Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Crisis in the Humanities? Ask the Organization Man.

There is a great deal of talk about the so-called crisis in the humanities today.This is nothing new as the perceived value of the humanities has risen and fallen over time. There are some fascinating periods of time in which the humanities were greatly valued, and it is instructive to understand them, especially in times of crisis.

 I am a Professor of History at American Public University System, and I have researched and published on one such case in the 1950s when many considered the humanities a savior to counteract the threats of the Cold War.

Many technical and business experts believed that the liberal arts could compensate for the scientific and technical lead that the Soviet Union appeared to hold over the United States during the 1950s. Humanistic studies also appeared as the best way to broaden the minds of American managers who spent their entire lives in a narrow, specialized field of work. I wrote an article on this and called the phenomenon “The Organization Man Goes to College.”

The rationale went something like this: The key to countering Soviet technical superiority, suggested Clarence B. Randall, former chairman of the board of Inland Steel Company, was the liberal arts. In the 1950s he said, the Soviets could not compete with the United States in humanistic scholarship. As Randall argued, “No where have I heard Russia boast about the number of graduates she is turning out in the liberal arts.” He was confident that the liberal arts would “prove to be the Achilles heel of the Communist dynasty,” counteracting the problems of automation, helping to balance overspecialized training, and in the end preserving democracy and the free enterprise system during the Cold War.

Many business leaders across the nation agreed and used the liberal arts as the way to broaden overspecialized managers and offset America’s apparent technical disadvantage in the early years of the 1950s.

AT&T took the lead. In September 1953, a small group of promising young middle managers received a job reassignment from their AT&T corporate headquarters. Their relocation was not to another AT&T division but to the University of Pennsylvania, where they spent nine months in an “unusual and exciting education experience.”’ They did not study new accounting methods, telephone technology, or managerial techniques; instead, they learned philosophy, history, and literature during the day, and went to concerts, museums, and other cultural events at night. Educators called this the AT&T “Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives,” and its goal was nothing short of preparing a new generation of business leaders to continue America’s economic prosperity.

Sadly the program ended by the early 1960s, not because it was a failure, but because the next generation of AT&T leadership simply did not value the humanities.  

I would suggest we need to get back to seeing the ways that a humanities education is of broad value in an increasingly complex and global society. My hope, and current research, is that the Digital Humanities can breathe new life in to the “perception” of an antiquated discipline. I firmly believe that the growing vigor and sophistication of Digital Humanities will serve as an antidote to the persistent rumors that the humanities are in crisis. To end with a literary allusion, as Mark Twain famously said in 1897, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” I can assure you, the humanities are alive, well, and thriving in the digital world of the 21st century. We just need to convince others of this reality.

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