Higher Education.” In that panel, there was a Ghanaian Dr. Ato Onoma whose presentation on the current state of African academia was on point. His views, which I will share later, were similar to what I have observed on the Kenyan academia.

Unlike in the past where most Kenyan academicians doubled up as intellectuals, today, many Kenyan academicians are no longer intellectuals. They fear to think; they run away from debates; their analysis on specific topics are upside down, amateurish, simplistic or simply absent; they endorse or question things without deeper interrogation; they do not enjoy reading and research-they were compelled to read so as to attain their degrees and they now read so that they can brag that they have read X and Y; they do not think of possible causes or solutions; they blindly and loyally follow tribal politicians instead of showing the way; they speak without putting a thought to what they say;……
One just needs to read the newspaper commentaries, watch TV debates or attend some conferences and forums to see the emptiness of these academics. They lack any form of intellectualism.
Some seek relevance by reminding people that they are ‘Dr/Prof so and so,’ or by using technical terms to hide their lack of knowledge. When you point out weaknesses in their arguments, they either run away (literally), or remind you that they are historians, political scientists, lawyers, economists etc without going further and substantiating those academic qualifications with more information on the topic at hand or with counter arguments. They cherish engaging less bright people, or those that do not challenge them.
At the end of it all, those who, actually think, tend to dismiss formal papers acquired, while those who do not think think that those views (of the academicians) are the ultimate and final views.

There are many lecturers who are so insecure that they do not share notes and reading materials with their students in advance, they kill students’ interest by not marking their exams in time (ever wondered why the final exam sheets are never returned to students after marking?) and they award more marks for students who parrot the lecturer in their exams. These lecturers give considerable marks for things like handwriting and tidiness of the exam sheet. They look out for spelling mistakes than for the ideas there in. (I remember a friend proudly telling me how they required applicants for small-business loans to write their proposals in handwriting, so that they could reduce their selection workload by first disqualifying those with bad handwriting! Probably they learnt of the importance of concentrating on appearances rather than the content from their University lecturers...)

On the other hand, you will come across paperless politicians, journalists, government spies, artists, activists, and many ordinary people who are intellectuals. You may not agree with what they espouse, but you cannot disagree on their intellectualism.
Marxists rank even higher. Most of them will take you from history, to politics, to culture, to environment, to art, to literature and many other fields with incredible command, analysis and application.

According to Dr Onoma, we have people who have been made academicians not because of their thirst for knowledge and thinking, but because of unemployment. They graduate with their B.A, fail to find a job, graduate with their M.A, fail to find a job, and they finally graduate with their PhD and get a teaching job at the university, still with no thirst for knowledge and thinking.
Similar to this type are those that are professional academicians. They have nothing else to do other than to lecture at the university. They are trapped in academia since that is the only job that they can do.
The other problem that he noted is that many academicians in our Universities do not publish, and when they do, they bring no new knowledge in the field.
He observed that the minimal funding to universities and towards research has reduced the capacity of African academicians. He seriously joked that the CVs of most academicians will list the consultancies that they've done, rather than the papers that they have published. (This also reminds me of a recent exchange between Professor Makau Mutua and the editor of the Platform magazine, where the good professor listed his academic credentials which included several pages of general lightweight commentaries published in several newspapers)
On the question of brain drain, Ato reasoned that we should not concentrate our little resources on bringing back those intellectuals that have left (for example by transporting and hosting them for a two day lecture), but we should mobilized resources to create more, and maintain the few true intellectual academicians that have remained on the continent.
He wound up by stating that just because we (Africans) are poor, it doesn't mean that we should not have the luxury of thinking just for the sake of thinking.

In this light, I think that Kenyan universities should be compelled to allow the freedom to think and question. We currently have a situation where academicians are sacked or denied funding if they oppose the University administrators, or if they side with the students on particular issues. Universities should also bring an end to their fear of Leftist lecturers. In fact, Right wing and left thinking (and even those who, like goats, lack any ideological position) should be encouraged to teach in our universities. The universities should be at the forefront of organizing debates involving lecturers, students and the public. It is through debates that growth of intellectualism arises. Inter and intra-university peer review of academic works should be encouraged and all the works should be availed on University websites. The government should take research funding seriously and fund both lecturers and students irrespective of their loyalty affiliation.

Universities must encourage thinking, invest in research and offer practical training.


  1. Wow, great article comrade. It is the blatant and definite truth.Our education system too is so oppressive and breeds mental slavery with the question of unemployment being in the balance. This drives away the passion to seek the intellectual maxima in a certain field. The other challenge is that people do not know what to research on. Also, we have been brainwashed by the lots of lies in our history books rich in ignorance of history at its basic level, written by the colonial masters. We are lacking the facts to defend what we are taught in class. We just drain in delusional and false belief.

    1. True Victor. Without building on indigenous knowledge and without understanding the historical contributions of Africans in the various fields of knowledge, then we shall always lack in the confidence required to move to the more advanced stages of development.