Liberal arts for Bell execs

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.

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  1. See Michael Hammer’s thoughts on the role of liberal arts in executive education.

  2. Nice idea, but it would never work today. I recently heard a professor from Yale say, “These days, the academy is just an arm of the politburo.” I don’t think this was true yet in 1952.

    I do think there is a heck of a lot to be learned from ancient history, particularly the classical period of Greece. Lots of lessons can be learned concerning NATO, for example, by looking back at the Delian League, a similar institution in antiquity. World War I generated a lot of interest in the Peloponnesian Wars (and Pericles’ strategy has also been compared the Communists’ strategy in Vietnam).

    If you want to study this sort of thing cheap, let iTunes U be your guide: first rate professors from top tier universities and all for free.

  3. What makes you think it worked in 1952? These were junior executives after all and if the word came down from on high that the president or CEO or some other august personage had conferred their blessing on the program how likely is it that an ambitious, junior executive would’ve dismissed it as palpable poppycock?

    The real test would’ve been to track those junior executives and compared how they did to their peers who didn’t attend the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. The fact that the program was shut down relatively quickly, in terms of the Bell Telephone company, suggests that it wasn’t nearly as good an idea, for Bell, as it was thought to be.

  4. Regardless of how well or poorly it worked, I’m envying those executives from 1/2 century ago. Would some people at BP have learned some lessons? Hard to say….

  5. Don Bemont says:

    Thanks for the Michael Hammer link, David — very thought provoking and probably accurate. Most of the most successful people I have known have been educated in at least two diverse fields, not counting technical training in their current line of work.

  6. Richard Nieporent says:

    Regardless of how well or poorly it worked, I’m envying those executives from 1/2 century ago. Would some people at BP have learned some lessons? Hard to say….

    If they had only read Oil by Upton Sinclair they would have known how to cap the well.* No, I don’t think you need a humanities education to understand risk. Good engineering practices should have prevented the accident from happening.

    *I’m only being a little facetious. Even though the book was an anti-Capitalist screed about the mistreatment of labor by the oil industry and his love for Socialism/Communism, I was amazed at how much I learned about the oil industry and drilling for oil. Surprisingly the same technique is still used – pouring cement down the well head to first seal it off, and then drilling through the cement to extract the oil from the ground – as when the book was written in 1927.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I wonder if humanities education would have caused the BP execs–presuming they didn’t have any, a fact not in evidence–to wonder what would happen if the well blew, beyond the fact that oil comes to the surface.
    Do you need a humanities education to ask, “then what?”
    Lessons from history are nice, if you agree with their portent. But the other guy is always saying, “That’s different.” And it usually is. Hitler had a small mustache, Saddaam a large one. Surely, that’s dispositive. And so allowing Saddaam to do whatever he wanted wouldn’t be a WW II type of problem, or even a one-tenth of WW II problem. Because Kuwait and the Rhineland have different climates or something.


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