Travelling North

Article – Influences and Futures


Influences and futures

Walter Paepcke played an important role in my life.  I never met him, but seventy years ago, he made a series of decisions that impacted on me and countless others.  He also set out to address an issue that remains as important today as it did seventy years ago.

By the end of the Second World War, Walter Paepcke had become a very successful businessman.  He had been the CEO of Containers Corporation since 1922, taking over from his father, and the company’s profits grew as wartime logistics created demands the company had to work hard to meet.  This time also revealed his passion for art and design, as company advertising posters from 1939 onwards were commissioned from artists who might otherwise have found it hard to sustain their incomes.

In 1945, on Memorial Day (which that year was on Thursday May 31), Walter and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Aspen for a holiday.  At that time Aspen was a relatively unremarkable town.  In its heyday a century before it had flourished as a centre for silver mining, but the industry had collapsed.   When the Paepckes arrived the town was run down, still marked by the disastrous fire of 1912 that had destroyed the Wheeler Opera House, one the last reminders of the glories that had been.  Elizabeth had chosen Aspen as somewhere for a nice break to enjoy nature and the mountains; little did she know it was to become the focus of their future endeavours.

What Walter Paepcke saw as he looked around Aspen was opportunity.  In the winter it could be a major ski resort, and in the summer a centre for meetings and discussions.  He had spent time in Chicago listening to the young president of the university, Robert Hutchins, and his friends, as they argued there was a need to rebalance an educational system that had placed too great an emphasis on the “physical, biological and technical”.  Perhaps this was a place where the focus could be on the humanities.  In time and investing huge sums of money, Paepcke’s vision led to many things.  He was right about Aspen as a centre for skiing, of course!  Beyond that, he bought 140 acres of Aspen Meadows where the infrastructure for the Aspen Music Festival, the Aspen International Design Conference, the Aspen Center for Physics, and The Aspen Institute was developed.  Committed to elegance and good design, he even hired a Bauhaus trained architect to ensure the quality and coherence of much that was developed, as well as influencing homes and refurbished buildings in the town.  Finally, he brought Mortimer Adler from Chicago to run his  ‘Fat Man’s Seminar’ as the centrepiece of The Aspen Institute work, seminars based on an exploration of readings from the Great Books.

How was this important for me?  In 1992, I went to The Aspen Institute as a participant in the Executive Seminar, a two-week round table Socratic discussion of writings from Plato to Havel, still using the format that Mortimer Adler had designed.  My first visit to The Aspen Institute was to their second campus, at Wye River in Maryland, and it was another year before I attended a second seminar, this time in Aspen itself.  It was then I was able to enjoy the music, the opera, and all the rest Paepcke’s vision had inspired.  However, it was the seminar at Wye Woods that had a major impact on my life, taking me back to what I had been doing nearly thirty years before.

Thirty years before I was at university.  After an unsatisfactory first year of study, slowly realising that I was not going to become a geologist, I had sought help in finding a course that might better suit me.  An inspired tutor suggested I study social anthropology, and so, at the beginning of my second year, I found myself sitting in a tutorial with just one other student and Edmund Leach.  He was to have a great influence in my intellectual development: unlike Walter Paepcke, he was someone I actually met and got to know!

Until that year, my studies had been focussed on the ‘biological, the physical and the technological’.  With the benefit of a good memory I had sailed through the UK grammar school system, diving into maths, physics, chemistry and geology, and garnering a passing acquaintance with a smattering of other subjects.  Even English and French were more like a technical challenge, and the idea of ‘the humanities’ was scarcely noticed.  I was aware that some other students talked about ethics and values, but they were clearly peripheral matters to any serious students of the hard sciences.

It is hard for most people today to understand the kind of education I enjoyed in those two years at the University of Cambridge.  Unlike today’s packed programs, there were virtually no lectures (I think I might have attended two or three series at the very most).  There was no syllabus accompanied by a list of required books and a set of learning outcomes. Just once a week a meeting with my tutor, and an invitation (yes, an invitation) to go away and explore a topic then write an essay.  How much I did was entirely up to me.

I thrived, and worked as hard for those two years as ever since.  No laws to discover, test or replicate through experiments.  No sets of formulae or processes to memorise.  Competing perspectives, ambiguous information, overlapping paradigms, it was a discipline in which I was being asked to think. I had not been asked to think like this before.  The reward for exploring ideas, and trying out approaches was a weekly review of my essay, returned with typed notes, sometimes longer than the essay itself.  I suppose today I would say that it was an exercise in ‘enabled learning’.  However you might want to describe it, I emerged a very different person than I entered.

I am not sure how well I used the abilities that Edmund Leach developed.  After my first degree I stayed on in the university world for a while, researching and teaching.  For some reason I was drawn to organisations and management (the emerging focus of many social anthropologists as pre-industrial societies disappeared).  Eventually I decided I should learn about the practice of management, not just teach it.  That took me to Shell, then the Australian Government, and finally to running a membership organisation.

So it was nearly thirty years later as a CEO that I went to Aspen, busy, reasonably effective in what I was doing, working hard at achieving the goals my board had set.  The Aspen Institute was a shock.  A wonderful shock, pushing me right back to questions that I had been exploring in the much more limited canvas of ethnographic studies of pre-industrial societies.  Now I was reading a literature that I had accessed only briefly – philosophers, political scientists, economists, historians, together a wide range of thinkers and intellectuals.  Walter Paepcke had been right:  I certainly needed to rebalance my technical skills with a fuller appreciation of the humanities, and the questions that they created for my work, my organisation, and myself.

I don’t want to dwell on more autobiography.  The Executive Seminar proved a springboard to my working with a few others to set up a similar body in Australia.  After a few years I went back to the university world, and devoted most of my time to teaching. That visit to The Aspen Institute (and several others after then) had changed me.

However, Walter Paepcke had set out to change management as a whole, and The Aspen Institute has been in operation since 1949, touching the lives of thousands from the private sector, government and the not-for-profit world.  Has it been enough?  Are his concerns are still valid.  Is the technical still given too much emphasis, at the expense of the humanities?  Are we doing a good job in educating the young?  Are they really learning to think?  Having acknowledged my ‘influences’ what about ‘futures’?


If you work in a business school, teaching undergraduate or MBA courses, the balance between technical and humanitarian should be a pressing one.  Leaving on one side quite properly technical courses about finance, accounting, IT systems and so on, that need for balance becomes clearly important in such topics as human relations management, leadership and marketing.  However, I see many courses on these topics still largely taught in the same way as others in the curriculum, with an emphasis on learning techniques.  Ethics appears, in terms of emphasising you shall ‘do no wrong’, but wrong is largely construed in terms of legal requirements, and the messy ethics of everyday practice are often left unexamined.  Assumptions are made about human nature, and we slide past the challenges of practical reasoning by ignoring the complexity of competing moral principles.

Does this have any consequences in practise?  In the business world, we often see that success is driven by achieving financial goals and business targets at the expense of the impact on people: the current scandal over Volkswagen and its cheating over diesel emissions is a glaring example.  Many argue that this is the result of the education those managers received.  Students are in an environment where success is a critical objective, (“I must get an A in this subject”).  Not surprisingly, many will do whatever they can (and can get away with) in order to achieve success.  The well-publicised annual survey of incoming students to Harvard (in Harvard Crimson) always tells the same tale:  10% admit cheating on exams before they arrive, and nearly half say they have cheated on homework, (and many suspect the figures are far worse than this).

Walter Paepcke would probably argue that this sits within a wider set of concerns.  We like to believe that we encourage our students to think, but thinking is circumscribed:  in practise, a lot of the time this is about the application of a set of ideas to a technical issue, and the task is to find the ‘right’ answer.  Few students think ‘outside the box’ when they are given tasks, projects or work to do.  When they do, of course we praise them, and then quickly get back to the task of understanding the outcome that was intended.  We want our students to learn the right things.

Of course, we do want students to learn and think, but we save time (and energy) by giving them the tools and techniques, for doing so.  Some teachers are very good in offering students the opportunity to find out things for themselves, to explore a topic without a pre-determined approach to be used.  However, observing a class where students had been given the opportunity to examine and explore a topic of their own choosing, I was overwhelmed by the lack of real curiosity.  In one of my own classes, I asked the MBA students to read a book (“read a book?”), and write a critical review: many did not understand what constituted a critical review, and then, despite clarifying this was not wanted, promptly produced an unthinking and poorly constructed summary.

Perhaps I am out of touch with higher education when I say that I would like to think that the outcomes of studying for a degree would be that a student has developed generic skills, the ability to think, to analyse, and to learn in any context.  These are the critical skills that should, for example, enable them to see through the pathetic nonsense offered by many of the current candidates for the US presidency or for seats in a State assembly, and demand rather more of those seeking to represent them in government.

I still think a university is about growing the life of the mind.  Many courses seem to be about channelling the skills of the worker.  Liberal arts courses have become trivialised and often are used to ensure that students have basic skills in reading and writing.  They attempt to get students to learn some civics and some understanding of history.  Can’t we do more?

Walter Paepcke saw great value in reading and debating the Great Books.  Today we have some difficulties with that approach:  the books identified as ‘great’ at that time were the works of DWEMs (Dead White European Males).  The Aspen Institute has moved a long way since, and now includes works from other traditions and from a diversity of writers.  At the same time, we see value in debating films, works of art, theatre (at The Aspen Institute we read and performed Antigone).  Great works do not have to be just written works.

We still have difficulty in deciding what makes something great, and seem to shy away from making that decision.  There are various reasons for this.  One is recognition that a work may not have to be great to be an effective basis for a discussion.  An example I have used in the past is the Hung Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  Any discussion group exploring these confronts a rich set of issues concerning loyalty, morality, the complexities of politics, the challenges of adolescence, and the ambiguities of competing principles and priorities.  Not ‘great books’, perhaps, but certainly ones that tell a story that is worth examining and dissecting.

Another reason that underlies concern over talking about great books is that we are sometimes uncomfortable in saying a book (or other work of art) is poor.  In a world in which there is always someone to offer a positive puff on whatever is offered up for sale, to say something is far from great leads to the likelihood that you will be criticised in turn.  One of the trickier consequences of postmodernism is the difficulty of finding firm ground:  who are you to say something is poor?

Despite all that, I guess I am an unrepentant optimistic idealist!!  The opportunity to sit round a table with a group of people to discuss and debate a good book is central to developing and sustaining our abilities in thinking.  While opportunities exist, there is a problem about access.  The people who go to The Aspen Institute and The Cranlana Programme in Australia tend to be a relatively small segment of the population, generally well educated, affluent, and privileged.  However, their experience should be more generally available, the very dream of those who envisioned a liberal arts education in the first place.  Indeed, I want people to continue to want to read books, and discuss them!

I can imagine a world where every child is given fifty books to read.  The selection can be flexible, but for those in the cultures I know best I cannot imagine a young person having missed out on E B White’s Charlotte’s Web, Katherine Paterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, or C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  I would love to think that children today still battle with the crazy world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Just fifty books?  There are so many great children’s books to explore, to stretch the mind, to help you confront the realities of childhood, growing up, relationships and death:  fifty books should be a starter!

Of course, there are some that are no longer as appropriate as they were.  I loved Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, and still do:  however, it is an evocation of a selfish middle class world that has long gone (I hope!).  Winnie the Pooh, (the book and not the anodyne Disney films), by A A Milne probably makes no sense to children today, stuck as it is in an Edwardian era.  Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Matilda?  Maybe not.  I am not trying to start a fight or impose my prejudices:  there are more than enough wonderful books for young people to go around.  Perhaps we should move on to fantasy, and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy could be on the list, together with J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Now I am beginning to sound prescriptive, and I had better stop!

Can seeing the films cover these texts?  No, it isn’t the stories that matter, it is access to the minds of the characters, the interiority if you like, that can only be acquired by living in the story through the act of reading it.  Films strip away so much that matters.  It is not just that they fill in your imagination of what happened in a visual sense, but they replace that intimate experience of being there.  It is that experience that becomes the path to developing the mind:  reflection, consideration and discussion.

In the same way, there is another realm of books that stretch you as an adult.  The attempt to identify the ‘Great Books’ was a Western male enterprise that now looks quaint and somewhat dangerous.  However, the intention was spot on:  expose each and every one of us to reading and thinking about the big issues:  Plato and Lao Tse, Machiavelli and Virginia Wolff.  Again, I am not trying to be prescriptive, just illustrative.  There are plenty of well written, thought provoking books around.  Just a minute, do they have to be well written?  Yes they do, because it is in the subtleties of expression and the careful evocation of the characters’ worlds that book spin their real magic, drawing you in without noticing, living in the text.

What am I saying?  I had the good fortune to have an excellent education, and then almost lost my focus on really thinking as I was swept along by work.  I was saved by the results of a rich man’s decisions of seventy years ago.  I was lucky twice over.  How can we ensure that this is not a matter of luck, but help provide everyone with the experiences that build their capability to think, to analyse, to debate?  Teachers work hard, often against the limitations of resources and support, to achieve these ends.  Is there a way we can do more, and restore the intent of the liberal education experiment for the future?  Do we have to live in the world where vacuous entertainers and equally shallow and self-serving would-be politicians fill our screens and our time?  Surely there is a better future than this.

October 2015

There are more articles I have written in recent years!

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