Warning: A Liberal Education Leads to Independent Thinking

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.

9 thoughts on “Warning: A Liberal Education Leads to Independent Thinking

  1. Michael,

    I would agree that this is a fascinating story! Thanks for quoting my original article in the Historian from 1998. In reading the op-ed piece in the New York Times, I would suggest that Wes Davis borrowed from my original article with no mention of my work.


    1. Mark,

      I wondered if something like that might have happened. In any case, great article. Do you happen to know if any other subsequent research was done into the program?


  2. Mike,

    It is a rather obscure story, especially the stuff about Viteles which I dug out of an archives. So I have not seen any other recent publications on it. Let me know if you stumble across anything.


    1. Very glad you found it useful. I was fascinated by this story when I first came across it.

      Incidentally, I should mentioned that I’ve found your work on distributism via FPR very interesting. I’ve got your last post, Friends and Strangers, on the to-read queue.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


    1. Thanks for that. We apparently have that in our library; I will look it up. I remember reading this some years ago.

  3. Hi Everyone,
    As far as I’m concerned Peckham’s short work “Humanistic Education for Business Executives” is the greastest treatise on education ever.
    My professor and mentor in college, who later became a good friend, was one of Peckham’s students in the 60’s shortly after the program stopped and just before Peckham left U of Penn to teach at the U of South Carolina.
    He introduced me to Peckham’s work and I’ve been hooked ever since.
    Though we never met, we did speak by phone a number of times from 1989 to 1993, just a couple of months before he died.
    He did say that he felt the program was at least 25 years ahead of its time.
    I can’t help but feel that the program has been very influential, though perhaps no direct or clearly visible line can be drawn between it and business today.
    For example, when Peter Senge says, in so many words, that any problem in education today that business isn’t interested in won’t be resolved, and when we consider Harvard’s involvement in the past (mentioned in Mr. Bowles paper) with AT&T, and Harvard today which is very active in promoting Learning Organizations, it seems clear that the concern between developing a relationship between business and education is exists.

    I live and work in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area and, long story short, was asked to develop a Peckham-related program for an IT company down here. In fact, our first class was on September 3rd 2013, on the 60th anniversary of the program at AT&T (a very nice, but unplanned conincidence).

    The program is optional, no one has to attend, and they can leave the groups whenever they want.
    All we were hoping for from the beginning was a critical mass, to reach maybe 25 or 30 of the 130 employees. And that we did.
    After some initial bridling on the part of a few, the program is still going strong.
    That we’ve been able to do this in a country addicted to conformity and change resistance, as well as suffering from what could only be described as cultural impoverishment, is a story in itself. But the fact is, many of the people here are very enthusiastic about the learning, change and growth often associated with the liberal arts (that is, when the liberal arts are not contaminated by the narrow interests and aggressive demands of political correctness, which, obviously, betrays the whole point of a liberal education).
    I have yet to have a conversation with people here in education, business, and even government and the community in general who fail to show interest or offer support.
    The success we’ve had with the program so far can be attributed, in part, to the fact that today, over 60 years later, the issues are so much clearer.
    Companies, employers and employees, are willing to look at themselves in ways other than strictly as economic institutions.
    As I’ve said to the Directors of the company and my students, no one knows for sure what will become of our version of this educational experiment. But we had better be prepared for success.

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