Africa Needs a Carolingian Renaissance and a Reformation

During the first half of this year as part of my academic programme, I enrolled for a course titled: Advanced African Philosophy. This course served as an eye opener for me as I was exposed to the works of great African scholars such as: Kwasi Wiredu, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Leopold Senghor etc. This course was not only intellectually challenging and stimulating but it awakened in me a desire to see Africa having its own Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of intellectual and cultural revival in Europe during the late 8th century until the 9th century. In this particular period in Europe; education, literature, law, theology, architecture, art and music all flourished. This Renaissance had a spectacular effect on education and culture in Europe. The chief architects of this Renaissance were the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne and the English monk Alcuin. During this period there was a sense of renewal in newly stabilised European society galvanised by an elite group of scholars gathered to the court of Charlemagne. In the court of Charlemagne the people displayed a love of knowledge for its own sake. In the Carolingian Empire as a whole, the skills of reading and writing were not only the keys to faith but to knowledge and power as well. This is exactly the kind of Renaissance that Africa needs to undergo if we are going to achieve all our developmental objectives and turn the continent around. This is important because modernity will require that the African acquire a set of new skills, disciplines, ethics and attitudes. It is also significant because Africa will need intellectual, institutional, administrative, financial and political synergy in order to bring about change and improve the lot of its peoples. The difficulty we have at the moment is that in the process of following the goals of: growth, development and modernisation, Africa has given in to the disease of pragmatism and end-product focussed learning instead of fostering the Carolingian attitude of loving knowledge for its own sake, chiefly because our focus has just been on increasing production and productivity so we can create more jobs and employ more people. The education system and educational institutions across Africa are concentrating on producing employable graduates who can make an immediate impact on the gross domestic product of a nation instead of the Carolingian focus on developing intellectuals who can come up with new concepts, ideas, systems, structures and strategies that will benefit society in the long term. The focus has moved away from those academic disciplines that stimulate thinking, lead to the introduction of new ideas and revolutionise society to those that make people immediately economically productive. This becomes counter-productive in the long term as highlighted by the French intellectual Albert Camus when he said that, “the society based on production is only productive, not creative.” So our focus on using education to increase production and productivity is actually hindering our progress because it produces university graduates who are employees and not necessarily thinkers, intellectuals and pioneers who can challenge accepted norms and introduce new ideas that will take society forward much further in the long term. This is a hindrance because whilst the focus on immediate results and production produces gradual change, new ideas have the ability to revolutionise a society to the extent of taking it forward by a whole generation compared to where society was before the new idea was introduced. Africa needs to focus on producing intellectuals much more than it needs to focus on producing economically active citizens, because as Blaise Pascal said, “the greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men” and Africa is dying for dynamic, new, original solutions to age-old problems. The irony is that a more intellectual society will in the long term produce much more in a shorter span than a merely pragmatic society that is geared towards producing graduates who are not necessarily thinkers and intellectuals but employees prepared for their vocation by higher education. This is so because from a creative society, based on a foundation of intellectualism, will stem forth entrepreneurs who will create new products or introduce revolutionary ideas that will lead to the establishment of new enterprises that create jobs and grow the gross domestic product of a country. Most African societies are plagued by the lack of an intellectual culture amongst their populaces, even amongst the educated classes who may be highly qualified but not necessarily intellectuals and thinkers. As Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher once said, “the most thought-provoking thing in our time is that we are still not thinking.” Yet how can we when the pursuit of profit, the constant deadlines, meetings and all kinds of economic objectives makes it well nigh impossible for us as individuals and consequently as society to value intellectualism and thinking for its own sake? The system as a whole is in some way “anti-intellectual” because it just makes us economically active and productive citizens who are not necessarily intellectual even when we are highly educated. That is why the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated that, “all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” You get so focused on just doing your job and meeting deadlines that you don’t have much time to develop your intellect. This makes society develop much more slowly in the long term. Africa’s developmental challenges require new approaches and new ideas. The old ideas and strategies have clearly not worked for the continent. This requires that Africa’s educational institutions focus on producing a different kind of graduate, a graduate who has a love for knowledge for its own sake instead of graduates who look at education purely from the perspective of improving their income-earning ability in future. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said that, “the writer of originality, unless dead is always shocking, scandalous and novel, which disturbs and repels people.” Such a man was Charles Darwin and his ideas still influence the world today, such a man was Karl Marx and his ideas still influence the world today, such a man was John Maynard Keynes and his ideas still influence the world today, such a man was Adam Smith and his ideas still influence the world today. Where are Africa’s future Darwin’s, Marx’s, Keynes’, Smith’s and so on? Are our educational institutions producing this calibre of graduate with such depth of intellect? Has pragmatism become so dominant that intellectualism has been relegated to the background? We would do well to heed the words of the philosopher Hegel, “mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” Where are the men and the women of thought in Africa today? The American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “a chief event in life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.” Where are the African minds and intellects that startle us? Africa desperately needs its own Carolingian Renaissance in order to produce this calibre of individual.  There are two particular groups of people that could act as the catalyst for this kind of Renaissance: the African university student and the African middle class. Just like Charlemagne’s court of scholarly elites galvanised Europe into an intellectual and cultural renaissance dubbed the Carolingian Renaissance, Africa’s university campuses and middle-class hang-out spots could become the “court of scholars” that takes Africa into an intellectual and cultural renaissance that will lead to development, growth and modernisation in the long term. Our universities need to be transformed from being simple production lines for employers to being intellectual and cultural seedbeds that produce an African intelligentsia capable of producing fresh ideas, new concepts and ground-breaking inventions and innovations. Our universities need to start producing graduates that can put Africa at the forefront of the world of ideas and hence at the forefront of civilisation. Our universities need to be capable of leading Africa not just into a cultural and intellectual renaissance but also into a reformation like the Reformation that Europe went through under the influence of the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. It is important that we not just have a renaissance but a reformation through our universities for various reasons. In the ancient Greek world education and the pursuit of knowledge had as its end goal the pursuit of a good and virtuous life. In the modern world the pursuit of knowledge and education has as its end goal the pursuit of a more affluent life in a material sense. So education has gone from being geared towards producing better people in the ancient world to being focussed on increasing people’s income-earning potential in the modern world so that they can live a more affluent life.  Given that one of Africa’s biggest problems is corruption and greed, an education system that only produces graduates who are capable of earning more and producing more is not going to suffice. We need an education system that will also focus on producing more virtuous graduates. This is the only long-term solution to corruption in Africa. To quote the Greek philosopher Plato, “knowledge becomes evil if the aim is not virtuous. The people, who have destroyed Africa the most, post-independence, are western-educated intellectual elites because the system under which they were educated did not necessarily value or prioritise virtue as an end goal of academic endeavour. It was a problem also identified by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “we only labour to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void.” Hence the need for a reformation as well as a renaissance because the Reformation in Europe was an intellectual as well as a moral revolution, with the leading Reformers all being scholars of the first order, who had mastery over: ideas, logic, language and texts of classical thought and medieval scholasticism.  Africa needs an intellectual as well as a moral revolution hence the need for a renaissance as well as a reformation. Another reason why there is a need for a reformation as well as a renaissance is the fact that if you look at the Reformation in Europe most of their leaders were well versed in diverse works. Martin Luther for example was well versed in works ranging from: Aristotle to Seneca, Augustine to Peter Lombard. In other words they were not necessarily specialised scholars as we find in the modern sense. The Industrial Revolution and capitalism has turned us all into specialists to the detriment of our intellectual development. We study and specialise in a particular field just so we can increase our income-earning potential which probably makes us more productive but definitely hampers our development intellectually. The African university needs to be a “scholarly court” that produces intellectuals with the width and breadth of knowledge that was characteristic of Reformers like Luther. The Reformation in Europe was also a revolution in ideas and institutions. Africa is in desperate need of an institutional revolution and the formulation of new institutions that will take it towards its developmental goals, as at present some of the institutions that we have inherited from European thought have not necessarily been effective in the African context. Can we create new institutions tailor made for the African landscape? This is another reason why we need to have a reformation as well as a renaissance. Finally the African middle-class needs to become an intellectual class of revolutionary impact and not just an economically productive class. Here I will appeal to the words of Frantz Fanon, “what I call middle-class is any society that becomes rigidified in pre-determined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress and all discovery. I call middle class a closed-society, in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt. And I think that a man who takes a stand against this death is in a sense a revolutionary.”  Africa’s middle-class is too often characterized by these traits identified by Frantz Fanon. It is a middle-class that rarely contributes new ideas, rarely challenges the status quo, is happy to accept things as they are as long as it is benefitting as a class no matter what decay society is going through, is often driven by greed and corruption of the vilest kind and contributes very little in terms of genuine intellectual and academic pursuits. Just like the African student, the African middle class also needs to act as the catalyst for a revolution of Carolingian proportions and impact in Africa. So there is a clear challenge for the African student and the African middle class; will you take up the call to lead the continent into a renaissance of Carolingian proportions and a reformation of similar impact to the European Reformation or will you continue to live selfishly, focus on personal advancement, self-promotion and material self-interest? Will you lead Africa into a cultural, intellectual and moral revolution so that the continent can maximise its potential and meet all its developmental objectives? Remember the words of Steve Bantu Biko, “In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought, you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing; the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity.”
Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

One thought on “Africa Needs a Carolingian Renaissance and a Reformation

  • June 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    You are completely right.  Everything is built on ideas, even the nations we live in and the families we are host too, and those with the most powerful ideas will win the days of our lives. For five hundred years we in Africa have reached a  state of idea stagnation, our societies are rigidly fixed in there economic developmental phase, our governments retreating to the same failed policies, and the world still viewing us through the same tired lens of the “Dark Continent”. If we in Africa can truly come up with the great ideas that move Humanity forward, politics more efficient, and technology more benevolent, then who is to say this century will not be ours? But given the current states of many of our governments we will need an “African Spring” to even halfway reach the idea of an African Idea revolution. I admire your optimism though, it will come up to the youth to win our future.


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