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.

3 comments on this post.
  1. HappyAcres:

    Shopkeepers are philistine.

  2. John Gorentz:

    Probably explains why the government wants to keep control of education. It needs to make sure people don’t think about other values than those of the welfare-police state, which is the bottom line.

  3. dave:

    Thanks for the link. I enjoyed the article. this post, the posts about Carr’s book – I am often reminded of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Amartya Sen touched on the same idea in a couple of his books. The reduction of the other to a single dimension – either religious or ethnic or whatever serves. Marcuse describes the method, Sen a motivation.

    The study makes me think of the process of reducing us to the single dimension of economic engines – then a derivation of an entire set of values about good and bad, worthy or not, all having to do at root with a single dimension of our nature.

    How terrible to meet someone who has decided not to be carried along – ah, what was it –

    How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!

    With his features of clerical cut.

    And his brow so grim

    And his mouth so prim

    And his conversation, so nicely

    Restricted to What Precisely

    And If and Perhaps and But . . .

    How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!

    (Whether his mouth be open or shut.)

    ­T. S. Eliot

Leave a comment