At first glance, not much is common between Avi Loeb and Tim Harford. One is the chairman of the department of astronomy in Harvard University and the other an economist who writes for the Financial Times. But, in recent days, in their own ways, both have touched upon one of the most common and persistent maladies of humans: to confuse means for ends.

Harford wrote a long piece (How Behavioural Economics Helped Kick My Phone Addiction, Financial Times, 17 January 2019) on his effort to shed his smartphone addiction. He wrote about being on Twitter. It is a medium to share and to receive information and views. But, he confessed to the power of the urge to just tweet.

In one of the most interesting and perceptive interviews, Loeb tells Harretz newspaper (If True, This Could Be One Of The Greatest Discoveries In Human History, 16 January 2019) that extra-terrestrials might have sent a solar probe to our solar system. More than that, he talks about how scientists and academics at universities have been reluctant to consider this possibility and write about it publicly.

Academics get tenured because they have displayed intellectual curiosity and accomplishment sufficiently. The latter flows from the former. Tenure is supposed to free them from other anxieties such that both—curiosity (knowledge accumulation) and accomplishment (dissemination)—could be pursued more freely. Tenure is the means to an end. But tenure becomes an end in itself such that it inhibits the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom!

In institutions of higher learning, this shows up in two or three other areas too: accreditation, ranking of the institution and in the trade-off between teaching and pursuit of academic research. An institution accredited by a reputed accreditation body signals a certain quality and standard of education to students and their parents. Over time, accreditation becomes an end in itself. Institutions figure out how to “game" or do well in the game of accreditation while its main purpose—signalling quality—becomes more and more divorced from the process. Accreditation agencies too have become prescriptive in practice. More on that later.

The emphasis of research over teaching and PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty are also cases of means supplanting ends. The purpose of any educational institution is to educate. In primary and secondary schools, education is about teaching. In higher education institutions, it is not about imparting knowledge but about showing a path to knowledge. It is about giving students the tools—skills and attitudes—that will help them learn.

There is clearly a case for “research for its own sake" in institutions of science, medicine, etc. Pure research leads to discoveries and outcomes that eventually benefit humankind. Until the outcomes are achieved, they may appear esoteric but the society has to indulge them for the sake of serendipitous outcomes. But, in business or management schools, the aim is to prepare students to become effective managers and leaders of social or commercial institutions or even of nations. Research has to be seen as an instrument for aiding the process of preparing or producing such managers or leaders. But, in reality, research takes on a life of its own.

Some obscure question with only peripheral utility, if at all, for the society or for businesses, is pursued and if it is published in so-called prestigious journals (another instance of conflation of “means" and “ends"), then the prestige of the individual and that of the institution is enhanced. But, to what end? The question of for whom the institution exists is lost in the process. Is it just an arrangement of, by and for academics with students and social purposes of higher education peripheral to it?

In the words of a thoughtful academic, “(accreditation agencies) propagate a model of business school that unmistakably values research over teaching, theory over practice, esoteric journal papers over pedagogical innovations, lectures over cases, PhD-qualified faculty over practitioner-faculty, among other puritanical biases. This is essentially a caste-system, in which an elite community of research scholars, taking turns as accreditors, remake business schools in their own image."

This is the bane of sapiens. They lose sight of what they set out to do and that is how they destroy whatever they come into contact with, eventually. To do things differently, one needs the courage of one’s convictions, lots of staying power (money and top management support) and luck. Usually, the system is too entrenched to allow “mavericks" to challenge it successfully.

Only crises wake individuals up from their conflation, at least momentarily. The crisis of 2008 was one such moment—for economics, for management education, for finance and for public policy. Ten years later, it is clear that the crisis has failed in its job. The old arrangements have survived, in many spheres. That means that we have to wait for bigger and more powerful crises for salvation.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is the dean of IFMR Graduate School of Business (KREA University). These are his personal views.

Close