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Intellectual failure

Ralph Jemmott

Intellectual failure

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Shantal Munro-Knight’s column of April 27 reflected on the recent passing of Norman Girvan. He was one of a number of public intellectuals associated with the University of the West Indies in the late 1960s and 1970s whose thoughts were profoundly influential.
These included Walter Rodney, Lloyd Best, Orlando Patterson, James Millette, Clive (CY) Thomas, Archie Singham, Trevor Munroe, Kamau Brathwaite, Richard Allsopp and others.
It was a delight to be a student if you were reading in the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, particularly if you had an intrinsic interest in intellectual pursuits. One read vociferously, argued interminably and often wrongly. It was a time of “gravitas”, high seriousness, for this was the age of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in America.
It was also a time of iconographic reconstruction in the arts towards a more Caribbean, Afro-centred consciousness. The region seemed on the brink of fundamental change if not revolution, and some of us were eager to be on the right side of history.
Munro-Knight’s article focused on the current absence of leadership in the Caribbean. Few of our contemporary leaders reflect an illuminating, authentic vision. Admittedly none seem to approach the stature of an Eric Williams, a Grantley or Tom Adams, an Errol Barrow, an ANR Robinson or a Michael Manley. But vision can be a funny thing, sometimes indistinguishable from megalomania and manic dream.
It could be argued that both Michael Manley, “The Evangelical Joshua” and Forbes Burnham had their visions, but they were both failed politicians who left their respective countries in a worse state than they found them. Examples of what a reviewer of Archie Brown’s The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age calls “the misbegotten strongman”.
The 1970s search for a revolutionary ethic failed. The failure was in part a result of inherent flaws in the ideologies of the Left and in part of its underestimation of the strength of the hegemonic global political- economic establishment. Then, as now, the theoreticians did not fully appreciate the difficulties of small open economies working outside of the neo-liberal parameters of the global marketplace.
It may be for this reason that the current generation of leaders seem unexceptional, more like managers than originators of strategic policy, full of what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls “good cheer rather than serious resolve”.
In comparing Caribbean leadership then and now, one cannot escape the obvious decline in intellectual calibre and managerial competence. It could also be argued that back then the guidelines were clearer and the choices more obvious. Neither explains, far less justifies, the benumbing sense of drift or the inexcusable, embarrassing reticence that now passes for leadership.
Articulated conviction and passion are admirable in most politicians irrespective of ideology. Hence I have an admiration for two opposites as diametrically contrasting as Margaret Thatcher on the right or Tony Benn on the left, both representative of “the politics of conviction”.  
It may be that it is not feasible to separate the failures of regional leadership from the declining level of intellectual development in the region as a whole. Munro-Knight hints at this when she writes: “Even within academia which should be the birthplace of intellectual thought and leadership for the region, the pickings seem dismal.
Across the region our universities seem to have fallen into the same trap – pushing out students instead of nurturing activist leaders.” She is not alone in this perception. In 2003, addressing a conference of labour colleges and heads of tertiary institutions, general secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour George DePeana suggested that schools and universities in the region were failing to produce scholars.
He stated: “While there has been a proliferation of educational institutions, our schools and universities are failing to produce scholars with great learning and persons with scholarliness.” He concluded that across the region, things are now done at a lower level of efficiency than previously. Today we not only lack an exhortative narrative but inspiring competence.
The ostensible absence of a committed cadre of public intellectuals has been a concern for some time. I am gratified that on any given Sunday I can turn to network television; BBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, and be exposed to a calibre of intellect of the likes of Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, Ken Rogoff, Joseph Stiglitz, Polly Toynbee and Margaret Atwood.
One cannot but wonder why could I not turn to CBC-TV and hear a discourse between a similar cadre of Caribbean academics, if such exists. Is it the fact of government ownership of the CBC that does not encourage open discourse. Or could it be that as Munro-Knight suggests, regionally the brilliant and engaged intellectual is an endangered species. Could it be that youth today are more interested in technological proficiency than in abstract philosophical discourse?
 Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator; email [email protected] 

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