Santiago Iniguez, Dean of Instituto de Empresa Business School.
One of the readings I selected, again, for my Summer break this year is “Point to Point Navigation”, the second issue of Gore Vidal’s Memoirs. I always enjoyed his iconoclastic and refined writings, particularly “Palimpsest”, a work that exhales the spirit of his cosmopolitan life and intense experiences. The second instalment of Vidal’s self-biography does not fall short from its antecedent. In line with his innate irreverence, one of the favourite targets of Vidal’s essays and articles is, again, the deeply entrenched prejudices held by some academics, as shown in a passage taken from the first chapter:
“Contrary to what many believe, literary fame has nothing to do with excellence or true glory or even with a writer’s position in the syllabus of a university’s English Department, itself as remote to the Agora as Academe’s shadowy walk. For any artist, fame is the extent to which the Agora finds interesting his latest work. If what he has written is known only to a few of other practitioners, or to enthusiasts (…) then the artist is not only not famous, he is irrelevant to his time, the only time he has”.
Let me refer to the two classic Greek words used by Vidal, Agora and Academia, which mean, respectively, the place for doing business and the place for educational activities. Interestingly, in ancient Athens the Agora and the Academia were located quite close to each other on one of the sides of the Acropolis. This proximity facilitated the interaction between academics and business people, as evidenced in many intellectual contributions of that time. It seems there was no separation between thinkers and managers but they rather belonged to the same genre: educators believed that their activity should deal with the problems of political and social life.
However, things changed dramatically in the Middle Ages, when monasteries became the exclusive loci for developing and transmitting knowledge, the true reservoirs of all existing knowledge. Monasteries, though, were closed places, separated from the rest of the community, and monks socialised only occasionally with their fellow citizens. This probably influenced the way knowledge was then conceived and developed, normally as a diverse activity from mundane practices and, at most, only linked to the reduced number of activities developed at the monastery’s pharmacy or garden. This resulted in a progressive separation between the generation and the application of knowledge, a gap that is reflected, for example, in the common principle adopted by many priors: “Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work), intended as a rule to counteract the isolation of monks, since they spent too much time at church but very little working the orchards.
Actually, monasteries were the predecessors of modern universities, and many aspects of the former traditions, practices and culture are still embedded in today’s higher education institutions. In fact, one of the recurrent criticisms addressed to some universities is their distance from the real world, the focus mainly on rigour but the disdain towards relevance. Is it time to bring the Agora and the Academia closer, in line with Vidal’s claim? I believe it is, and business schools can play a leading role here