Profit vs. Proselytizing: Business Lore and Academic Practice

Herbert London

Samuel Johnson once noted that mankind is never more innocently occupied than when he is engaged in business activity. Having been involved in academic life for decades, and more recently, in the business world, I can attest to the veracity of this claim. Clearly generalizations are always faulty so let me state the obvious: there are malevolent businessmen and there are well-meaning academics who are genuinely interested in helping others. That said, let me get to the real theme in this article.

The academic, who fancies himself an intellectual, is eager to reshape the world in the image of his untested ideas. As an instrument for this goal, he has enlisted students who he has proselytized with nostrums of a “better world.” As innocents, these students accept the ideas as if thirsty nomads in a desert oasis. They are the journeymen who spread the wisdom formerly locked in a Rosetta Stone found in the professor’s office.  He possesses the key that unlocked the secrets of knowledge and, generously, he shares this secret with those fortunate enough to sit in his classroom.

That his ideas may be naïve or dangerous is a matter never enjoined by student enthusiasts albeit there is usually that epiphany in adulthood when former students say “did I really believe that nonsense?” [nonsense is never the word used in this sentence]. And when criticism does arise, this professor so eager to be recognized hides behind academic freedom, a shield he mistakenly believes protects him from voices of disapproval. For this, the professor is handsomely compensated, works eight months a year and, most likely, three days a week. He is often treated as a hero on campus, a condition evident when he is the recipient of the teacher of the year award.

Rarely is this honor bestowed on a mathematics instructor or an engineering professor. For them, equations either work or not, the test is right there on the blackboard. Those in the soft disciplines: psychology, sociology, English literature, philosophy, see the world differently. In these disciplines, subjectivity is valued. Evidence is often scant and a hypothesis is rarely proved or disproved. Opinions count and in a world of rigid egalitarianism judgments aren’t made between educated and reflexive opinion. Hence expression is critical and rewarded.

Admittedly the profile I’ve limned may seem extreme to some, particularly those unacquainted with the Academy. But the contrast with the business community is stark, indeed overwhelming.

For one thing, heroes in business who pontificate may exist, but only when success in the form of profit is attained. Theories are quickly put to the test of the market; a good idea is one that works. Success may be ephemeral; the salesman who surpasses his target in year one may be shown the door in year two if he disappoints. Tenure never caught on in the business world.

At a recent business board meeting I attended, the chief executive officer shamefacedly described the failure of his company to meet first quarter goals. The board expected an explanation and, significantly, wanted to know how he would address this failure. There was an immediate test of his leadership. No rationalization or excuses were considered, only results counted. You might call this brutal accountability, but it is a world apart from professorial unaccountability.

Moreover, those I have encountered in the business world work long hours. For executives, the 9 to 5 day is a luxury few enjoy. Senior officials may get a month off, but most are still tied to their offices via telecommuting. Admittedly the financial rewards are greater than those found in universities, but so are the risks. Even talented business leaders face the unyielding conditions of external factors that can adversely affect a well-run business.

As Henry Kissinger, among others, noted, the vitriol often evident in academic life is exaggerated because there is so little at stake. Results are the sine qua non of business activity; theory is the basis of academic lectures. Profit is the test of business; proselytizing the newly found goal of instruction. Tenure is the academic aim; sinecures exist only for retired businessmen.

Yet remarkably many professors I have known and some I have supervised engage in invidious comparisons with business leaders. The complaints take the form of “I contribute so much to the welfare of mankind; he builds widgets. Yet I only earn a fraction of his salary.” Alas, the market economy generates envy for the scholar.

It is clear I believe that, in general, business is a more realistic version of life’s conditions than higher education. But that is a claim you will rarely, if ever, hear from the intellectuals who believe they are the catalyst for reinventing society whether or not it needs reinvention. In reality, most invent a phantasmagoria behind the walls of ivy where realism is not permitted to intrude. As a consequence, truth is hidden and a serious critique of the university system unavailable.

Herbert London serves on the board of the National Association of Scholars. He is president of the Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of humanities at New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).

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