Side Views

Essential national intellectual capital: What is needed more, a genius or two, or good academic institutions? — Clive Kessler

December 12, 2011

DEC 12 — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has recognised that a country’s intellectual capital is its primary asset.

Its “brainpower”, he understands, is the major determinant of its international standing, of its prospects of achieving success and prosperity (Melissa Chi, “PM says intellectual capital determines success of a country”, The Malaysian Insider, December 10, 2011).

So far, so good.

But it is wishful thinking to imagine that all can be saved and made good by the production, in isolation — in a cultural and intellectual vacuum — of a couple of world-class geniuses.

There are many small countries that, against the odds, have surprisingly produced the odd “world-beater.”

But unless these intellectual giants inhabit what may be called a “culturally hospitable environment” in their own countries (and provided, too, that they do not become part of the great international “brain drain”), little will come of their achievements.

Their own mother countries will get little benefit, so past experience suggests, from what, as scholars, they may manage to accomplish.

So forget about producing, as a puzzling exception, the odd stupendously “high flyer.”

One does not produce geniuses in isolation.

Truly outstanding minds are cultivated within, and emerge from, a conducive environment.

They take shape and grow most, and best, in countries where the intellectual capacities and potential of all its citizens are supported, encouraged and cultivated.

In places where, among those offered the chance to pursue a scholarly path, “the life of the mind” in its broad, most humanly inclusive senses is respected and promoted.

In other words, the production of a few geniuses and of a larger number of internationally-ranking “near-geniuses” depends upon the creation of a sound, progressive and internationally competitive primary and secondary education system.

“Internationally competitive”? That means, in the first instance, one that respects the intellectual autonomy and encourages the individual critical capacities of as many young students as may be able to respond to that invitation and to those incentives to learn.

It also rests upon the development, at the next level up, of a tertiary or university system that seeks not simply to produce isolated geniuses or identify, from within the anonymous and mediocre pack, a few potential “winners.”

It can only be done by building up a university system based upon general and ever-rising levels of intellectual, scholarly and academic competence.

If you want to produce geniuses, don’t think “genius”, think “competence” — generalised, overall, “system-wide” competence; think of steadily increasing and ever higher levels of scholarly competence.

It is by insisting, without compromise, upon the universal or “system-wide” international academic competence and respectability of all of its staff that a university can create the conditions under which all will — and can, and must — do better, where the better will perhaps go on to do some work of distinction, and where the best will achieve a level where genius may even, just perhaps, become a feasible objective and a realisable achievement.

That is what universities, particularly universities in “non-metropolitan” and especially formerly colonialised countries should be focusing upon.

On that, and not the ultimately subjective, mechanically generated, and always dubious ranking systems that are produced under scholarly conditions and auspices that are themselves of questionable rather than truly authentic, well-attested international scholarly credibility.

The prime minister has expressed the hope of perhaps producing one or two genuine Malaysian geniuses.

His favoured strategy, in other words, is that of “building upon the few” — rather than of working towards eventually producing a few, perhaps even more than a few, really outstanding scholars by a strategy of “building upon, building up, and encouraging the many.”

Yet top-level or “elite” educational achievement is only ever realised from a quality mass educational foundation or basis. It is not produced by seeking, from the outset, to identify “promise” and then to “cosset” a supposedly promising yet narrow elite.

The world’s high mountains stand upon and emerge from massive, high mountain ranges. They do not rise, splendidly and unpredictably, from the monotonous flatlands of vast, featureless coastal plains.

Arguments by metaphor and analogy — by ibarat and kias — are never absolutely compelling. But here the comparison is appropriate, the geographical image is indicative.

Genius rises from a broad terrain that itself stands high.

Building up the many, raising the overall level of the multitude, steadily raising the scholarly quality of the nation’s academic legions?

Is this what Malaysia, during all these long years since 1957 and especially in the years of vast expansion since 1970, has been doing?

I think not.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to produce that kind of high-quality national intellectual armoury in a country whose public universities, between them, cannot show just one internationally credible, or reputable, school or department of modern world philosophy and logic, not one plausible academic “unit” devoted to the study and teaching modern global intellectual and cultural history, not one adequate (or even inadequate!) department of modern political studies, theory and philosophy.

Why are these things important? Why do they matter?

Do they matter to a nation’s ability even to produce good scientists and technicians?



Because academic and scholarly competence — at any serious international level, and certainly at the highest — requires, and emerges from, and can only be fostered within a context, and as an aspect, of a generalised “cultural modernity.”

Was Einstein the product of a closed, intellectually isolated, and narrowly inward-looking scientific community? Of a culture of unworldly and vulgar “tech-nerds”?

No. It was the great breadth and cultural richness of the German scholarly community during the Weimar Republic years that enabled not only Einstein but a whole vast “cohort” of world-class scientists to emerge.

Germany was foolish, once it fell captive to the political mystique of Blut und Boden (“Blood and those with national identities grounded in the native land”), to drive so many of those great scientists into exile, where they ended up contributing massively to the defeat of Hitler’s Reich. But that is another story ...

Instead of focusing on that intellectually foolish and humanly tragic waste, I prefer to think of one of the truly humbling experiences of my life.

That was, some 12 years ago in Berlin, when I entered the great rotunda of the main building of that city’s main university: once (including when my mother had been a student there in the early 1930s) the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet; now, since the years of the old German Democratic Republic, and still, felicitously named the Humboldt University after the two great early nineteenth–century German scholarly brothers of that name.

Along the wide spiral stairs of that grand central rotunda are displayed the photographic portraits of more than 50 Nobel Prize winners, mainly in medicine and the physical sciences, whom that one university produced, mainly in the pre-Nazi era.

Has Malaysia any prospects for registering such an achievement?

Perhaps, ultimately.

But one must start with realistic steps and proper measures, based upon an accurate analysis of the problem and an appropriate assessment of what its pursuit may require.

Some countries — let us be honest, many countries, all too many, including some that do not lack the necessary means, the wealth and material resources — have realistically no chance of ever registering such a scholarly success.

Some simply lack the material means that might enable such success to be realised. Poverty delivers its cruel verdict in many ways, both individually and collectively, including at the level of national accomplishment.  

This, happily, has never been Malaysia’s problem.

It not only has the resources.

It has also allocated and spent them.

But has it spent them well?

Again, I think not.

Some countries have the necessary resources but lack the will to spend them on, and to invest massively, in public education.

That failure follows from a lack of wisdom, a poverty that is mental and moral, or cultural, rather than material.

But that, again, has not been Malaysia’s problem. There has been no mean-spirited limitation here upon the government’s readiness to devote national resources to the educational sector.

But has success that might be commensurate with that great expenditure been registered? Have the foundations for overall excellence, perhaps even for the production of some Malaysian geniuses, been laid down and consolidated?

I fear not.

After years of close-up, sympathetic and friendly involvement in this country’s leading academic institutions, I shake my head in dismay.

Toward the end of his days, my good friend, the late and great Malay scholar and writer Rustam A. Sani, from a much closer and deeper record of involvement in Malaysian university life, used to shed bitter tears over this matter, over what might have been achieved but never was.

At the end he surveyed what he saw as a failed public and intellectual culture, nurtured and now wrongfully protected and promiscuously reproduced within failed public universities. In sum, a failure of Malay, and Malaysian, cultural modernity.

That combination, he feared, threatened to produce, half a century after Merdeka, a “failed nation.”

When I think of the situation of expensively produced intellectual desolation that so pained Rustam, I can only agree.

I can only think — with apologies to the memory of those who died in the Battle of Britain to save England from a Germany that, without the tempering presence of the best and most generous minds it has ever produced, went wild — of Churchill’s evocative tribute.

I recall, and perhaps shamefully adapt for my own ends, those famous words of Winston Churchill to express my dismay at the meagre scholarly life and at the mediocre quality of the array of academic institutions that Malaysia has so generously, but ever so unrewardingly, created.

Never before in the field of human educational endeavour — I am forced painfully to conclude — has so much been spent so liberally upon so many, with so little in the way of quality results to show for the money: with such a lack of distinguished accomplishment, with such a dismal lack of quality result, both specifically academic and broadly cultural, to justify that vast outlay of national wealth and precious resources.

The prime minister would like one or two geniuses.

Perhaps one or two genuinely good, internationally credible universities would be a beginning.

A more modest goal. But a necessary first step towards the stellar achievement of which he dares to have Malaysia dream.

* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Before returning to his “native” Australia in 1980 to a professorship in that university, he had held academic lecturing positions at the London School of Economics and Political Science (The University of London) and at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. He has been a Visiting Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In recognition of his scholarly work and standing he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. He has been a Visiting Professor and External Examiner at leading Malaysian universities.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.