File this one under “Unintended Consequences.”
In the 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War, Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania put its most promising young managers through a rigorous 10-month training program in the Humanities with the help of the University of Pennsylvania. During that time they participated in lectures and seminars, read voraciously, visited museums, attended the symphony, and toured Philadelphia, New York and Washington. To top it off, many of the leading intellectuals of the time were brought in to lecture these privileged few and discuss their books. Among the luminaries were poet W. H. Auden and sociologist David Reisman whose 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd, was a classic study of the set to which these men belonged.
The idea behind the program was simple. Managers with only a technical background were competent at their present jobs, but they were not sufficiently well-rounded for the responsibilities of upper management. As sociologist E. Digby Baltzell put it, “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Already in the early 20th century “information overload” was deemed a serious problem for managers, but by the early 1950’s it was believed that computers were going to solve the problem. (I know. That in itself is worth elaboration, but it will have to wait for another post.) The automation associated with computers, however, ushered in a new problem — the danger that the manager would become a thoughtless, unoriginal, technically competent conformist. Writing in 1961, Walter Buckingham warned against the possibility that automation would lead not only to a “standardization of products,” but also to a “standardization of thinking.”
But there were other worries as well. It was feared that the Soviet Union was pulling away in the sheer numbers of scientists and engineers creating a talent gap between the USSR and America. As a way of undercutting this advantage, many looked to the Humanities and a liberal education. According to Thomas Woody, writing in 1950, “Liberal education was an education for free men, competent to fit them for freedom.” Thus a humanistic education became not only a tool to better prepare business executives for the complexity of their jobs, it was a weapon against Communism.
In one sense, the program was a success. The young men were reading more, their intellectual curiosity was heightened, and they were more open minded and able to see an argument from both sides. There was one problem, however. The Bell students were now less willing to be a cog in the corporate machinery. Their priorities were reordered around family and community. According to one participant, “Now things are different. I still want to get along in the company, but I now realize that I owe something to myself, my family, and my community.” Another put it this way,
Before this course, I was like a straw floating with the current down the stream. The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be like that straw again.
Consequently, the program began to appear as a threat to the company. One other strike against the program: a survey revealed that after passing through the program participants were likely to become more tolerant of socialism and less certain that a free democracy depended upon free business enterprise. By 1960, the program was disbanded.
This is a fascinating story about the power of an education in the humanities to enlarge the mind and fit one for freedom. But it is also a reminder that in an age of conformity, thinking for oneself is not always welcomed even if it is paid lip service. After all, remember how well things turned out for Socrates.
A note about sources: I first read about the Institute for Humanistic Studies for Executives in an op-ed piece by Wes Davis in the NY Times. The story fascinated me and I subsequently found an article on the program written in the journal The Historian in 1998 by Mark D. Bowles titled, “The Organization Man Goes To College: AT&T’s Experiment in Humanistic Education, 1953-1960.” Quotes in the post are drawn from Bowles’ article.