The role of intellectuals in society is a complicated subject. However, one cannot dispute what a meaningful and crucial impact intellectuals can make, particularly in today’s rapidly changing times.

As I see it, intellectuals are those who have diverse wisdom and foresight, who apply their intellect and forward-looking visions for the purpose of awakening society. They help to divert the masses from what is unwise and wrong toward what is righteous and the good. No wonder, then, that Vietnamese word for intellectual, “trí thức”, is a combination of “mind” and “awaken”.

There are three key factors in nurturing intellectuals: knowledge; ability and willingness to awaken society; and doing so for a noble cause or purpose. The lack of any one of these elements is inconsistent with the definition of an intellectual.

From this perspective, it is evident that discussing the role of intellectuals is a discussion about the social responsibility of knowledgeable people.

I find a great deal of truth in Einstein’s words: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” A person with capabilities and knowledge bears this kind of responsibility and owes his or her world the benefits of their profound wisdom. Intellectuals need to use their capacity to contribute to steering society away from the negatively-impacting results that they foresee, not just for past mis-directed efforts, but also for current and future inappropriate endeavors. Good communication is vital if the intellectual is to succeed in effectively and convincingly conveying his or her vision for a better society. Building on universal and timeless values, intellectuals also apply their knowledge to shape, and protect, social standards and values.

Genuine intellectuals are aware that, like everyone else, they have their blind spots and should be willing to remain open-minded. Therefore, together with the responsibility to awaken society, they also need to be constantly aware of their own shortcomings, which may limit their understanding and cause harm to society.

I believe that intellectuals are agents of change, particularly in those parts of the world where the unjust and aberrant behaviour are the norm. In their own ways, intellectuals everywhere around the world are making effective contributions to improving society in meaningful ways.

Author: Gian Tu Trung is an Education Activist at the Institute for Research on Educational Development in Vietnam and was named as a 2013 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

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