Book review: Disicplined Minds
I just got done reading a book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives. Adrienne read it and said I ought to do so, so I did.
The book is fascinating in several ways. The author, Jeff Schmidt, worked for 16 years at Physics Today and was fired for writing this book, so when it was put up or shut up, well, I guess he put up.
The thesis of the book is that higher education and professional certification largely selects people for ideological discipline to allow guided curiosity so workers can be trusted to do creative work for their employers. He draws a strong distinction between professionals and non-professionals which I think is legitimate; the first being trusted to do creative work for their employer that require the professional to internalize the intellectual and political stances of their employer and the second trusted to do mechanical tasks for their employer that do not require the worker to internalize a political stance.
For me, as a socialist, the book put into sharp focus some of the existing tensions between "intellectual laborers" and "blue collar laborers". Or, in the language of the book, between profession and non-professional workers. For me, it has long been apparent that professional laborers were laborers but had no desire for solidarity with non-professional laborers -- they would consistently side with the management, but were not, really, part of the management. They were workers but special sorts of workers.
Schmidt hits on the head when he talks about "constrained curiosity". They are disciplined to have internalized the system to such an extent that they are free to "do what they want" -- because they have been so rigorously vetted by the system, in the first place, that employeers know that very few professionals are capable of framing a thought that is incompatible with the system they serve. So a journalist working for the New York Times is simply incapable of writing a story that doesn't support the status quo; by the time they are even considered for employment by the NYT their ideological credentials have been demonstrated a thousand times in a thousand ways; any ideologically incorrect thought that such a journalist presents is likely a transient misunderstanding of the desires of the NYT management and swiftly changed (and by that time, likely without even a twinge of remorse). Professionals are workers that the management, the employeers, the people in charge of the system, can trust.
For me, that distinction is crucial, and in retrospect clearly one of the ways that management divides the workers. It creates a class of workers who get to do interesting, creative work with higher status and usually higher pay, not to mention more security. But there's a catch: you've got to do it their way, and you've got to mean it.
They do this, cleverly, through the process of education. Through controlling education. Education has this presumption of objectivity. I've know for a long time that objectivity was nonsense, that education teaches the values the ruling elite wish to see in the population: conformity and obedience. That most education is learning to sit down, shut up and do as you're told.
But that never set well with me. Individually, I've always hated doing all those things and have forgotten to look at the other side of the equation: the people who make it in such a system. Who they are. What they get out of it. What happens to them. My focus is generally the people on the bottom of the system, the non-professional workers, the people in factories and call centers and retail stores -- not the physicians, physicists, teachers, etc., who are intellectual laborers working in the same system as non-professionals but in a different capacity.
In short, I never seriously considered that they become willing participants in the system of oppression. By mental tricks they manage to convince themselves that their service isn't part of the system -- that they're just "doing a job" -- by creating a division between political and non-political labor. I mean, I've long known ALL WORK IS POLITICAL. Work has to do with the well-being of society, not just the individual. But creative workers, professionals, operate differently because unlike non-professionals (who merely have to say the right things at the right times in narrow constrained situations ["would you like fries with that?"], or pull the lever in proper time, or whatever) the professional worker has to be free to explore and act independently yet consistent with the ideology of the employeers.
That's a big difference and it explains why the education system is designed the way it is -- to eliminate so many from professional jobs. Most people can't do it. They might be able to turn off their consciousness and just do a job for eight or ten hours a day, just pass the time in thoughtless repetition of the job, but to be at work for eight or ten hours a day and to be thinking would draw their attention time and again to the strangeness of what it is they're doing. Get too many people like that together in an office, thinking but not thinking about the creative task at hand, and you're asking for a revolution. So people in these creative jobs, well, a different sort of compulsion is required. The non-professional worker the employeers can just compel through force (not just the stick to the head, but the slower but equally deadly unemployment); the professional worker has to be tricked into accepting their role in the system because their creativity and energy are needed in specific ways that different qualitatively from non-professional workers. Since most people lack the ideological discipline necessary to be professionals, well, you gotta get rid of them. Efficiently and in a way that doesn't reveal the ideological nature of the selection. Through the use of the "neutral" arbitrarion of education and professional credentials to create the illusion that when a student fails it's "their fault" -- because most people believe education is largely value free.
Which is absurd, but a huge part of America's national mythology (and to different extents most places' mythology, but I think America has it worse than most). Americans believe, passionately, often with a religious zeal, that America is and always had been a society where everyone rises to the level of their own (in)competence. That Americans, generally, are where their talents dictate they ought to be. That the first 90 years of the country was propped up by slave labor? Irrelevant. That white Americans genocidally conquered Indians to strip their land of resources? Irrelevant. Really, everyone is where they are because they DESERVE to be there -- which is why George Bush (a poor student, admitted into good schools only because of classist and racist legacy admissions policies, with a list of failed businesses behind him that would have utterly ruined him, financially, if not for the constant support of his wealthy family and friends, who is today the ostensible President of the United States of America) is where he is, right? It's why the Kennedys are where they are, right? They all DESERVE to be there -- their high status in our society has nothing to do with family legacies of wealth and politcal connections, right? (The inverse of this is also true; brilliant youths from poor families without connections are in shit jobs because they belong there, right? Not because their lack of wealth and connections left them with no resources or recourse.) Of course this is insane -- but we belief it. Americans think that they can really be the next Sam Walton.
Go take a look at Sam Walton's career, too. He came from a professional family that owned land. He had to do chores, including milking the family cow (!). Poor Sam. Then he went into college where he was a frat boy -- but, man, he had to do "odd jobs" like waiting tables. The truth is that the Waltons were always well off. They did not suffer during the Depression. He was a middle-class scion who had plenty of family, financial and social support. The very idea that this man is "self-made" is ridiculous. He was never in his entire life poor. Not once. Shit. Poor Waltons and their family cow. Poor Waltons with their family farm -- that they managed to keep through the Depression. Fuck that. But he's what we tell ourselves we can do, too -- that with hard work you can become a billionaire. Not hard work + good fortune + intimate familiarity with the Good Old Boy's network of fraternities + support from your family, no. Just hard work. So, if you never get rich it isn't because you're poor, lack connections, have no family support, or have bad luck -- you just ain't worked hard enough. So, work harder! That's what'll make you rich! Damn, that serves the system, doesn't it? The idea that everyone just needs to work harder to be successful, when real success (and, conversely, real failure) is far more complex and upon which hard work doesn't even seem to be the most important part: birth does; wealth is heritable.
Anyway, we tell ourselves that, as Americans, and we believe it. Even when it's not true. But the belief is a powerful thing -- it keeps people in their place. Accepting their lot as that which they "deserve". And we accept education, along with income, as the two best indicators of a person's "worth", as both being neutral indicators of a person's worth, when nothing is further from the truth.
In any event, the book opened up new insights into the political nature of the educational system -- how colleges and professional qualifications have created a new sort of worker. An ideological worker who has been shaped, who has allowed themselves to be shaped, by the system into a person who can control their natural curiosity and political impulses to work on whatever is important to their employer, who can successful seperate work from politics while still retaining enough curiosity and creativity to perform creative tasks for someone else! Also, as a further way that management destroys the solidarity of workers -- by creating artificial distinctions between the quality, usefulness and importance some jobs over others, and creating a false sense of "worth" inherent in some jobs versus others.
Mostly false, too. The book is explicit that most people actually learn the technical skills on the job -- the education and certification process is largely ideological; so, if every physicist on earth vanished today the technicians who set up the experiments, grad students, interested amateurs and the rest could largely pick up where the "professionals" left off with little trouble. For me this was an important piece of information, as well. I have long felt there is an arrogant bias in the professions concerning the depths of their knowledge, but often when talking with professionals I have felt sorta surprised about how little they know. Or, rather, they seem to know a great deal about a very narrow sub-set of a field and often lack what I'd consider to be the basics and often lack an ability to qualitatively describe what they're doing, or have done.
I mean, I've known for a while now that professionals aren't necessary for a field to continue and advance, and often a hinderance to it -- but only historically. The example I use is the massive glut medical knowledge that happened in Revolutionary France when all the learned aristocrats were thrown out of medical practice. The quality of medicine dramatically improved when the doctors were fired . . . or, y'know, executed 'cause it was Revolutionary France. There are other examples as well -- like the reason why 19th century German chemistry and physics was so much better than everyone else's was because Germany opened up their universities to the middle classes, letting a large number of people with different values into the system to its great benefit. But these are historical examples; and Disciplined Minds has illustrated to me some of the specific people who would be able to step into professionals' shoes, today, if we'd let them, and probably to the great benefit of the profession . . . except to the people in charge, who would lose power.
The book ends saying that if you want to avoid losing your soul to the system, the best way to do that is to organize, get with other like-minded people and fight the power (edit: which mostly means organizing with other people and confronting the hierarchical power structure). This is, of course, correct from a socialist point of view. He also, laudably, says that professionals shouldn't bandy around their qualifications as authority. He gives some good (and true) reasons for this. First, and already covered by my ranting, is that professional qualifications generally merely say that a person has adopted a sufficiently strict ideology to be trusted with creative work in the context of the system. Not something to brag about. The second, also covered in my rant, is that technical knowledge picked up on the job so non-professional workers are generally as skillful ss professional workers at the actual job; the nurses don't really need the doctors. The other big one that I noticed was this: he also said that when fighting the injustices of the system, a person who bandies about their professional qualificatons as an authority are importing the unjust system of hierarchical authority into the struggle against the unjust system of hierarchical authority. This I fully agree with, which is why I don't really give a damn much about Democrats as being better than Republicans; they're not -- they agree with the system, and disagree merely with the implementation of the system. They're just as hierarchical as the Republicans, they just want slightly different people to be on top . . . them, as the case would be. It's the entire system that is corrupt, not just one small (or even large) part of it. The whole damn thing. And you can't change the system by really becoming part of it.
Which is probably the one flaw of the book. Schmidt rightly says that people must do the struggle to transform society from where they are at, wherever that is. But he never says that there are certain jobs that must not be done. That if you're working on nuclear weapons, or poison gas, or whatever, that you should simply not do that. That there are some jobs professionals do that are so morally disgusting that no human being should take them. But, really, that's a small weakness -- the book is generally packed with good things.
I advise everyone to read it. Plus, I mean, he put up, like I said. This book got him shitcanned from Physics Today. So float him a couple of bucks and buy it.