Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bell Beats Ulysses (for a while)

I am intrigued but also saddened by Wes Davis' recent NYT story, The 'Learning Knights' of Bell Telephone, which describes the eponymous phone company's fifties-era effort to inspire a love the humanities among its rising execs, an education that included that James Joyce brain-bender, Ulysses.

As Davis recalls it, Bell was confident that company engineers could fit the Organization Man groove. But the firm was less sure that those rising go-getters in their gray flannel suits could think creatively. As one observer noted, "A well-trained man knows how to answer questions. . . an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell's future leadership needed to learn the difference.

So the firm arranged for some of its most promising executives to get a ten-month crash course in the liberal arts. Over 550 hours students would discuss poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, and architecture. They would, in short, learn that there's more to life than business.

The results were stunning. Participants said that the course enhanced their understanding of the world and its complexities. One added that, before the program, he was "like a straw floating with the current down the stream . . . The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again."

Naturally Bell killed the program. The company just wasn't too keen on training its employees to consider the possibility of multiple bottom lines. Ulysses it turns out, is pretty dangerous stuff.

Read the story: The Learning Knights' of Bell Telephone,

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