Sunday, June 20, 2010

Effects of a Liberal Arts Education on Managers

Via a great catch by Chris Blattman, here's an awesome experiment initiated by Bell System (AT&T's ancestor) in the 1950s. Responding to the perception that its managers should know not only "how to answer questions," but also "what questions are worth asking," the company,

[together with the University of Pennsylvania], ... set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education.

The results were pretty, ... um ..., revealing!

At the end of the 10-month course, an anonymous questionnaire was circulated among the Bell students; their answers revealed that they were reading more widely than they had before — if they had read at all — and they were more curious about the world around them. At a time when the country was divided by McCarthyism, they tended to see more than one side to any given argument.

What’s more, 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. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.