Humanities, Inc.

Timothy Aubry

Abstract


Hoping to re-energize the minds of its middle managers, between 1953 and 1960 AT&T annually sent a small cadre of employees, most of whom had been trained in business or engineering, back to school to get an education in the humanities. Relieved of all work responsibilities for nine months, participants took classes in history, politics, and literature, while attending concerts and visiting museums in the evening. Though alumni consistently described their experience in highly favorable terms, executives ultimately decided that their efforts were not yielding measurable benefits for the company.

My essay seeks to understand the historical motives behind both AT&T's decision to initiate this program, called The Institute of Humanistic Studies, and the company’s eventual decision to discontinue it. How did cold war preoccupations make this unusual collaboration between business and the academy possible? Why did it fail ultimately to perform the ideological function assigned to it? What possibilities or what dangers does the Institute reveal for those seeking to justify the humanities in terms of their practical or vocational utility? Although AT&T’s experiment is a product of its historical moment, it may, I argue, help to shed light on the current crisis in higher education. If, during the immediate postwar period, executives at the largest public corporation in America held that the humanities constituted essential training for businessmen, why, in subsequent decades, have humanities departments had such difficulty articulating the significance or usefulness of what they teach, and why have they found themselves unable to compete with professional schools focused on subjects such as engineering, accounting, and finance?

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American Studies. ISSN 0026-3079.

This electronic publication is supported by the University of Kansas Libraries