On Not Asking the Right Questions


In 1954, the Bell system (at the time, THE phone company) decided that a technical background was not sufficient, and sought to give its rising young executives an intensive course in the Liberal Arts. They determined that while a well-trained executive knows how to answer questions, the well-educated one knows which questions were worth asking. In cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania, they gave their executives 550 hours of liberal arts coursework. Wes Davis gives an account of this experiment in the New York Times. What were the results? As Mark Davis recounts:

the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

The institute was judged a success by Morris S. Viteles, one of the pioneers of industrial psychology, who evaluated its graduates. But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that 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.

Bell dropped support for the program in 1960.

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