THE full component and potentials of most things are not always apparent up front. Treasures are always buried deep in the ground and until they are identified and dug up, they remain undisturbed and unchanged, in their pristine form. Intellectualism occupies a place of pride, especially as most human advancements are results of intellectual processes. Societies have benefitted from researches and those behind these remarkable feats are feted and honoured. However, as good as intellectuals have been across the ages, these ‘special’ breed of men and women are hailed for what they are; achievers. Intellectuals are trained in a discipline, speak to their peers in that discipline, and the response of that rather extremely and closely guarded fraternity goes a long way in determining tenure, promotion, and the various perquisites of academia. They are conditioned through their different trainings and engagements to say only what matters, if it matters and only to very small, very private audiences.
So, scholars routinely communicate their ideas to colleagues in their field when they publish articles and present papers at conferences. However, unless they pursue interdisciplinary work, they do not often share ideas with colleagues in other fields. They engage with the general public or policy makers even less frequently, and when they do, they sometimes fail to translate their research into language that is accessible to audiences that lack familiarity with disciplinary discourses. Intellectualism is hailed and those who are involved in it, especially the theory and practice of it are often held in high esteem and premium attached to them. Amongst the Greeks, it was a high level of regard that was accorded the thinkers and philosophers. Their great works and ideas are hailed especially as these thoughts and ideas are continually applicable to everyday life. However, a major deficiency of this esteemed position is that intellectuals including but not limited to thinkers, inventors, scientists and researchers are often guilty of burying their heads and noses in their passion. They often lose connections with the real world and the world around them. Their involvements often alienate them from realities as no other life exists outside that which they are involved.
By the mid 20th century, a new wave of reality was to sweep across Europe and North America as intellectuals began to feel the pinch of their dissociation with their societies. These ones saw the vacuum and were moved to take scholarship beyond the academia. They recognised the needs to use their work to create engagements with the cultural, social and political world around them. Most of the frontliners include the Nobel Laureate, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Lord Maynard Keynes, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Edward Said, Anthony Giddens, George Friedman, Larry Diamond, Richard Joseph, Philip Roth and John Updike. They broke the mould and achieved spatial connections by giving intellectualism a public face and relevance. It is noteworthy that most of these became voices for the people and they masterfully deployed their scholarship in headlining society as public intellectuals. I am very comfortable with Mark Crispin Miller’s simple but embracing definition of who is a public intellectual. Miller, a professor of media ecology at New York University defined a public intellectual as someone who engages in intellectual pursuits, airs intellectual concerns in a way the broad, literate public can understand.
Some of these made a point of addressing the public directly, explaining their research to a variety of audiences, providing political and social commentary, and critiquing pervasive and persistent inequities. Chomsky, who initially established his professional reputation as a world-class linguist, has also become well-known among the general public as a political critic. Similarly, Henry Giroux, a recognised scholar of critical pedagogy, frequently writes for the general public about cultural criticism. Mike Rose, a renowned educator, has written books, blog postings, and articles that speak to the public about the importance of writing and education. The late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan did much to popularize science, especially with his book and television series Cosmos. The high-profile literary scholar, Stanley Fish, writes frequently for the New York Times. Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has used a variety of media, including editorials on the radio, to comment on economic and labour policy issues.
Nearer home, post-colonial Africa too had its own share of intellectuals who went on the side of the people and used their huge social and academic capitals in advancing the cause of the people. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, Christopher Okigbo, Ace writer, Chinua Achebe, Nardine Gordimer, another Nobel Laureate, Ali Mazrui the foremost historian, Billy Dudley, Claude Ake, Iya Abubakar, Ishaya Audu, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ayan Hirsi Alli, Bolanle Awe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Toyin Falola, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many others became public intellectuals who spoke to the people, stood in the vanguard of people’s movements and became heroes. Not too many people in this part of the world have been able to successfully transmute from scholarship to public intellectualism. However, we have a good number of them who have been able to accomplish the transformation, give a relatable face to intellectualism without losing the hallo above their heads. These great minds having mastered scholarship have been able to democratize their knowledge, distilling same to the populace in clear languages and with resultant benefits to the society. With the advancement in technology, public intellectualism has gone notches higher.
The internet has given mileage to the public intellectual and the entire globe has become his or her sphere of influence. One of the leading lights in this new thrust of public intellectualism in Nigeria is a colleague of the pen and public discourse, Professor Ayo Olukotun, who, in the words of Ojogbon Toyin Falola, just attained the status of agbalagba at 65.
Professor Olukotun is a public intellectual par excellence. His commentaries and engagements on national and international issues are as strong as they can be and his involvement has not been tainted in any way. Professor Olukotun’s contribution to knowledge and national conversation has been consistently incisive and poignant. He has therefore cemented his place as a scholar whose theories and postulations are not high and above the heads of many as to exclude the general readers from his public education mission.
Even with his social acceptance and relevance, Professor Olukotun falls within the category of those who do not serve the people different dishes, separating the intellectual from the public. Instead he diligently and consistently weaves a web of comfort for members of the public who are able to find their voices and identities in his works and words. His life and commitments to the public good are instructive to us today, even as we gather to celebrate this remarkable scholar. Professor Olukotun’s has shown us that great minds no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university has become too insular and academic thinking too narrow. The intellectual who will find relevance must be public oriented.
- Dr. Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP)