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Scholarship and public intellectual in a post-colonial state

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Gordini Gabriel Darah

Text of a Faculty Valedictory Lecture in honour of Professor G.G. Darah on his retirement from the Delta State University, Abraka, on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.

About half a century ago, Professor Colin Leys asserted that “in a neo-colony ‘politics’ must be primarily understood in terms of the interplay of economic and social forces originally generated by colonialism; otherwise it remains ultimately mysterious.”

This assertion remains relevant today and applies not only to politics but to everything else in a post colonial state including scholarship and the public intellectual.

However, this is not synonymous with the untenable tendency to blame colonialism for the failure to appreciably develop the polity, economy, scholarship, the public realm, infrastructure, etc in many a post colonial state particularly in Africa over six decades after independence.

In fact, a number of these sectors appear to be better developed under colonial rule and the years immediately following the attainment of political independence than they are presently.

Rather, it is to draw attention, as Ekeh and Osaghae have done, to the epochal nature of colonialism and therefore, the methodological imperative of an approach to the study of the post colonial state that is historical and dialectical.

But first, in dealing with concepts such as scholarship, intellectualism and the post colonial state which on the surface appear simple but are in actual fact complex, confusing and with no consensus over what they mean, we need to attempt some clarifications so that if nothing else is achieved, we are able to convey to this audience the meanings we attach to them in this lecture.

Thereafter, we should be able to make a connection among scholarship, the public intellectual and the postcolonial state.

Ultimately, we hope to show the opportunities and challenges the post colonial state have for scholarship and the public intellectual.

What is scholarship? Who is a scholar? Surprisingly, there is no elaboration of the concept of scholarship anywhere which leaves us with two dictionary meanings, one, which is not useful for our purpose says scholarship is a grant to a student and the other sees scholarship as academic, study or achievement, learning at high level.

In this second sense, synonyms of scholarship include: learning, book learning, knowledge, erudition, education, letters, culture, academic study, academic achievement, intellectual attainment. We thought if we knew who a scholar is it would help throw more light on what scholarship could be.

Here too, we found that attempts to provide scientifically rigorous understanding of who is a scholar are still at an embryonic stage. Nevertheless, Tolk4 has identified some 21 characteristics of a scholar made up of an initial 12 characteristics and an additional nine to include: (1) definition – a scholar has a sharp focus that delimits the area of inquiry in which he or she works; (2) disposition – marked by academic poise; a skepticism about knowledge claims, self-criticism and doubt; (3) immersion; (4) authority; (5) persistence; (6) passion; (7) connection; (8) recognition; (9) productivity; (10) competitiveness; (11) ethics; (12) loyalty (13) mentorship; (14) contribution; (15) integrity; (16) tenacity; (17) service to mankind – “a scholar must put humanity as the main objective of each inquiry. Any research directed against mankind needs to be rejected”; (18) open-mindedness; (19) vision; (20) insight; (21) order.

The foregoing presents a better picture of a scholar than the one we have from the prevailing practice of marking a scholar almost solely by publications.

From what we can glean from the foregoing, we have come to see scholarship as rigorous studying and learning leading to the production and distribution of knowledge or simply as the production and distribution of knowledge.

At the same time, it is the product of scholarly endeavours.

The University or research institutes become at once the factories where scholarship or production of knowledge takes place A scholar therefore becomes one who is passionately committed to the production and distribution of knowledge in a particular field through learning, research, teaching and mentoring in an institution of higher learning usually a University or research institute.

Who is a Public Intellectual? Unlike scholarship, a rich literature and a lively debate exists on the intellectual.

The contributions of Paul Baran5, Paul Sweezy6 and Antonio Gramsci7 are particularly illuminating.

Baran tried to clarify the concept by making a distinction between the intellect worker and the intellectual under capitalism.

For him, the former is “typically the faithful servant, the agent, the functionary, and the spokesman of the capitalist system.

Typically, he takes the existing order of things for granted and questions the prevailing state of affairs solely within the limited area of his immediate pre-occupation.”8 The intellect worker is narrowly focused.

He “is not concerned with the relation of the segment of human endeavour within which he happens to operate to other segments and to the totality of the historical process.

”9 In our society today, images of the intellect worker are conjured by statements such as: “that’s not my job”.

“That’s not your job!” “Lecturers should teach what they are paid to teach.”

In other words, a lecturer employed to teach Political Science for example should do just that and should not concern himself or herself with the state of accommodation, power supply, sanitation and security on campus for both staff and students.

It is also reflected in the several attitudes which differentiate between the scientist and the technologist, between the engineer and the technician, between theory and practice and in several other dichotomies.

In one word, it is seen in the alienation of scholars and scholarship from the needs of society.

The intellectual on the other hand, according to Baran, is marked and distinguished from the intellect worker and all others by the fact that his:
concern with the entire historical process is not a tangential interest but permeates his thought and significantly affects his work…The intellectual is systematically seeking to relate whatever specific area he may be working in to other aspects of human existence.10

Interestingly, Baran says that “intellect workers can be (and sometimes are) intellectuals, and intellectuals are frequently intellect workers… because many an Industrial worker, artisan, or farmer can be (and in some historical situations often has been) an Intellectual.”

11 In other words, once an industrial worker, artisan or farmer who ordinarily may be regarded as an intellect worker is able to make a connection between his or her work and the entire historical process, he is an intellectual while a scholar engaged in teaching and research in a university who is unable to make such a connection is an intellect worker.

Thus, the effort to interconnect “constitutes one of the intellectual’s outstanding characteristics.”12 This also: identifies one of the intellectual’s principal functions in society: to serve as a symbol and as reminder of the fundamental fact that the seemingly autonomous, disparate, and disjointed morsels of social existence under capitalism – literature, art, politics, the economic order, science, the cultural and psychic condition of people – can all be understood (and influenced) only if they are clearly visualized as parts of the comprehensive totality of the historical process. (Emphasis ours)

Finally, and most importantly in our view, Paul Baran says there are only two conditions for being an intellectual namely the desire to tell the truth and courage.

The desire to tell the truth is … only one condition for being an intellectual.

The other is courage, readiness to carry on rational inquiry to wherever it may lead, to undertake “ruthless criticism of everything that exists, ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be.”

(Marx) An intellectual is thus in essence a social critic, a person whose concern is to identify, to analyze, and in this way to help overcome the obstacles barring the way to the attainment of a better, more humane, and more rational social order.

As such he becomes the conscience of society and the spokesman of such progressive forces as it contains in any period of history.

And as such he is inevitably considered a “troublemaker” and a “nuisance” by the ruling class seeking to preserve the status quo, as well as by intellect workers in its service who accuse the intellectual of being Utopian or metaphysical at best, subversive or seditious at worst. (Emphasis ours).

From the foregoing, it is obvious that the intellectual belongs in the public domain.

It would therefore seem tautological to talk about a public intellectual.

Yet, it makes sense to create a portrait of the public intellectual especially within the context of our topic and to be able to show the links and elaborate the similarities and differences between scholarship and intellectualism.

As can be seen from the preceding discussions, the scholar and the intellectual have several things in common – immersion, passion, integrity, tenacity, service to humanity and pursuit of truth – among others such that on the surface, one could make the mistake of equating one with the other.

However, until a scholar and his/her scholarship move from the ‘private’ domain of the university and academic journals to the public arena where they acquire a voice that speak to the needs of his/her institution, community, state and society, they remain private commodities.

A man or woman’s scholarship must grow to a stage that it must move out to meet human needs out there.

The best illustration we have for this comes from the Urhobo expression: Ogbon da rho, ko kpu’rhie meaning, when the python has grown full size, it relocates to the river.

This is said to occur after the python has measured its length (do we say height?) with the tallest palm tree (Onoge) in the vicinity.

Consequently, for us, the public intellectual is a scholar who, when he/she has attained great height in scholarship, moves from the cocoon of his/her study, laboratory and classroom to occupy a public office or to engage the state, its agents and allies in the public interest.

Thus, there are two sites in the public realm for the scholar – the state and civil society.

Of course, the distinction made by Baran between the intellect worker and the intellectual could also be made between the public intellect worker and the public intellectual. Going public is not enough.

The desire to tell the truth and courage must be there to mark out the public intellectual from the public intellect worker.

If you should ask me to mention one person who could be the face of the public intellectual we have been trying to portray, I would mention Professor Wole Soyinka.

He is indeed a ‘python’ gone beyond the river, beyond the seas; his abode is now the ocean.

And if you ask me for another, I would point you to our own dear Professor G.G. Darah in whose honour this lecture is being delivered.

To be continued.

Dr. Ehwarieme, a Social Science scholar, teaches in the Department of Political Science at the Delta State University, Abraka.


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