I have always thought that one of the biggest weaknesses in African society has been our inability to build a “thinking culture.” What made the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece so influential to the extent that a lot of their ideas still influence the world today in terms of how society is ordered and structured, was the fact that they cultivated a culture of thinking, which led to the emergence of ground-breaking new ideas and inventions. It was William Blake who said that, “the sleep of reason begets monsters” and a close look at contemporary African society proves this statement to be true. Our public discourse is shallow and simplistic owing to the lack of a thinking culture. Our political leadership lacks imagination and creativity in tackling some of our socio-economic challenges owing to the lack of development of a thinking culture. Albert Camus said that, “we get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.” This statement accurately depicts our contemporary reality and is a large part of the reason why the continent remains behind other continents in the areas of innovation and invention, all necessary tools for progress and development. It is of fundamental importance that we cultivate a culture of thinking amongst our people if Africa’s massive potential is ever going to be fully realised. In the words of Blaise Pascal, “the greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men.” A society of thinking individuals will always outperform a society of pragmatists in the long term and as such we need to place much more value on the activity of thinking and intellection than we currently do if we are serious about seeing a turnaround on the continent. Of course creating a culture of thinking entails more than just formal education. Too often one of the great weaknesses of education systems in Africa has been that they are more focussed on teaching people what to think than how to think. We have graduates whose capacity to think originally, argue and articulate in the most compelling and cogent of manners as well as use reason to settle social issues is highly underdeveloped because all they have been taught through the formal education system is how to memorise and parrot already existing paradigms and norms. This stifles innovation and keeps us from finding creative solutions for Africa’s many problems. The shortage of a thinking culture can often be seen in how we engage in and settle public disputes. People often resort to labelling to settle disputes but as the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara put it, “a label is not an argument.” We ostracise and marginalise those who dare to disagree with us. In the words of Bertrand Russell, “if you think that your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution and will abandon it if the argument goes against you.” This is an area of great weakness amongst Africans and often means that we speak past each other whenever having a supposed debate on issues that are of public importance. We find it easier to gravitate towards ad hominem, ad baculum and ad populum arguments and we fall prey to the phenomenon identified by the French philosopher Michel de Montagne, “he who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” It is often quite humorous to see the level to which our debates often degenerate in different public forums and is a clear indicator of a need for the cultivation of a ‘thinking culture.” Another mistake we often make is to mistake thinking or intellectual discourse for agreement or disagreement. People often enter into discussion and debate with the single intention of getting people to agree with them, instead of testing the soundness of their beliefs and ideologies as well as enriching themselves by learning from the other person, whether there is final agreement or not. As the poet Robert Frost put it, “thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.” Another hindrance to the development of a thinking culture is that our education system is geared towards producing human beings who are employable instead of giving them the tools to acquire knowledge and to contribute new ideas and concepts in the realm of knowledge production. In the words of the American poet Ezra Pound, “real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.” In other words an education system must be based on a culture of knowing, of curiosity, of wanting to know and discover things. Until we have citizens with this kind of attitude all we will be doing is “sheep-herding” and its small wonder that we’ll continue to be a society of people who can’t do much for themselves, because that is the nature of sheep. They rely completely on the shepherd. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words are unfortunately an accurate description of much of African society, “the most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” We need to build societies made up of thinking citizens if we are going to see the continent grow, develop and progress as much as we’d like it to. We need to value thinking for thinking’s sake and this will be seen in the amounts African societies at all levels invest in things like research and development. We need to remember the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s injunction, “mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” If Africa wants to start leading instead of following we need to build thinking societies made up of thinking citizens.
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