Aspen Institute Seminar History

For many years, the Aspen Institute was the Aspen Executive Seminar. Founded in 1950 as “The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies”, the Institute sought to bring leaders from diverse sectors and walks of life to engage in the fundamentals of moral reasoning: what does it meant to be human in a technological age? what does it meant to be a good citizen in a democratic society? what are the principles which allow for individual freedom and economic progress as well as justice, fairness, and the life of the spirit? The Executive Seminar was—and is—the perfect context in which to engage these fundamental questions as human being and citizen.

The vision of the Institute’s Founders—Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, Robert Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler—was informed by the conviction that the decisions we make are ultimately not technical but moral. Because our challenges are human challenges, that original vision prized the centrality of moral reasoning as something that could not be taught, though it could be learned. That is, the Executive Seminar from the beginning was understood as an opportunity to exercise our intellectual and moral muscles—to be confronted with new or unfamiliar ideas, to refine our own system of values, and to become more adept at navigating the moral infrastructure that allows us to live justly in a free society

As the Institute’s Founders contemplated two World Wars and the Great Depression, they understood that democracy and free markets rested on fragile foundations. Understanding these foundations, they held, was essential for anyone doing business, or engaged in civic activity, or participating in the agencies of government. As Walter Paepcke, Chairman of the Container Corporation of America, put it in a letter advertising the first Executive Seminar:

I should like to try an experiment and I would like your help in it. The background is this: Many business leaders have come increasingly to recognize that the most plaguing and persistent problems of business are not the technical problems—engineering, selling, accounting, and the rest. They are what Clarence Randall calls “human problems”; not merely industrial relations, but the whole galaxy of perplexities of man to man, man to society, and man and society to government. Scarcely one of our decisions, major or minor is not premised upon some aspect of these problems and our view of it.

Yet we don’t do much about it. We send our brighter men to special professional and technical meetings and sometimes to special schools or courses. And in the case of Container at least, I think we get something from it. But these things, valuable as they are, don’t get at our most serious perplexities.

Two wars and a great recession later, the human problems persist, as does the need to get at our most serious perplexities. For almost 70 years, the Executive Seminar has provided the foundation of our leadership and values seminars, all of which employ what we have come to call “the Aspen Method” of moderated, text-based dialogue. The Aspen Method infuses the seminars of our Global Leadership Network, Socrates Seminars, and the leadership seminars offered with our International Partners. In our Public and Policy Program as well, we prize at Aspen the attempt—through frank, moderated, thoughtful conversation—to uncover core values which help us frame problems and find solutions in an age of increasingly rapid change and moral and technical complexity.