Over the past few days I have been mulling over a conversation I had recently about the need to locate the "value proposition " in liberal arts education for our students' future employers. Apparently those who hire our grads don't quite get how our work addresses their needs and bottom lines.
Whenever this conversation arises--as as it does with tedious regularity--I am always reminded of a depressing little article I once ran across. Called “The Organization Man Goes to College,” it details the efforts of a major U.S. corporation to exploit the value of liberal arts education for grooming middle managers into top executives. Here's the gist:
In the early 1950s, AT& T selected a small number of talented middle managers and reassigned them for nine months of intensive liberal arts education (philosophy, literature, art, music, history). The motive for this was economic. The company felt its younger middle managers (former GIs from World War II) lacked the polish and sophistication to move into the upper reaches of corporate management. Another part was political: the company saw the liberal arts as a way of uniquely competing against the technical lead of the Soviet Union. There was a perceived crisis of business conformity and overspecialization in the 1950s, and AT& T felt humanistic education might make its managers more capable of nuanced, creative thinking.
An English professor designed the curriculum, which had four parts: philosophy, literature, arts and science. The budding CEOs read world literature and spent a good deal of time analyzing Joyce’s Ulysses. There were first-class lectures and intimate seminars. The managers also took field trips to visit museums and attend concerts. The coursework ended with seminar on American culture called “The Lonely Crowd,” in which the subject of social conformity was studied through analyses of literature and the arts.
So the company brought in an outside evaluator, one who had no stake in whether the program continued or rolled up. This evaluator said he was unable to tell whether the program was effective or not. Then an AT & T committee took up the problem, finally issuing a report in early 1958. The report was thorough and unbiased, but it concluded that the only way to make good managers was to put them in charge of something and hold them accountable. Subsequent studies of managers in the program concluded thatAt a private dinner for recent graduates held at the Philadelphia Racquet Club… [each man was} asked what he learned from the coursework. The first man responded, “Now things are different. I still want to get along in the company, but now I realize that I owe something to myself, my family, my community.” The second man said, “Before this course, I 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.” It was at this point that executives began to realize that liberal arts training had the potential to undermine worker loyalty and commitment to AT& T.
- One-third of participants felt that “as a result of the program’s influence, the telephone company was not the be-all and end-all” that it was previously.
- 25 percent of participants became more tolerant of liberal political systems.
- Some managers had begun to question capitalism and free enterprise.
- Many had become more critical about the way business fulfilled its role in the economy.
So there you have it. It’s a bad idea to teach the American workforce to think for itself. It’s that or it has no effect whatsoever on being a quality employee. Take your pick. One thing that you can’t deny, though, is the world’s inevitable movement toward rationalizing everything through then lens of marketplace imperatives. Anything that gets in the way of this (like teaching people to think for themselves) will be flattened.
Eventually the folks in for-profit education are going to do to education what Ray Kroc did to the potato. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't about time to hole up in monasteries.