The Academia and The Agora – Gore Vidal

Written on March 7, 2008 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

www.SantiagoIniguez.com, Dean of IE Business SchoolGorevidal

I recently read, again, “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.


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