Liberians and Their Intellectuals: Playing the Blame Game
By Theodore T. Hodge
October 21, 2002
A debate has gone on for some time now among Liberians (both at home and abroad) as to whether the "intellectuals", meaning people with advanced university degrees, are to blame for the country's woes or to be commended for lighting the flame calling for social change. This is in reference to the influx of social scientists, mainly leftist, whose entry onto the Liberian political scenery during the seventies (1970s) left a bittersweet aftermath. They challenged the status quo, which led to the awakening of a docile, yet slumbering citizenry, but the country fell into worse hands. The debate began then, and shows no sign of abatement. As a matter of fact, it has intensified lately.
Some noted Liberian intellectuals have defended the learned sector vigorously and sometimes angrily and accused their detractors of "anti-intellectualism" or "pure ignorance". But the ferocious remarks condemning and blaming the intellectuals have grown more and more intense. Who's right? Who's wrong? Is there a middle ground?
One Mr. Ike Coleman kindled this classic debate when he wrote: "Many of us are old enough to look back and recap the political nonsense of people like Tipoteh, Matthews, Fahnbulleh, Dahn, Sawyer, and you know the rest, who sham-fed us with the notion that government can do it all". They forecasted and promised an egalitarian society were they given the chance to be at the helm of operations. But strangely so, these were all people who had no proven track record of leadership and management with documented results...
"But please, to the Dahns, Tipotehs, and the host of others, it is very, very pathetic that you can sit around for years, doing nothing of substance but expressing your thoughts through writings, only waiting to be president... If by now we cannot see what indelible good this group of people has done for themselves through real hard work, how can you argue that you are ready to lead a dying people? You are poor, broke, I am poor broke, we are all poor broke, so tell me where do you come off to show your true colors?"
Mr. Coleman continues the tirade: "All of you guys roam the place beating on Charles Taylor when the man, I must give it to him uses common sense - street sense to kick ass. And then you all wonder why is my thousand PhDs not working for me. Common sense is what Liberians can relate to; not percentages, curves and graphs."
That was too much for Dr. H. Boimah Fahnbulleh to take, he fired back forcefully and rightfully and referred to the above quoted as "a very disjointed, illogical and simplistic piece of political ranting..." Our Professor Fahnbulleh continued: "Ike Coleman belongs to that genre of Liberians who empty their little minds at the least opportunity and feel they have all the solutions without even a fundamental understanding of the complexity of our solution. They validate the aphorism that a little learning is a dangerous thing. This reference to a little learning has nothing to do with a terminal degree. It has more to do with wisdom, experience and common sense. Whoever told Coleman that running a business enterprise, a corporation or an industry is the same as running a state?"
To counteract Mr. Coleman's illogical statement that "poor people cannot lead other poor people", Dr. Fahnbulleh retorts: "For example to argue that poverty should disqualify one from leadership of a nation is the most laughable platitude imaginable. Leaders must have spiritual wealth. By spiritual wealth, we mean the characteristics of selflessness, dedication to an ideal, strong conviction of social justice, the stoicism to endure hardship, the willingness to sacrifice for one's principles and the courage and decisiveness to take action at the risk of one's life..."
Another Liberian citizen, Mr. John Josiah, an intellectual in his own right, predictably weighed in on the side of the intellectuals when he warned: "The greatest battle that awaits Liberia is far beyond the military battle that we experienced for a little over a decade. The anti-intellectual culture that is rapidly developing and been politicized in every aspect of our society must be vehemently dealt with. The titillating background to this anti-intellectual propaganda has blurred the profound issues that engendered our current political crisis. The campaigners of the anti-intellectual culture will want the Liberian people to believe the cause of our political dilemma entirely rests on the "PhDs" of our society..."
Again, Mr. Josiah makes a valid point when he observes: "...This anti-intellectualism that is rapidly gaining ground poses a serious problem in the future. It destroys the potentials of our youths. It discourages education on the part of our people. For one to blame all of those who advocated for change in an exploitative and oppressive society such as ours is to blame Dr. Martin Luther King for advocating the abolition of injustice and discrimination against blacks in America."
The observant reader will have already concluded that I do concur with the intellectuals and am completely out of alignment with the "campaigners of the anti-intellectual culture". That observation is right, overall. Does that mean that I do agree with all that our so-called intellectual community does? No, not by a long shot. And here is why:
Although I did support and respect those intellectuals and other visionary leaders who opened our eyes and made us aware of our rights and responsibilities, I do understand why some of our fellow citizens take a grim look at them in retrospect. And just because some of our brothers and sisters may not have the ability or insight to articulate and differentiate the issues does not necessarily mean they are all wrong and the intellectuals are all right. I have observed the Liberian intellectuals in the Diaspora since the Liberian crisis began and many a time I have come away disappointed.
In trying to play the devil's advocate here, let me give credit to Professor David F. Labaree, whose book, "The Credentials Race in American Education..., bolstered my thinking on this very difficult matter. Although Professor Labaree was dealing with American education, I took the liberty to apply his arguments to the Liberian issue and I hope the reader will see the logical and valid similarities and conclusions.
He argues "...that at the heart of the U.S. educational system is a fundamental ambivalence about whether education should be considered primarily a public good (one that is inclusive, providing shared societal benefits) or a private good (one that is exclusive, providing selective individual benefits)."
The theme of the book examines some competing schools of thought, as Professor Larabee writes: "This ambivalence has manifested itself historically as a continuous conflict over the relative weight assigned to three competing goals for education: democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens), social efficiency (they should focus on preparing workers), and social mobility (they should prepare individuals to compete for social positions). These goals represent the educational perspectives of respectively, the citizen, the taxpayer or employer, and the consumer. Whereas the first two look on education as a public good, the third sees it as a private good..."
I think the average Liberian comes from the mindset that education should be used communally. Those who attain high academic credentials should have an obligation to share their acquired knowledge with their fellow citizens less endowed academically or culturally. Which means they generally consider education "primarily a public good - one that is inclusive, providing shared societal benefits." And the similarly favor the first and second of the three perspectives outlined above, namely: "Democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens" and "social efficiency (they should focus on preparing workers)."
It is my view that the majority in the Liberian intellectual community are so busy with their individual agendas they seem to be unconcerned with the plight of their fellowman. It seems as though these "intellectuals" or "potential leaders" abandon the community until they decide to seek public office. Is it not fair then to deduce that many of our so-called intellectuals fit into the third school of thought described above? I think it is this kind of perceived apathy that generates a negative response (and rightfully so) from the general public. In their frustration, their responses come across as being "anti-intellectual" and their concerns dismissed because they don't seem to be presented in a clear, coherent and concise way.
It is this kind of misdirected anger that our fellow citizen, Mr. Ike Coleman exasperatingly expresses when he writes: "...it is very, very pathetic that you can sit around for years, doing nothing of substance but expressing your thoughts through writings, only waiting to be president." He continues: "Common sense is what Liberians can relate to; not percentages, curves and graphs."
Giving Mr. Coleman the benefit of the doubt, I'd go out on a limb to defend his thinking by interpreting his remarks this way: "If you intellectuals are spending your time engaging in academic matters, theorizing, postulating and specializing in percentages, curves and graphs for your own personal enhancement and benefit - how does that translate into communal or societal benefits?" If posed that way, it is a legitimate concern that should not be dismissed by any intellectual who means well.
So if I were to make a case on behalf of these disgruntled and somehow less enlightened fellow citizens, (this is not to assume that Mr. Coleman is disgruntled and less enlightened, he may only be a spokesman for "the campaigners of the anti-intellectual culture"), I would admonish these intellectuals to become selfless and patriotic in dealing with national and community issues even if they stood to personally gain nothing. It would become quite obvious that the best way to serve such a purpose would be to begin looking at education as a public good whose primary purpose is to enhance one's fellow citizens, as opposed to being a private good used to prepare oneself for social mobility.
Again, let's return to Dr. Fahnbulleh who seems to strongly support the argument so far advanced when he describes the ideal leader this way: "...A political leader needs compassion, rectitude and nobility of character to govern the polity. In the world today, there are leaders who have demonstrated exemplary stewardship. In Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, etc., men rose to leadership positions after communism without any experience in politics. The strength of character they demonstrated came from their inner preparedness to give their best for the common good."
During the 1970s when the social scientists (or political agitators) retuned home, they were seen as fellow citizens who were willing and ready to do battle for the less fortunate. The public bought their well-intentioned, albeit very sensational message and hope was revived in a society that had begun to accept its unfortunate fate. Things moved a little faster than was anticipated and the outcome was unmanageable.
Were those social scientists wrong to point out the injustice and cruelty of the society? No. Are they to blame that power fell into the hands of the military that used it unwisely and caused our nation to take a regressive turn? Partly. I say partly because they failed to anticipate their own success and developed no blueprint to move the country forward were they to succeed. Were some of them serving their own selfish interests? Yes. Are we to blame them wholly and ban them from future leadership roles? That is ridiculous.
"It may be an easy thing to make a Republic", wrote Horace Mann in 1848, "but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the Republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness and passion." Yes, my fellow citizens, we need the intelligentsia. We just need to observe and analyze what their motive is. They must not be self-serving and then rush to ask for our support when it suits their needs. We must remain skeptical and critical, but never dismiss them entirely, because the alternative is simply too scary to contemplate.
Think about it; won't it be the most unusual conundrum for a country to aspire to regain a respectable and dignified status in the community of nations at the exclusion of its learned class? Is such a thing possible in this competitive day and age? Is it advisable? What kind of society do we engender where high academic achievement automatically becomes opprobrium? No, we should not oppugn the intellectuals only because of their enlightened status.
At the risk of being too simplistic, let me turn to an old African proverb to drive home the point I have been laboring to make: "Do not throw the baby out with the bath water". Again, what we need to ensure is that our so-called intellectuals should not take the general public for granted. Our so-called leaders must not become self-appointed, in other words, they must not assume that getting a certain degree of education automatically earns them a leadership role or the role of a spokesperson. Our intellectuals must associate with the masses and demonstrate leadership on a continuous basis. They must devote and contribute valuable services to their communities in a selfless way. The public must perceive their services as tangible and relatively useful to the masses. That is the way to silence this ugly debate and put a stop to the mindset of referring to our PhDs as "People hindering Democracy."
(Please tune in within the next few days as I present a selfless and dedicated fellow Liberian - an intellectual and public servant, a man of the people. If only they were all like that, what a beautiful world it would be. And he's not even running for anything!)