The need for ‘planetary intellectuals’ in the modern university

22-10-21 USAf 0 comment

During the ongoing decolonial debates in South Africa, intellectuals have taken the lead in the dismantling of Eurocentrism and re-membering the African continent. Yet these debates have not always included those outside of academia.

Subaltern groups have been dominated by the monopoly over knowledge by intellectuals in higher education institutions. Communities still struggle to develop their own voice as they aspire to be part of the role players who help transform society.

These were the views of Professor Vuyisile Msila (above), Director: Leadership in Higher Education at the University of South Africa, talking about the role of intellectuals when it comes to decolonisation and community engagement.

He was addressing delegates during a plenary session titled Engaged Scholarship and Decolonisation, Transforming Higher Education through Community Development at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that ended two weeks ago. The Engaged University conference that ran from 6 to 8 October, was co-hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Professor Msila explored decolonisation by focusing on the involvement or disengagement of intellectuals. He asked whether intellectualism is declining as those involved haggle over ideas. Are intellectuals delaying transformation in society by eschewing other crucial role players? How, in a world of knowledge and ideas, can intellectuals quash their egos for the greater public good?

“When we transform the university, we will also change society and vice versa. We also know the challenges faced when many are involved in policy making, especially when education and society are involved. Therefore, when we discuss changing a university, we cannot only see this as exclusively the work of academic intellectuals searching for cognitive justice, epistemological justice and even decolonial pedagogy,” he stated.

“Some have spoken about the need for Pan African tolerance if we are to rid the continent of epistemic violence. Yet the paradox of decolonial debates may be that some may suspect that intellectualism is waning. Is South Africa experiencing what happened in the new independent African states in the late 1960s and early ‘70s?” he questioned.

“There is a responsibility by intellectuals to engage with African philosophy and intellectual debates. African scholars must endeavour to make their work African-centred and not Eurocentric with concepts that are alien to Africans. They need to cover a broad agenda, which does not only embrace political economy but African culture, aesthetics, poetry and philosophy.

“African intellectuals should be revolutionary as opposed to revolutionary-accommodationist. They should be engaged in African and African Diaspora issues to ensure the development of Pax Africana and this is crucial if they are to make a mark on global affairs. In a time when universities in Africa respond to policy windows that have opened for Africanisation and decolonisation, the role of Pan Africanism has never been so critical, as a guiding light for intellectuals who should lead towards the new social paradigms,” Professor Msila reiterated.

For many years, South Africa’s intellectuals from the academe have been heckling over a wide range of issues including funding, politicisation, pedagogy, language, decolonisation and transformation.

‘We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.’
Noam Chomsky as referenced in Professor Msila’s presentation

“When intellectuals intervene in the marketplace of ideas, they tend to explain why some new policies are likely not to work rather than behaving as the thought-leaders they should be, who see the change efforts’ potential.”

The role of the intellectual, he maintains, is to influence society towards more inclusive and engaged debates on colonisation. And yet society often tends to be hostile to intellectuals and vice versa.

“We need to examine why some community engagement projects don’t make sense and why they appear to be a waste of time? Why is there no symbiotic relationship between them and the university?”

It is critical for these intellectuals to be able to mobilise the people in their communities to move for transformation. They cannot be apathetic. Their role should be to lead society to the liberation of the mind in all aspects of society.

Professor Msila defined four types of intellectuals and the role they play in either embracing or alienating communities.

Knowers, loyalists and denialists

“The first I call the ‘knowers’ who are the complete opposite of learners and they have many blind spots. These intellectuals claim to comprehend all the theories but are often pseudo-intellectuals who are fatigued. The second group I refer to ‘loyalists’. They are agreeable but they are uncritical and tend to infantise other role players and also go for philistinism.

“The third group are the ‘denialists’ who claim that any change in the status quo will not only drop standards but is not advisable to a society seeking transformation. It is dangerous to have these intellectual denialists in power or in influential roles. This dumbs down the intellectualism of the masses and is detrimental to all those without power. These people are also often anti-decolonisation and maintain that decolonisation is anti-globalisation; and the emphasis on Africa is unrealistic when it comes to building new and relevant epistemologies.”

‘Intellectuals have been dismissed by society at the very time that their services are most needed. Intellectuals cannot be judged by their mental powers, insights and creativity alone. It is rather the social milieu of which they are part, and their relationship to this milieu, that determines their status and role as an intellectual.’
– Thomas Molnar, professor of humanities, as referenced in Professor Msila’s presentation.

The last group, Professor Msila refers to, are the ‘planetary intellectuals’ and they are, he believes, critical for the modern university.

“They have eclectic approaches to corporative and epistemic justice. These intellectuals support engagement with all role players. They believe in de-Westernisation and maintain that society cannot eschew the medley of a community of ideas that anchor knowledge. They accept critical African intellectualism as well as the demarginalisation of African knowledge.

The planetary intellectual

“The planetary intellectual is progressive and seeks to bring Africa to the debate as part of broader debates in the world hence the emphasis on the ecologies of knowledge. The planetary intellectual works to support change initiatives in society.”

He believes it is critical for intellectuals to be well-informed as they move society towards epistemological decolonisation and societal transformation.

“Colonial education has made many believe that knowledge production resides only in institutions of higher learning and that the only intellectuals there are are those who are eminent scholars. We need to create and support new public intellectuals and ensure that community members are not merely subjects of research.

“Higher education institutions have to acknowledge community members as co-creators of knowledge, especially when dealing with topics of decolonising data. The ‘knowers’ will not embrace these communities; ‘loyalists’ will infantise these people and ‘denialists’ will abdicate their intellectual duties. For meaningful change, our institutions need the wisdom of planetary intellectuals and the inclusivity they stand for, in erecting communities who will embrace transformation and champion decolonisation.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.