Notes about bell labs

June 16, 2010 permalink

The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone

FIFTY-SIX years ago today, a Bell System manager sent postcards to 16 of the most capable and promising young executives at the company. What was written on the postcards was surprising, especially coming from a corporate ladder-climber at a time when the nation was just beginning to lurch out of a recession: “Happy Bloom’s Day.”

And so began a novel executive education program at Bell that brought a rapid-pace liberal arts education to many of their top engineers who previously had rarely cracked open a novel. They read heavier texts than the average grad student, attended cultural events, heard dozens of lectures from luminaries in the field, perused works as diverse as the Bhagavad-Gita and Babbitt, and the capstone was tackling the most challenging novel of the day, Ulysses. It was a success, and early reports indicated that it changed the workers’ lives. So how’d that turn out?

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.