The social progress of any nation, to a large extent, depends on how it nurtures its intellectuals. Intellectuals can be professionally involved in any field of work, but they have to have an interest in speaking out for the greater good of the society. They are well-versed not only in their own fields of work, but are also up-to-date about developments of local and global relevance. They have the power of critical thinking – a trait that many ordinary people lack. They observe the ills in a society, analyse the reasons behind from an objective point of view using their knowledge and critical-thinking skills, and often prescribe ways of overcoming them.
One intellectual may not agree with another on any given issue, but in a society that encourages friendly debates, constructive arguments between intellectuals often result in useful solutions to social ills. While most of us - the ordinary citizens, work day and night to earn a living, our endeavours are often given meaning by these thinkers. We find hope in their words, receive directions from their wisdom, and view their acumen as compasses that influence the direction our society takes.
A society void of an adequate number of intellectuals would therefore be like a ship without a compass. Without their competent analysis to make sense of global and local developments, leaders may feel directionless, and ordinary people may start feeling hopeless. This slowly but surely sets the stage for chaos in a society. And that is the last thing any responsible citizen would want.
Bangladesh will soon reach the coveted milestone of half a century of its independence and sovereign governance. Indeed, all of us are waiting eagerly to celebrate the economic and social progress we have been able to achieve in these fifty years. It will also provide us an occasion to reflect deeply on where we are headed over the next fifty years, for a start.
Economically, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress, especially over the last decade, and is well-positioned for at least another couple of decades of rapid economic growth – mainly because of the demographic dividend that the country is enjoying. There certainly is room for improvement in the process of development – some say the growth of income could be more equitable – but the progress that has been made so far, certainly deserves acclamation. Indeed, economically, our rise from where we began nearly fifty years ago, is nothing short of a miracle.
Social development, however, is a different ball game. A careful and pragmatic look at our society may expose its vulnerability to division – the root of which lies in differing schools of thought. While differences in opinion between members or groups in a society is natural, the differences can become toxic if the society does not practice tolerance and mutual respect.
When we Bangladeshis express mutual disagreement on any topic or issue, a large section of our fellow citizens resort to bullying and belittling each other using obscene language instead of trying to understand where the other person is coming from with their thoughts. A quick look (or thorough study) of the Facebook comment threads of posts made by popular media houses will be fairly adequate to confirm this conclusion.
Instead of listening to or carefully considering a point of view regarding a topic or issue that we disagree with, we resort to establishing our point of view as the only legitimate one, using verbal force if needed. This results in friction, with no useful eventual outcome. We stand our ground with our own thoughts, and judge each other in a way that is toxic, because disrespectful exchange of curses and threats never results in positively functional outcomes from a discussion. Rather, it increases the risk for further division.
There is little scope of avoiding or overlooking this culture, because how the common people think, and how tolerant they are of their fellow citizens' ways of thinking, indicates in a major way where we are headed as a nation. This also opens up room for opportunistic manipulators to play with our thoughts using emotional triggers, and divide us further for their own petty gains.
And this is where intellectuals come to the picture - especially public intellectuals. They must understand the pulse of a society by observing and studying the common citizens' ways of thinking, and try to instil in them civic sense. They must help our people realise the fact that it is only by nurturing mutual respect for different schools of thought that we can we hope to live harmoniously. Respectful discussion between disagreeing parties often results in beautiful and productive outcomes that is acceptable to all parties.
How many of these widely respected public intellectuals are currently left in our society? We keep reading about the passing of one revered intellectual after another. How many writers, thinkers, and social commentators do we have remaining - ones who command significant respect among a notable portion of the masses? There is ample scope to reflect on this, because it perhaps is not unreasonable to argue that our society is slowly beginning to suffer from an inadequate number of universally respected public intellectuals.
And while we are engaged in reflection, we must recognise the need for our educational system to evolve with changing times – one that stresses on teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking, in a broad stroke, refers to the ability to analyse a situation or a point of view in an objective manner before a judgement is formed. It is easier said than done, and requires practice.
The scope for that practice can be provided by the academic institutions. Many of the top universities of the world which breed celebrated thinkers and innovators, design their courses in a way that requires deep critical thinking backed by knowledge. While the knowledge can be gained through guided research and study, the thought process involving objective analysis can be developed through respectful discussion with a curious and not judgmental state of mind.
We are losing one gem after another. When we read the news, the passing of one intellectual giant after another must make one think – is our society being able to replace the few public intellectuals left in the society with new ones at a fast enough rate?
Today's abundance of youth that we have, thanks to the demographic dividend, will have to take the mantle of being thinkers, leaders, and innovators of tomorrow. It will be the thinkers and philosophers who will provide leaders with a moral compass for leadership, and hope to the citizens.
Our educational system must continue evolving in a way that helps to develop critical thinkers with curious minds, who consider themselves lifelong learners willing to learn from different points of view. Without an adequate number of intellectuals to guide our society, society will continue becoming more vulnerable to division, and economic development will not bring about true prosperity to our nation.
Sifat Mosaddek Bhuiyan is a communications professional.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.