This talk assesses the place of the liberal arts in American society today by returning to a 1950s executive training program in the humanities run jointly by AT&T and the University of Pennsylvania. From 1953 to 1960, the Institute for Humanistic Studies for Executives offered a ten-month program in the liberal arts for Bell System middle management. The Institute’s intensive program aimed to produce more flexible, less conformist, and more creative executives for an increasingly international and politically divided world. Faced with the rise of Soviet technical expertise, U.S. Cold Warriors turned to art and literature (including, for instance, the close study of James Joyce’s Ulysses). How might this experiment in corporate and university collaboration speak to North American universities and corporations today, faced as we are not by an implacable imperial foe located behind a curtain but by rampant financialization and a pervasive ethos of the instrumental?
Mark Wollaeger is a Professor of English atVanderbilt University.