Tag Archives: The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone

The 10 Month Immersion In “Humanistic Studies” That Really Mattered – A Story From Yesteryear

Here’s a really interesting article.  This is one of those “I didn’t know about this, but I should have!” stories.

The article is entitled The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone by Wes Davis, in the New York Times.  (in the top 10 e-mailed articles).  It is a story from the 1950’s.

The problem:
A number of Bell’s top executives, led by W. D. Gillen, then president of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, had begun to worry about the education of the managers rising through the company’s hierarchy. Many of these junior executives had technical backgrounds, gained at engineering schools or on the job, and quite a few had no college education at all. They were good at their jobs, but they would eventually rise to positions in which Gillen felt they would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.

The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.

The solution:
Together with representatives of the university, Bell 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. There were lectures and seminars led by scholars from Penn and other colleges in the area — 550 hours of course work in total, and more reading, Baltzell reported, than the average graduate student was asked to do in a similar time frame.

There’s a lot being written about the failures of education.  And the question of “what kind of education is needed for the modern era?” is front and center for a lot of folks in business and in education.

But I think we are truly in crisis times, and the ethical center is not holding very well.  Here is how Mr. Davis ends his article:

As the worst economic crisis since the Depression continues and the deepening rift in the nation’s political fabric threatens to forestall economic reform, the values the program instilled would certainly come in handy today. We need fewer drifting straws on the stream of American business, and more discontented thinkers who listen thoughtfully to both sides of our national debates. Reading “Ulysses” this Bloomsday may be more than just a literary observance. Think of it as an act of fiscal responsibility.