It is high time intellectual ‘ivory towers’ are demolished and knowledge disseminated to what some may term as the ‘masses’, says Angeline Loh.
When I was 18, I met someone who, in the course of conversation, used the phrase “intellectual masturbation”. Being a school leaver and not very knowledgeable, I wondered, what on earth that meant. I’ve just recently discovered what he meant, 30 years later. Funny, how some things stick to the sub-conscious.
Just a couple of weeks ago, when putting my case for continuing advocacy of particular human rights issues to a certain forum, I realised the importance of ‘abolishing’ the idea of accumulating knowledge for the sake of doing so. What has happened to so many intellectual masterpieces and researched studies of various things pertaining to human activity?
Where are they? And how much attention is paid to these yet unpublished or little known discoveries that are perhaps buried in library archives of universities, public and private libraries. Of what use is all this knowledge? These have simply been accumulated and left to gather dust somewhere, while many of their authors of past generations are long dead and many more generations of intellectual researchers succeed them.
It is only human to instinctively feel very good and proud of one’s self when after hours, months or years of arduous research and analysis of an area of study, to have it published for the world to look at – and perhaps consider, if anyone is interested, and to be heartily congratulated on it by peers and others.
Many studies and theses seem to end there or are only discussed within the sanctums of academic and intellectual circles. These are seen as theoretical, academic works, only for experts to discourse and argue about, using jargon incomprehensible to those outside that specialised field.
Without meaning to offend anyone, I think this a rather elitist reason for the accumulation of knowledge and the self-satisfaction experienced is the result of engaging in this kind of ‘intellectual masturbation’. Arguing for arguments sake does not go anywhere, much less benefit anyone outside in the real world.
More recently, I also overheard the phrase, ‘armchair activist’. I assume it to have a similar meaning to ‘armchair critic’, ‘armchair politician’ or ‘backseat driver’. These metaphors cannot fail to be understood by a layperson, who probably sees quite a lot of it in the real world. It is a form of paying lip service to a cause without being committed to it. Although there are various reasons for this, some perhaps completely justified, it is a means of doing nothing more than merely voicing agreement or making a suggestion.
What then, is the purpose of researched masterpieces that are destined to become mummies in library archives, having no impact on the evolution of society or the changing human environment?
Catalysts of change
Perhaps the motives for doing research should be examined and reviewed. Academics and researchers should consider the usefulness of the subject they are researching and what sort of contribution they wish to make to existing knowledge in society.
Researchers and academics can be activists in their own way – if the word ‘activist’ and ‘activism’ is given a wider more liberal meaning. Researchers and academics are in a good position to be catalysts of change and sources of innovation.
For thousands of years, the intelligentsia had, in fact, been the innovators and initiators of change when their ideas were interpreted and adopted. Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, Voltaire, are some famous intellectuals whose thinking has had timeless impact on societies all over the world. The five great religions were also established by thinkers whose thoughts have had a lasting impact on people’s lives for centuries.
Philosopher economists and political-economists like Marx and Engels, Adam Smith and John Locke brought about change in systems of government with their learned treatises on the existing state of the societies they lived in, in the times they lived in.
There is no doubt that there are modern day philosophers and intellectuals whose learned views and opinions are highly respected and adopted as the ideological basis of government policies. Nonetheless, there is a political aspect to knowledge as there is to everything else, including the upholding and promotion of human rights.
This does not prevent or limit the possibility of effectiveness of an intellectual activist, especially in the current democratic environment. An intellectual activist is not necessarily an ‘armchair activist’ as the intellectual activist draws knowledge from the existing social environment and popular thinking of society. She/he ‘marries’ theory and reality together in the attempt to find a solution to problems or problematic phenomena within a society.
The intellectual activist is an agent of change. Like Marxism and the Women’s Liberation movement, which took the world by storm in the 20th century, the intellectual activist has a role to play in the evolution of 21st century world society.
It is high time intellectual ‘ivory towers’ are demolished and knowledge disseminated to what some may term as the ‘masses’, in an informative and comprehensive package suited to present-day information technology and simple educational methods.
Knowledge and education should not be the exclusive precinct of either the rich or those in elite intellectual circles, as it was in Europe’s Middle-Ages or during the reigns of the Emperors of China. The acquisition of knowledge and the capacity to think critically should be the right of all in society.
It is for the intellectual activist to open this door to those who knock on it, without discrimination.