A paradigm change can sometimes feel like a physical thing. I can remember the first time I found out about the story of the optimistic shoe salesman. I was in the Law Faculty of OAU Ile-Ife, having a moment of quiet contemplation. Very few places are as well suited to mental rumination as a faculty shaped like a cruise liner. I still believe that this is one of the most beautiful buildings in Nigeria. It was definitely an honour and a privilege to spend 5(+x) years in it as a student of law. In a country that prizes ostentation over aesthetics, the beauty of such a building is often ignored.

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But I digress. I was trying to tell the story of a sales person. So I was standing in front of the CLASFON (google it) noticeboard , when I decided to read the homilies printed on it. Near the bottom was the story of the optimistic salesperson which ran as follows:

‘Two shoe salesmen were sent to a town to see if there was a market for their product. The first salesman reported back, “This is a terrible business opportunity, no-one wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “This is a fantastic business opportunity, no-one wears shoes.”

At the time I thought to myself that it would never have occurred to me to see the non-wearing of shoes as an opportunity. But this story changed my perspective about possibility… entirely and completely. This change has helped me many times to visualise the seemingly impossible. It strikes me that as academics in a post-factual world, the optimistic salesperson is aspirational. In a world where emotional appeals and emotive decision-making are becoming the norm, we seem to be only people ‘selling shoes’ (who have the facts). Rather than view the postfactual or post-truth as reasons for despair, I believe this means that we are in a moment of fantastic intellectual opportunity. Rather than lament reality, we should be revealing the reasons for the possibility of our reality, and charting a path that unveils the possibility for change.

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Underpinning the idea of possibility is the existence of hope. Hope of a world of possibility. Possibility that the world can accept the shared value of equal humanity. Possibility of peace in a world of conflict. Possibility of mutual respect in a world of hate. Possibility of joy in a world of despair. As Paulo Friere suggests in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, our pedagogy (academic practice) is meant to unveil the oppression of ignorance by acknowledging our common humanity. I believe that as academics, we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness of post-truth, to reveal the illusion of postfactuality. Therefore, we should not give in to despair, because in our despair we are immobilised, forced into inaction and stasis. In stasis, we are assured of one thing and one thing only – destruction. Our action, our realisation of the fantastic opportunity to ‘sell shoes,’ allows us to offer the one thing the world needs right now – hope.

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One thought on “Academics as Optimistic Shoe Salespeople

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