from the NYT:
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.”
It was a message to mark the annual celebration of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the epic novel built around events unfolding on a single day — June 16, 1904 — in the life of the fictional Dubliner Leopold Bloom. But the postcard also served as a kind of diploma for the men who received it.
Two years earlier 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.
In 1952, Gillen took the problem to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a trustee. 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.
At the same time, the institute’s curriculum provided for the sorts of experiences that were once the accidental concomitants of a liberal education: visits to museums and art galleries, orchestral concerts, day trips meant to foster thoughtful attention to the history and architecture of the city that surrounded the Penn campus, as well as that of New York and Washington.
Perhaps the most exciting component of the curriculum was the series of guest lecturers the institute brought to campus. “One hundred and sixty of America’s leading intellectuals,” according to Baltzell, spoke to the Bell students that year. They included the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson. It was a thrilling intellectual carnival.
When the students read “The Lonely Crowd,” the landmark 1950 study of their own social milieu, they didn’t just discuss the book, they discussed it with its author, David Riesman. They tangled with a Harvard expert over the elusive poetry in Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Cantos,” which had sent one of the Bell students to bed with a headache and two aspirin.
The capstone of the program, and its most controversial element, came in eight three-hour seminars devoted to “Ulysses.” The novel, published in 1922, had been banned as obscene in the United States until 1933 and its reputation for difficulty outlived the ban. The Bell students “found it a challenging, and often exasperating, experience,” Baltzell wrote.