In Defense of the Intellectual Tradition or Dont be Practical, Be Academic!

 

Image of Student Studying

(c) Scubasteveo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/scubasteveo/)

In Zimbabwe being an intellectual is now almost a crime. You often hear the refrain directed at a poor kid who happens to quote something from a book: “don’t be academic, be practical!” Its a belief that is likely to prolong our underdevelopment. We need to analyse what it means to be academic or intellectual and whether an intellectual approach has value to society. Then we need to examine how the anti-intellectual attitude has developed in Zimbabwe and then see if there is anything we can do.

I started thinking about this issue when I had the good fortune to sit in a lecture at the School of Advanced Study, University of London by Lord Howell the Minister of State (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) in the United Kingdom. The lecture was on the role of the Commonwealth in the 21st Century. Lord Howell is a writer and regular contributor to newspapers such as The Japan Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. He is also author of The Edge of Now which is briefly reviewed here. Here was a government minister who had taken time to write a paper, engaging with academics, students and the public on the history and future of the Commonwealth and what that means in terms of government policy. It reminded me how much we have lost by abandoning the intellectual tradition we once had.

To me an intellectual is someone who not only applies reason to the problems they face but they also love reading and try to apply the concepts they read about in their everyday life. Thus if an intellectual is trying to persuade their 5 year old to eat carrots, they might refer to how Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory could be applied to the problem. Or if faced with the problem of unemployment in Zimbabwe, the intellectual will quote people like Keynes or Milton in his analysis and diagnosis of the problem.

What do books help in everyday life anyway? Aren’t they just theories? Well, books allow us to build on pre-existing knowledge. Thus I don’t need to discover the properties of radio frequencies through my own direct experience for me to build a cellphone network. The theories are there already and I can only build on them. There is this dangerous misconception that theories are distinct from the reality of everyday life. What is a theory anyway? A theory is just a simplified way of understanding reality! Imagine for a moment that you get a farm through the government’s empowerment programme. Not having farmed before, you grow some crops close to your farm house and others out in the field. The crops close to the house get shelter from the sun whilst those in the outfield are exposed to all elements. Being a new farmer, you go back to Harare, forget about your farm and then go back when its time for the harvest. You notice that the crops close to the farm house did not do well whilst those from the outfield did extremely well. Puzzled, you try to understand why. The crops had the same amount of fertilizer and water, what happened? You may think that farm houses “drain” energy from the soil so the further away from a farm house a crop is, the more likely it will thrive. Or you may think your jealousy maid cast a spell on the crops in close proximity to her. There could be a million answers, which one is correct and how can you be sure?

Being a practical man who has no need for theories, in the next farming season you add more fertilizer to the crops close to your house but they do worse! In the following season you water them twice as much as your outfield crops but they do just as badly as they did in the last two seasons. You realise that you can spend the rest of your life trying to understand this problem. In desperation, you pick up a book to see if the theories will do you any good. From the book, you learn that plants need sunlight for energy to grow, and you realise that the problem is your crops are too sheltered! This is an overly simplified example but I hope it illustrates the point.

Theories arise through the scientific method in which scientists ask questions about reality (why are some crops thriving but not others?). They come up with a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon and test the hypothesis in a controlled environment to isolate factors. The result is a theory that helps us to understand reality. This is not just done in the physical sciences as you know. There are theories for explaining everything including economic growth, crime rates, employee motivation and inflation. All these theories give us a simplified framework that allows us to implement changes in a predictable way. Are theories always true? No they are not, and that’s the beauty of it! The theory that the earth is flat was proven false centuries ago. A theory is only useful to the extent that it explains reality. The moment that reality contradicts a theory then that theory is replaced with a better one, and we get closer to the truth. That is the reason why theories remain as such and are never referred to as facts. That is why gravity is a theory although you could throw down the device you are using to read this blog to prove gravity for yourself!

If theories are so great, why have we abandoned them in Zimbabwe? It might have started with the government’s frustration that the Zimbabwean economy did not conform to established economic theories. The hyper-inflation of the pre-Gono era led Mugabe to famously proclaim that theories did not work and that government would abandon books in favour of a more practical approach. That “practical” approach began with the appointment of Gono, a man with no credentials in economics. In reality the approach tended to be an attempt to apply “common sense” to managing the economy but unfortunately Mugabe and Gono discovered that such “practicality” had consequences they could not predict. If you were to ask Gono how each additional trillion dollars he printed impacted the economy the poor man will most likely stare blankly at you…imprisoned by his lack of understanding of basic economic theory! Inflation rose from 165% in June 2oo5 to 1200% in July 2006. The situation was only reversed by outsourcing monetary policy to Ben Bernanke, Head of the American Central banking system and tenured professor in Economics at Princeton University. Now there is someone who applies theory to economic problems! The correct approach for Zimbabwe would have been for the government to analyse empirical data, understand the the anomalies, and modify economic theory to come up with solutions.

We notice “Kombis” running around anyhow in the streets on Harare when theories of  operations research could help the council to optimise routes, determine the correct number of operators for each route and ease passenger congestion. That could improve productivity by reducing time that is wasted by people waiting for transport. Its frustrating to see a Kombi waiting hours for passengers going to Glen Norah when there is a queue of people going to Chitungwiza who are late for work!

An intellectual tradition is also characterised by vigorous debate so that society is organised according to the best ideas. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe its a case of those with bigger sticks beating the physically weaker into submission and imposing their ideas. This is sadly true of both Zanu PF and the MDC (and this will be the subject of a future post on its own).

What can we do to arrest this corruption? Teachers need to assume their exalted status of old as the revered people that pass knowledge and nurture the country’s future leaders. It is an important responsibility that requires recognition and respect.

Our political parties need to work in conjunction with think tanks that employ the best minds in the country to establish theories on how society is arranged and should be arranged for the greater good. Politics should be a contest of ideas not arms! We also need to write more, to think more and to ask more! When I was in college it was disappointing that we had no case studies on management in a Zimbabwean context! There has been little scholarship in that area since back then. The same is true of most other disciplines. Its no wonder we think theories have no application to our every day lives, we have no examples of how theories work. Contrast that with the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Series at Stanford for example where students and entrepreneurs meet for discussions and students can see how the lessons they learn in class are applied in the real world.

The marginalisation of intellectuals also means that in the physical sciences we will continue to produce technicians not inventors. We need to fund basic research! Imagine how invention of a green fuel that is not fossil based could transform our country! (I hope to write in future and expand my thoughts on how information technologies have reorganised the factors of production in a way that accelerates development).

Next time if you see someone being chided for being too academic, I hope you will point out that its better to be academic because that is how we come up with conceptual frameworks to increase our effectiveness! Dont be practical, be academic!

  1. September 14, 2011 - Reply

    great piece, but all your examples are foreign, does it mean we have no works academics in Zimbabwe that you could have used? Otherwise, I think i’m going to be following this blog religiously-practically..lol

    • September 14, 2011 - Reply

      @costa mano

      Thanks Costa Mano. I am sorry for the foreign examples. I happened to be overseas when I wrote this piece but I will try to incorporate more local examples in future. I am glad you will be following the blog, I have some great content (in my biased opinion!) that I will publish soon! Grab the RSS feed or return frequently!

  2. September 15, 2011 - Reply

    I like the last remarks, “Dont be practical, be academic!”. Quite an interesting article there. Agree that we need local discussion boards of whatever form coz some of the theories don’t apply and need modification to suit our environment. I remember i was trying to follow the Kiyosaki “pay yourself first” theory just prior the Zim inflation era, so much for inapplicable theories, didn’t work for me coz of a lot of factors back then. So it would be good to have customized theories we can implement and refine.

  3. December 27, 2011 - Reply

    It is true Tinashe , we need to build our own theories with an African blend so that we can as a nation of Zimbabwe focus on developing our own cause to greater heights

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