THE ORGANIZATION MAN GOES TO COLLEGE: AT&T's EXPERIMENT IN HUMANISTIC EDUCATION, 1953-1960
Bowles, Mark D., The Historian
In September 1953, a small group of promising young middle managers received a job reassignment from their AT&T corporate headquarters. Their relocation was not to another AT&T division but to the University of Pennsylvania, where they were to spend nine months in an "unusual and exciting education experience."(1) They were not going to study new accounting methods, telephone technology, or managerial techniques; instead, they would spend their time learning philosophy, history, and literature during the day, then going to concerts, museums, and other cultural events at night. This educational experiment was called the AT&T "Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives," and its goal was nothing short of preparing a new generation of business leaders to continue America's economic prosperity.
Part of a nationwide movement within American industry during the 1950s to broaden managers' cultural awareness and encourage independent thought, the Institute was intended to "improve the caliber of management [in order to] keep pace with changing social, economic, and political conditions."(2) Founded during a decade when Cold War anxieties loomed large, the AT&T program was shaped in important ways by this political context, which presented an initial justification for liberal arts training and ultimately (and ironically) caused its demise. Initially the liberal arts were seen as a way to compensate for the scientific and technical lead that the Soviet Union appeared to hold over the United States during the 1950s. Humanistic studies also seemed the best way to broaden the minds of American managers who spent their entire lives in a narrow, specialized field of work. But by 1960, after a change in corporate leadership at AT&T, the program was canceled. The new executives brought a radically different outlook on management training and ended the program because they believed the best way to train managers was through experience and mentoring, not humanistic reflection.
Underlying their change in training philosophy was a deeper Cold War concern. Evidence from industrial psychologists suggested that the AT&T educational experience made workers more knowledgeable about and tolerant of alternative social and economic systems, including socialism. Workers also showed less commitment to "getting ahead" in business. As a result, executives saw costly humanistic training as a threat to the free enterprise system and quickly terminated the program. Examination of AT&T's experiment with liberal arts education helps us to better understand one cultural response to the Cold War, as well as an important chapter in the continuing debate over the value of a liberal arts education.
In Control Through Communication, Joanne Yates examined the transformation of internal business communication practices in the United States between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She argued that in the early nineteenth century American business was a small, family affair characterized by informal communication and word of mouth, and an occasional written letter. However, with the emergence of massive corporations, a change occurred in the twentieth century with respect to written communication and information; the informal process of communication was transformed into a "complex and extensive formal communication system depending heavily on written documents." Eventually, all employees began to "read and write countless memoranda, letters, and reports."(3) This was but one example of an "information explosion" that many believed threatened all forms of intellectual activity.(4)
Worse, the existing "information services" were inefficient and inexact. As one writer dramatically put it, "We are in danger of redesigning the wheel about 6 times a week."(5) For example, in 1950 an important article appeared in a Soviet Academy of Science journal concerning electrical circuits. A few months later, Mathematical Reviews published an English-language abstract of this article, but it was overlooked and not rediscovered until five years later, "after several teams of mathematicians in several US companies had spent more than 15 man years in unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem. …