Letter: Universities serve society by ‘kindling fire’ in their students

Plutarch © Dreamstime

Andrew Jack’s article on business education (“Why are few management research ideas taken up?”, Opinion, February 6) mentions that business academics are agonising about their relevance outside of the academy’s all-too-often all-too-cloistered walls. This intellectual insularity is a more general institutional pathology of the modern academy itself — not just a problem for business schools.

Our universities do not serve their social function by having their resident scholars spill oceans of ink on the paper of countless felled trees quibbling about esoteric questions to a vanishingly small audience of their own peers. Like Jack suggests, “academics’ greatest influence may come less through research than teaching to students”. The modern academy — focused so much as it is on chasing after influence, clout, citations or some other dubiously defined and ever-changing notion of “impact” — has tragically lost sight of teaching students in their lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Plutarch wrote that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”. The universities serve society by kindling that fire in their students, inspiring them in unpredictable ways to accomplish unpredictable things. Perhaps our universities — not only our business schools but also our medical schools, our law schools and, especially, our undergraduate colleges — ought to recommit themselves to teaching.

Perhaps then they might rediscover the beauty, the joy and the limitless social value of liberal learning.

Keith Robert Thomas
Philadelphia, PA, US

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