In our society, something sad has occurred and is ongoing: public intellectualism’s decline. I ask, where are the public intellectuals? In the past, intellectuals exerted immense influence on public policy and their input into the governance process could not be ignored. Ideas are powerful elements of nation-building; even where interests are at play, a taste for good thinking propels the leadership process.
Public intellectuals are at the center of this phenomenon – academics and professionals who question society’s direction and offer alternative ideas. They are interested in ideas not for their gain but for the overall good of society. The product of this attitude is a culture of debate, in which truth is spoken to power.
Kenya enjoyed glimpses of this phenomenon, but politically neutral intellectuals have become scarce. The intellectual of today is, in reality, affiliated with partisan and sectional interests. This preoccupation with individual interests has diminished intellectual influence in Kenya’s affairs. Business and partisan interests have compromised media houses. Few creative writers want to offer ideas on the issues of the day.
We are in the age of clichés, jargon writing, of unimaginative commentary, and we must ask ourselves, where is the critical element of public intellectualism? Whatever appears intellectual is written off as arrogant, and there is no quality debate on anything. We have lost an audience for intellectual ideas, and the reading public is not interested in rigorous thinking.
Even when corporations and politicians in power draw intellectuals close, they end up usurping their powers, compelling them to hold their intelligence within the scope of their assignments. The greatest power of the intellectual lies in their freedom. When society denies that freedom under any circumstance, it is the self-imposed wisdom of clowns that prevails.
This gap seems to have been filled by internet gladiators who spend the day shuffling from one social media site to another. These new culture activists do project a democratic impression of public intellectualism, but I don’t see the rigour, depth, and aesthetic alienation that can elevate this genre and its promoters to the grade of public intellectualism.
What we have lost is not the intellectual, but active intelligence as a tool for social progress. Being intellectual is a commitment to living a life of ideas and using those ideas to engage society intelligently. Those who know better must continue to engage the public vigorously with ideas about governance and public policy, pushing open debates for the good of society. Those ideas must be relevant, offering intelligent solutions to practical problems.