Mediocrity Threatens Africa’s Intellectual Climate

My various travels across Africa have given me the opportunity to see and hear which trends, themes and topics of conversation are gaining fast popularity in several countries. I suppose it’s like taking the pulse of a continent to measure its vital intellectual signs.

One such fast-spreading talking point in the more economically liberal African countries, where democracy is also deepening the most, is that the region is spawning too many dilettantes, all-knowing know-nothings, running amok all over the place, hopping from radio station to radio station, TV talkshow to TV talkshow, miseducating the masses with their weak understanding of technical issues, lack of discernible track record in any proper discipline or career and general poor education.

Associated with this worry is the concern that somehow ‘specialisation’ is on the decline, and that a fast-liberalising continent is being flooded with ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ mumbling half-baked dross to a clueless media and an even more clueless population.

Though this is a widespread view, there is by no means only a single version of the view, even if the underlying sentiment is almost always the same.

Another angle to it is that in the major sub-Saharan African countries, there is actually a decent number of very competent specialists in a significant range of disciplines. It is just that they have either been driven out of the public sphere by loud, quarrelsome, noisemakers, or that they are too wrapped up in their consultancies and careers to give a hoot about public debate, public education or civil discourse.

Whichever version one prefers, the point remains the same: Sub-Saharan Africa is being miseducated and misinformed by generalists. They should create more room for those already in the system to flourish. The point is perhaps even more poignant because it is a global one.

Not too long ago, the author Andrew Keen wrote the ‘Cult of the Amateur’, in which he forcefully decried the growth of a ‘culture of shallowness’ in the West, blameable in a large part on social media, the internet and a festering think-it-yourself culture. He called for a return to greater depth.

This is a reasonable call, perhaps an urgent one. But we need to be careful of the nuances.

While specialists remain critical to any true progress in any of the technical domains so vital to our region’s development – engineering, medicine, accounting, crop science, animal husbandry, carpentry and child psychology, to name a few – the challenge is that these domains nowadays express themselves within complex, multi-disciplinary areas of action: infrastructure, health, agronomics, interior design and human development.

As a process, the development of countries has become multi-disciplinary. But, even more critically, it has also become inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary.

Hence, rather than just the more familiar approach of, for example, mixing medicine, epidemiology, psychology, biostatistics and bioinformatics to create a broader super-discipline called ‘public health’ to cover connected fields of knowledge, we are now seeing more complex combinations of disciplines in the attempt to tackle some rather amorphous challenges. For instance, we are witnessing more and more the attempt to develop experts in such areas such as military ethics, human security and health finance. This can get rather curious rather quickly.

Would a hedge fund manager, whose investment vehicle specialises solely in acquiring equity in health management organisations, or an analyst for a rating agency focusing on pension funds for health workers, be regarded as a health finance expert?

Such an individual may know quite a lot about the intricacies of financing certain institutions or systems critical to healthcare delivery, but his or her actual specialty may be far from healthcare itself. Someone looking for a ‘healthcare financing expert’ may not think of either of these two people.

But this is too easy.

Actually, the trickiest nuances concern the emergence of completely new fields of knowledge that leave everyone scrambling to determine which existing specialties will aance the new field the most. A ‘carbon market policy’ is an interesting one.

It is far from clear whether environmental economists, geo-informatics experts or industrial policy experts will make the grand breakthroughs needed to design the right frameworks for the optimal functioning of such markets. It may well be entrepreneurs who are skilled in bringing together the right mixture of as yet indeterminate skills.

But the truth is that we are in uncharted waters. And the continent that many experts predict will suffer the most from climate change is in choppier flows than most.

It takes humility for experts of all shades to unlearn and relearn in order to apply the best skills in their repertoire, borrowing liberally from other disciplines as they chug along. It is all too easy to say that the answer is in ‘teams of specialists from multiple disciplines’ working towards a common objective.

Quite often, generalists are critical in thinking across the ‘lines of difference’ astride these multiple disciplines and are essential in multi-disciplinary teams. Entrepreneurs and visionaries are good examples of the generalists conceiving the new reality that demands the precise mix of specialists required.

History is replete with specialists missing big breakthroughs in their own spheres of knowledge application, because they often think too deep but not broad enough. They fail to appreciate the full implications a broadening line of inquiry could have on their limited focus.

Why did it have to take Henry Ford to create the modern automobile industry? Or Thomas Edison to create the modern electrical grid? What were the experts in the great citadels of learning in Berlin, Munich and Boston doing?

Busy drilling down, perhaps. Indeed, historically, the ‘public intellectual’ was a man of many parts. Even when not actual polymaths, they often showed a breadth of interest rarely encountered today.

Of course, there are more late bloomers than we may think: people who take quite a while before narrowing down on a subject worth their passion. These people may throw themselves into multiple disciplines even make seminal aances in these fields, before settling on the one grand choice, if they ever settle at all.

A society that frowns on dilettantes of this sort will simply stifle the creativity of many of its best minds. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been compelled to stick only to mechanical flying objects – no Mona Lisa. Or if Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah had been confined to theology, because that is the academic discipline that occupied him most intensely – no consciencism.

Specialists are important. But so are generalists. As the reputed author Chinua Achebe once said, ‘in a great man’s house, no matter what drums are played, there is always someone to dance to the music”.

Any call for a provincial, narrow-minded population would be an attempt to drive people away from the reality of the complex world in which we will soon need to make laws to mediate between machines that can think, regenerate and perhaps even learn to be autonomous, and ordinary humans.

The lawyers, politicians and economists required in such a society need to be more than mere cybernetic law specialists and sentient warfare policy experts. They need to be able to draw on the history of slavery, the sociology of power, models of agency and novel psychological concepts of personhood, not to talk of completely different techniques of forensic engineering and crime science.

Simply put, it would be a call to deny the growing complexity of a post-industrial world, in which the intense specialisation justified by the industrial revolution no longer provides a complete rationale for how to educate and keep a new kind of professional fulfilled in a career. And, in a fast globalising world, there is little point in saying our problems here are much narrower. In fact, they are even more unwieldy since we often need to translate other people’s breakthroughs into our own unique environment – a process that requires insights, not just into multiple disciplines, but also into multiple cultures.

Could the real problem we need to grapple with in sub-Saharan Africa be one of mediocre specialists and even more mediocre generalists?

If the jacks-of-all-trades appear not to be adding any value, or appear incapable of illuminating the gaps between seemingly divergent fields of knowledge and inquiry, is it perhaps only because the specialists – the town planners, utility engineers, public finance bureaucrats, criminal justice professionals and meteorologists, to name a few – are in the same boat with them, uninspired?

How can generalists assist in the interdisciplinary process when there is little in the way of aances in the specialist domains to combine and re-combine?

And let us not kid ourselves, we now have the biggest university population we have ever had in the history of Africa – many of whom are presumably being instructed in various specialties. If the output seems somewhat bland, then it is bland all the way through, generalist or specialist.

If there is any threat to the intellectual climate in Africa today, then it is the threat of mediocrity, not generalism.

Source : Addis Fortune

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