Ps: This one of best writing about academic world in theory and practice--and honestly I am crying for that. I repost for education. You can read about Ben too in Indoprogress posting, was written by John Roosa, "Obituari: Benedict Anderson (1936-2015)".
Few Intellectuals in Court of Public Opinion
Over the past few weeks, I have had the enjoyable experience of
reading through most of the annual volumes issued by the Nippon
Foundation. Most of the contributions are eye-opening, not merely for
their quality, but also for their comparative reach, and the doors that
they open to various networks of people concerned about the adequacy of a
long list of state policies. Nonetheless, as a whole, they arouse
certain anxieties in my mind, possibly because I spent many academic
years as a so-called political scientist.
The past decade, say 1998 to 2008, has seen many rapid changes not
only on the countries covered by the foundation’s initiative, but in the
globe as a whole. It has ended with the most colossal, and global,
economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and followed
the regional financial crisis of 1997-1998.
Politically speaking, the decade started with an admirable outburst
of reformist politics, but has ended depressingly with the entrenchment
of oligarchies in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. In
all these places, the level of economic inequality has rapidly
increased, human rights have been constantly abused, and state control
of the mass media has become more formidable.
What struck me on reading many of the papers in the foundation’s
volumes was the relative invisibility of all this turmoil. One could use
as an example Thailand, now in the grip of a long-term political
crisis, of which the signs were already visible at the start of the new
century. But the Thailand papers barely mentioned Thaksin Shinawatra,
the problems of the monarchy, or the bitter insurrection in the Muslim,
Malay-speaking, far South. There was no warning in them of the coming
red shirt movement we read about every day in the newspapers. One could
read most of the papers on the Philippines without getting any idea of
the disastrous presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and so on.
Why should this be so?
One could start with the long-term decline of the traditional public
intellectual, whose primary readership or audience was the public at
large. In the 1960s and 1970s the most influential public intellectual
in the Philippines was certainly Renato Constantino, who wrote many
historical studies with a strong left-nationalist character, and who was
bitterly hostile to what he called the persisting “colonial mentality”
among his fellow citizens. He was not alone. For example, the Protestant
American William Henry Scott also wrote influential books about the
early history of the Philippines, and about the abused pagan minorities
in the Luzon Cordillera. Neither of them was an academic or a
professional journalist. Today almost no such commanding people exist.
No Indonesian had so grand an output as the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer,
who never finished high school, but wrote a series of extraordinary
novels and short stories for the general public, even though he spent
many years in prison. As yet, he has no successor.
In Thailand, Sulak Sivaraksa has for decades been his country’s most
powerful social-political critic, and has repeatedly been accused of
insulting the monarchy. He has no academic appointment, and is not a
journalist. But he is now in his 70s, and has no obvious successor.
Malaysia has one such person, who is still quite young, the satirist,
editor, outstanding film-maker, and essayist Amir Muhammad. Again, not
an academic, journalist or civil servant.
You will have noticed that I emphasise particularly the absence of
academic occupations. This point leads me to the first of two profound
changes making the survival of public intellectuals difficult: it is
professionalisation of universities, following the American example,
which in turn borrowed heavily from 19th Century Germany. This
professionalisation was originally built on the powerful institution of
the disciplines, in other words the fragmentation of knowledge and study
according to the logic of the division of labour. In itself, it
discouraged historians interested in anthropology and economists
interested in sociology; but it also meant that success in scholarly
life was largely determined by senior figures in the disciplines.
In addition, professionalisation encouraged the development of
technical jargon understandable only by people in the same academic
disciplines. This in turn meant that, more and more, academics wrote for
each other, published in “professional journals”, and in university
presses. The general public was increasingly excluded by this tendency.
Writing books for this kind of readership was typically regarded as
superficial and unscientific. Elegant prose was less and less esteemed.
Nonetheless America was in some ways unique. First of all, it had no
national-level state-owned universities, unlike almost every other
country in the world. Most of the top universities were private. Second,
the country developed thousands of universities in response to popular
demand, at a time when university degrees were thought of as
requirements for well-paying jobs within and without the universities
themselves. Thirdly, the country has a long tradition of hostility to
university intellectuals in general, meaning that only a small minority
of professors had any powerful connections to the political elite or the
mass media. Yet the American example was very powerful from the 1950s
onwards, given the country’s hegemonic global position during and after
the Cold War. Tens of thousands of youngsters from most parts of the
so-called Free World were invited to to come to America to get advanced
degrees, and were amply funded by private foundations and state
agencies. On their return home, they were supposed to follow their
teachers’ example and reinvent university life, often with substantial
American financial and political support.
But this task was carried out only in part, given the character of
the societies from which the youngsters had come. In Southeast Asia, for
example, the top universities are usually owned by the state, and their
staffs are civil servants of one sort or another. There is a long
tradition of respect for learning, based on both pre-colonial and
colonial-era social orders. This respect for learning is fortified by
the strong connection to the state. Professors have access to the
political elite and the mass media in a way almost unthinkable in the
USA. On the other hand their social status has usually not been
paralleled by comparable financial support. In the US professors are
very highly paid, many senior professors earning US$100,000 (3.2 million
baht) plus every year. In Southeast Asia, in contrast, professors are
badly paid, so end up working on useless state research projects,
moonlighting at other universities, speculating in real estate, and
various kinds of mass media opportunities such as becoming columnists in
newspapers, TV personalities and so forth. Students are often neglected
or ignored, or treated in a bureaucratic manner.
A good many academics prefer not to teach at all, but sit in research
institutes which is rarely very productive. This is why so many of the
best students are largely autodidacts and despise their nominal
Under such circumstances many academics pragmatically align
themselves with the political elite. Otherwise they compete fiercely for
grants made available by agencies in the rich countries, who have their
Moonlighting for the mass media has its own problems. TV slots pay
well, but usually no one is given more than 5 minutes, which is not
enough to explain anything important. Writing columns at least
encourages academics to write for a wide general public, but serious
scholars cannot turn out weekly columns without endlessly repeating
themselves, chatting about themselves, and obeying the instructions of
the editors and owners of newspapers. They become employees – of the
state, of the foreign foundations, or newspaper moguls, and TV managers.
Small wonder that they have little time to do real research, write
significant books, or seriously challenge anything. They are also
Let me give you one striking example. A couple of years ago, I gave a
lecture at a top Bangkok university for about 300 professors and
students. In the course of this talk, I spoke at some length about the
first genuine genius Thailand has produced since the 1960s – the great
film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won two top prizes at Cannes
within the space of three years, and has also won awards all over the
film world. At the end, I asked those who had ever heard of Apichatpong
to raise their hands. About 10 hands were raised, all by students. How
many had seen any of his films? About six, again all students.
I suddenly realised the isolated ignorance of the professors, who
only watch Hollywood films, and their arrogance: film-makers have no
Almost no bridges between professors and film-makers, novelists and
painters, and so on. No wonder that film-makers and novelists usually
have a very low opinion of professors. Only unprofessional students are
connected to the two worlds. All of this suggests some of the reasons
why it is unlikely to find public intellectuals in universities, though
there are always important exceptions.
But one cannot blame universities without considering the environment
in which they exist. Here I come to the second major change affecting
the survival of the public intellectual. This can be described as the
changing culture of the elite and the ways in which they make use of the
power of the state.
The first thing to notice is the gathering trend for the elite to
send their children to so-called international primary and secondary
schools in their own countries, then send them overseas for various
tertiary degrees, mainly to the US and the UK, as well as France, Japan,
Australia, Singapore and so on. This outlook obviously implies
indifference to, if not contempt for, the countries’ own educational
institutions. For this reason, the elite have few qualms about massive
political interference in university life. In the end, only degrees from
foreign universities have any real prestige.
This situation is the opposite of what occurred in the early days of
independence when everyone was proud of their schools, and teachers were
still generally respected. What do the children of the elite study, if
they study at all? You can be sure the degrees will be mainly
professional-commercial: business management, marketing, economics,
technocratic or small scale projects unlikely to create problems – not
only for themselves but also for the youngsters that they sponsored and
Anecdote: When I last spoke with Amir Muhammad, he told me that his
little publishing firm had just printed a collection of short stories by
gay and lesbian writers. Knowing the harsh legal penalties for
“abnormal” sexual relations in Malaysia, I asked him if he was afraid of
repression. “Not at all,” he said, laughing. “Our rulers never read
books, only two-page policy recommendations and the daily press. Plus,
the book is in English, which they are not very good at anyway.”
Source: Bangkok Post, 28 June 2010.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Day workers like me should remember their life is easy when compared to those who work at night. People who often do some of the most important jobs – such as nurses and doctors – have shift patterns that mean they get much less sleep and suffer more ill health than day workers. Battling the noon-day demon is nothing when compared with the midnight spectre that haunts some people. (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/29/sleepy-afternoon-work-fit-lull-flexible)