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`Great ideas' for executives. Aspen Institute seminars let them reflect on life's larger issues

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 1986

Aspen, Colo.

Robert H. Matt, president of a group of Midwestern furniture stores, can tell you all you need to know about Colonial-style bedsteads and end tables. Given half a chance, however, the Omaha businessman will also tell you about Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Thoreau and Gandhi -- and about the tension between justice and expediency, the individual and society, the real and the ideal.

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The reason: He's recently returned from the Aspen Institute's prestigious ``Seminar for Business Executives.'' Here, at this green-lawned campus ringed with snow-capped mountains, he spent two rich weeks soaking up the contents of an anthology that ranges from Plutarch and Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Bell. He probed the great ideas of the great thinkers in three-hour daily discussions with 19 other participants, most of them corporate executives. And he had a rare opportunity to step aside from the business world and reflect on enduring human questions.

``We're going to revolutionize the world,'' he says with a chuckle, noting that the experience has made him ``think about the bigger things of the world . . . in terms of its history.''

Mr. Matt's ringing enthusiasm for the institute -- properly called the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies -- is typical of the response from participants, most of whom are corporate executives. They generally see the seminars as the first chance they've had since college to think hard about value systems, history, and what it means to be human. And that, says Australian scholar Colin Williams, the institute's director, is exactly the effect it should have.

Founded in 1950, the institute was the brainchild of Walter Paepcke, Chairman of the Container Corporation of America. A trustee of the University of Chicago, he modeled the institute loosely on the ``Great Books'' curriculum then under development there.

From the outset, says Dr. Williams, the institute aimed itself very specifically at senior corporate executives -- because, he explains, ``they were going to have such a major influence on the postwar world, and because it was felt that they weren't adequately prepared for that [since] they weren't adequately grounded in their own Western tradition.''

``It was important to get them thinking about their basic values and the basic values which underlie our Western civilization,'' he says.

Each of the 12 two-week executive seminars offered throughout the year is designed to avoid becoming a forum for hammering out solutions to business problems. ``As a matter of fact,'' says Williams, ``we say to [the participants]: `We don't want you to bring all your day-to-day problems and try to solve them while you're here. We want you to check all those issues at the plane when you get off and pick them up when you go out. We want you to get back into basic issues here.' ''

For New York businessman Warren Rubin, that is purpose enough. ``I find myself solving problems every day,'' he says, ``but they're business problems, and they're repetitive in nature, and they do not require a great deal of thought.'' Aspen, he says, is ``a renaissance'' that ``solves the problem of vacations'' by combining beautiful surroundings with intellectual stimulation. ``The broader the question [under discussion],'' he says, ``the more fun it is.''

The fun is not inexpensive. At $4,000 for the two-week session with room and board included ($6,750 with participating spouse or guest), the seminars tend to attract largely those whose corporations are willing to foot the bill. Even with those rates, however, the institute faces financial challenges. Mr. Williams, who oversees a program staff of 35 on a $6-million-plus budget, says the institute now loses about $350,000 a year by holding the seminars on its Aspen property, rather than limiting the locale to the institute's headquarters at Wye Plantation, a 1,000-acre estate on Maryland's eastern shore.