Some years ago, Umberto Eco, the prominent academic and writer, published an article in “L’Expresso”, the Italian weekly magazine, under the title: “The first duty of intellectuals: to remain silent when they can not be of any use”. The title is self-explanatory, but I extract a passage from the article that has been quoted often subsequently:
“Intellectuals are useful to society, but only in the long run. In the short term they can only be professional speakers or researchers, school administrators, communication managers at a political party or a company, or maybe blow the fife in a revolution, but they cannot perform a specific and distinctive task. To say that they are useful in the long run means that they work before and after the actual events, but never during those events. An economist or a geographer could have warned about the transformation of terrestrial transports when the steam machine came into scene and could analyse the future pros and cons of that transformation or develop a study one hundred years later to show how that invention revolutionised our lives. However, when stagecoach companies were becoming bankrupt and the first steam machines were taking the lead, (intellectuals) had noting to contribute or, in any case, much less than an engine driver. To ask intellectuals for something else is like reproaching Plato for not finding a remedy for the gastritis (…) The only meaningful thing an intellectual can do when his house is burning is to call the fire brigade” (L’Expresso, April 24th, 1997) *
Indeed, it is an exemplary piece of irony. Let me anticipate that I do not agree with Eco’s statement. I believe that intellectuals and academics can exercise their social task effectively and produce a direct impact on their societies, for the better. Countless examples could be used as evidence. However, Eco’s scathing statement and the analogous ideas formulated by others are often used by critics of the “ivory tower” accusing academics of living in an unreal Arcadia, very detached from the real world. Suppose that Plato had been a professor at a business school in our days. Wouldn’t we have asked him for concrete remedies to business problems?
Business schools need both academics and practitioners in their faculties and deans look for those who represent the best symbiosis of the two. Traditionally, the reciprocal reaction between academics and practitioners has been to reject the other. It is time to overcome this mutual exclusion and explore the formidable synergies that could result from diversity. Again, this is one of the reasons I favour an attached view of business schools, i.e., that business schools should act as bridges between academic and the business world.
* Note: I take Eco´s quote from Antonio Tabucchi “La Gastritiis de Platón”, a very inspiring book.