In The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone, Wes Davis tells of Bell’s decision to expose its junior executives — many of them with only technical training — to the liberal arts.
The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.
In 1952, Bell set up the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives, a 10-month immersion in the liberal arts, at the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to lots of reading, executives went to museums, art galleries and concerts. Bell men listened to leading intellectuals, including poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson.
When the students read “The Lonely Crowd,” the landmark 1950 study of their own social milieu, they didn’t just discuss the book, they discussed it with its author, David Riesman. They tangled with a Harvard expert over the elusive poetry in Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Cantos,” which had sent one of the Bell students to bed with a headache and two aspirin.
The capstone of the program, and its most controversial element, came in eight three-hour seminars devoted to “Ulysses.”
. . . prepared by months of reading that had ranged from the Bhagavad Gita to “Babbitt,” the men rose to the challenge, surprising themselves with the emotional and intellectual resources they brought to bear on Joyce’s novel.
At the end of the 10 months, graduates said they were reading more widely and “were more curious about the world around them.” They found it easier to see multiple sides to any given argument. But “while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities,” David writes. Bell ended the institute in 1960.