My Take

Where are our public intellectuals?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 7:10am

It's not the most promising subject but Professor Gordon Mathews' op-ed piece on our deeply flawed assessment system for local academics has been among this paper's most widely read commentaries in recent months.

Indeed, it has collected 1,000 likes on our website since it was published a week ago. It really takes skill and insight to turn such an arcane topic into a matter of common concern. And yes, it is, or should be, a matter of grave concern for the public.

At a time when Hong Kong's society, economy and government are undergoing profound and confusing changes, we need thinkers and writers who can speak with moral and intellectual authority, who understand local conditions and can analyse and explain them in a way that is profound yet helpful to the general educated public.

We naturally look to our universities for such individuals, who can play the illuminating role of public intellectuals. But we have no one who fits the bill. Sure, we have a few rent-a-quote talking heads from the universities, but you know what they will say before they say it. Professor Mathews provides an explanation for this sorry state of affairs; the Research Assessment Exercise is at least partly to blame.

The ranking exercise asks local university academics to pick their four "best" publications from the past six years to be judged by panels of experts. Judges from overseas usually don't read Chinese, and almost all judges rank publications in prestigious foreign journals more highly than in local or Asian ones. Mathews acknowledges this is less a problem in the hard sciences than in the humanities. But the result is that humanities scholars are encouraged to publish in English on topics unrelated to Hong Kong with theories that are largely irrelevant to local understanding.

I'd love to know this: where are the economists who research and debate publicly the desirable level of reserves for the government; political scientists writing about the pace of democratisation; sociologists on the wealth gap, cross-border integration and conflicts with mainlanders? It's not just a matter of researching such burning local topics but a willingness to engage and inform the public that is largely missing in our highly paid academics.