On a surprisingly cool summer evening in Athens, I walked down a shallow slope onto a well-manicured athletics field encircled by a 400m running track. As hundreds of business school professors scanned the dozens of tables for a convenient place, we talked about scandals in our research areas, the latest round of divorces, the depressingly poor quality of papers at the conference and the stupid things our university senior managers have been doing in the past year.
This is a familiar scene for many academics. But there was something odd about this particular conference dinner. And it was not that it was held in the middle of an athletics field. What was really strange was the location of this particular athletics field – half-way between two huge political rallies held in Greece on the Friday before the country’s first referendum in decades.
In two days’ time, Greeks were going to the polls to vote on whether they agreed to the terms and conditions of a third bail-out package proposed by the troika (the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank). As the Greek economy unwound, more than 1,000 business school researchers who were dining on this athletics field had met to discuss “the examined life”.
As the protests got more heated, the shouts and strains of music wafted across the running track to us diners. Fearing the conversation might be disturbed, the band played louder. One Danish professor appeared among the diners waving two Greek flags. He was quickly disarmed of these dangerous weapons by two angry conference-goers who were worried that this show of partisanship might put their children in danger. The children, it emerged, were asleep in a hotel room two kilometres away.
While professional hierarchies were momentarily abandoned on the dance floor, the two huge protests outside began to wind their way to a close. As the protestors carrying placards started slowly making their way home, they passed by the athletics field. A few of the observant noticed something was going on inside, and took a closer look through the gates at what must have looked like a grand summer wedding party.
On one side of the fence there were a large number of Greeks facing evaporating economic prospects with only deepening social suffering to look forward to. On the other side, there was a fairly small number of members of the academic elite (including myself) who are still lucky enough to have access to travel funds which allow them to fly around the world to talk about incomprehensible topics.
We may sit at the table and calmly discuss the Greek crisis, but we all knew we would be leaving the country the following day, so we didn’t need to take things too seriously. The protestors outside didn’t have this option. While the business school professors inside the stadium would be complaining about delayed flights as they waited at the airport the following day, the Greeks in the streets would be queuing at a cash machine to withdraw their daily allowance of €60.
While the academic community works towards clever theoretical syntheses in our little lawned enclave of comfortable scholarship, the world outside is quickly falling apart. We are often starkly disconnected from it. This is what happens when economists viciously debate their blackboard equations, social theorists get worked up about the correct reading of Michel Foucault’s last lectures, or natural scientists lock horns over the latest methodological advances.
The disconnect can be comfortable. It allows us to keep our own rituals and routines in place. But it is also potentially fatal. If we debate about the details as the world around us explodes, we will become at best irrelevant, and at worst extinct.
To avoid this scenario, we must look up from our academic debates and hear the cries all around us. Some might be tempted to jump up and dash off into the streets in protest. Others may try their hand at the new and increasingly lucrative “impact” game by showing their work has had some marginal influence on government policy.
Both these responses are important. But we would be deluding ourselves if we think academics should all become wannabe activists or policy wonks. This would be an abdication of what we as academics do best: encourage people to think about the world in a rigorous and critical way. By asking people to think again, we can have a far more important impact than any policy intervention or street protestor might.
At a minimum, we should play a vital role in dismissing much of the empty and baseless talk which passes for public debate. But, when things go well, we can help to reframe public issues in ways which might have been inconceivable even a few years ago. Just think of the impact which Thomas Piketty’s book on inequality or David Graeber’s book on debt have had on the public conversation in the past few years.
Two days after the dinner ended, I was sitting at home in London watching the celebrations of a resounding victory for No in Syntagma square on television. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw the dire predictions from the financial analysts. While worlds apart, these two groups seem to agree on one thing: we can’t kick the can down the road any further. Something needs to fundamentally change.
Both those celebrating in Syntagma square and the financial analysts in London and Frankfurt have recognised that we are facing a wicked problem which will become ever more wicked by the day. We need to face up to it. Doing this requires tough decisions, and action.
But most importantly, it requires fresh thinking and reframing of the problem in ways which allows novel approaches to arise. What we as academics can add is this capacity for novel and unexpected thinking about pressing public issues. Perhaps, we should heed the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek that in times of crisis: “Don’t just act. Think.”