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Disciplined Minds A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals

The Ph.D. Trap Revisited by Cude, Wilfred, Dundurn, 2001, ISBN 1-55-002-345-4, price $22.99, £11.99.

Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives by Schmidt, Jeff, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, ISBN 0-8476-9364-3, price $26.95, £20.95.

Reviewed by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is an associate professor in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Wollongong, in Australia. He has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney.

Credentials are at the core of higher education. A bachelor's degree or, better yet, a doctorate are valuable to their possessors, while for universities it is crucial to be able to award them. Indeed, without a government-protected monopoly over the right to award degrees, universities would virtually collapse. If any small business could grant Harvard or Oxford degrees, what would be the point of having the real thing?

This question highlights the symbolic importance of degrees. If the main value of studying at Harvard or Oxford were what was learned, then having this learning certified with a degree would be superfluous. In reality, degrees often become more important than the learning they are supposed to represent. Why would a student cheat if the only purpose of enrolment was learning? Take away the degrees and any other certification of attendance or performance and possibly nine out of ten students would quit immediately.

Having an appropriate degree is essential for obtaining certain types of jobs, most obviously in law and medicine but also in many other fields. Prospective academics are usually expected to have PhDs, and a professor without even an undergraduate degree is a rare specimen indeed, irrespective of how much learning a person might have acquired independently. Universities are at least consistent, dispensing "meal tickets" for other occupations and expecting their own teachers to have them as well.

Marxists have analysed the role of schooling in the "reproduction of the class structure," namely providing a way to maintain social stratification that seems legitimate to everyone concerned. As near-universal education through high school has become the expectation in many countries, the task of legitimating economic inequality has increasingly fallen to universities, with a first degree being expected for ever more occupations. It is not hard to develop arguments against this trend, for example that most learning in higher education is not relevant to the jobs for which it is a prerequisite, that the quest for credentials undermines the intrinsic motivation to learn, or that remaining in educational institutions for so many years produces burnt out conformist students whose sparks of independence and creativity were extinguished long ago.

Although academics are noted for their willingness to critically analyse every sphere of endeavour, scrutiny of the credential system is unusual, since it strikes at the heart of academics' status and privilege. One of the most powerful critiques is Randall Collins' The Credential Society (1979). Collins argued that little is learned in schools, with most learning occurring on the job. Indeed, grades are not good predictors of subsequent success in any occupation -- except academia. Collins argued that education has not increased social mobility, since cultural goods, namely what it takes to succeed in school, are passed from parents to children more readily than economic and political resources. Educational stratification links together the realms of material production and cultural domination, creating a "sinecure society."

A few years earlier, Ronald Dore (1976) described the explosion of formal education in Third World countries, mainly due to the role of credentials in regulating entry into modern sector jobs. The enormous expansion of the education system is a response to parent and student pressures, but is highly wasteful when there are insufficient relevant jobs for graduates. In late-developing countries, Dore found wide use of educational certificates for occupational selection, massive inflation in qualifications and emphasis on examinations at the expense of genuine learning. With higher education today treated like a business with a large "export market" (Third World students attending First World universities), Dore's critique seems just as relevant as it was a quarter of a century ago.

Whereas deschoolers such as Ivan Illich (1971) received considerable public attention in the 1970s, critics such as Collins and Dore have been largely ignored. While there has long been soul-searching within academia, for example over social irrelevance, declining standards, commercialism and managerialism, it seldom focusses on credentials. Therefore it is worthwhile looking at two recent books that zero in on this issue.

Wilfred Cude is a Canadian literary scholar who, as a result of his own unpleasant experiences while trying to obtain a PhD, turned his critical gaze on the degree. In 1987 he self-published The Ph.D. Trap and, after updating and adding new material, found a commercial publisher for The Ph.D. Trap Revisited, twice the size of the original (Cude, 2001). What exactly is the "trap" to which Cude refers? For prospective PhD students, it is an incredibly long journey with no guarantee of arrival. For US science PhD students in 1995, the average elapsed time from beginning (after the previous degree) to end was 8.4 years, while for humanities the average was an astounding 12.0 years. Years enrolled and elapsed time for completed doctorates have both been steadily increasing in the past several decades. Cude wants to warn potential students that embarking on a PhD course may not be the best way to get ahead, especially as many drop out along the way.

Doctoral study is hazardous intellectually as well, encouraging a narrow conformity through the dissertation topic as well as acquiescence to supervisory demands and whims. This is useful training in conformity. Why then should the PhD be the entry requirement for undertaking innovative research and for teaching undergraduates?

The PhD, for Cude, is also a trap for society as a whole, given that enormous social resources are devoted to training PhD students, with dubious returns. He argues for validation of alternative career paths, such as second master's degrees and teaching internships.

The Ph.D. Trap Revisited ranges much more widely than its title would suggest. Cude examines the history of universities, early criticisms of the doctorate and methodological conflicts within disciplines. He tells the sad stories of research students who tried to challenge the way they were treated and offers a few success stories of scholars whose work was recognised and who obtained good academic jobs despite their lack of a doctorate.

Cude's writing is engaging throughout, and even his harshest comments are phrased elegantly. He gives special attention to the humanities, where he is especially scathing. Acknowledging that science PhD graduates from prestigious universities may have learned something and made a contribution to knowledge, he says "A person with the Ph.D. in most areas of the humanities or social sciences, however, especially when acquired from any of the less prestigious universities of the United States, Great Britain, or Canada, has probably demonstrated only tact, tenacity, and a high tolerance for exotic cerebral sadomasochism. Such a person will probably not make any contribution to the advancement of knowledge, and might well teach in a manner deterring those who could." (p. 309). As Cude says, "Very few tenured [academics] would trouble themselves over a book like this." (p. 302). Who indeed would like to contemplate the possibility that the years that they had toiled to obtain a PhD had been a wasteful and limiting process?

A different critique of credentialing is provided by Jeff Schmidt in Disciplined Minds, a powerful dissection of professionals, with the chief charge being that they are selected and moulded to have system-reinforcing attitudes, thereby directing their creative energies to system-specified tasks, where "the system" is the current set of power relationships in society. Schmidt's first task is to show that professionals such as doctors, lawyers and scientists are timid personally and politically. More specifically, while they may take enlightened stands on distant social issues, they are uncritical on the job, for example being against democratisation. A key concept in Disciplined Minds is ideological discipline. Schmidt argues that the training of professionals serves above all to make them able and willing to operate within their employer's value system. In short, professional training is a form of ideological indoctrination.

Schmidt, a physicist, gives many examples from scientific research. He describes how scientists' curiosity is oriented in certain directions by funding and job opportunities, for example research grants from the military, yet researchers prefer not to acknowledge their service to external goals. Schmidt says that researchers have "assignable curiosity," namely a willingness to orient their intellectual energies in whatever direction funding might dictate. That makes them ideal intellectual tools for those groups with power and money.

How do professionals become this way? Nearly half of Disciplined Minds is devoted to selection of professionals. When students enter professional training, many of them are optimistic and idealistic. On leaving they are "pressured and troubled" (p. 120), willing to join occupational hierarchies. Professional training has transformed the students' attitudes -- and this transformation, Schmidt argues, is training's key role. He gives special attention to examinations, with a case study of the PhD qualifying examination. (The equivalent in the British system would be the honours year.) The examination, Schmidt claims, is a social framework endorsing the status quo. He shows this by looking at the exam as a whole, at the collection of problems and at particular questions.

For example, often it's necessary to study earlier exam papers in order to learn how to answer "trick" questions. By accepting this, students submerge their natural curiosity in the field and learn to direct their attention to problems set by teachers, however irrelevant or contrived. In this way, the exam system favours those least critical of the status quo.

While those familiar with quantum mechanics will enjoy his analysis of a trick question on a qualifying exam, Disciplined Minds is not at all a technical book, with examples from various professional fields and long extracts from letters he has received from reflective students.

In professional training, there are some who drop out along the way. Indeed, since professionals have high status and incomes, there are many more who aspire to join the ranks than there are positions. If all those who failed to make it became rebellious, the system of professional privilege would be unstable. Schmidt accordingly spends time describing how losers are "cooled out," by being led to believe that failure is their own responsibility. In this, an ideal mechanism is an exam that is biased -- especially in fostering conformity -- but appears nonpartisan.

Even more provocative than his analysis of professional selection is Schmidt's advice on resistance. He draws on a US military antibrainwashing manual to give hints on resisting professional indoctrination. He concludes the book with a list of 33 suggestions for radical professionals, ranging from encouraging colleagues to connect with radical organisations to refusing self-identification as a professional.

For those seeking a radical critique of professions, Disciplined Minds should be added to a select list including works by Collins (1979) and Illich et al. (1977). In comparison with other studies, especially work in the sociology of professions, Schmidt's book is far more hands-on. He is a genuine radical insider telling what it's like and what you can do about it.

In order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of both The Ph.D. Trap Revisited and Disciplined Minds, it is useful to compare the books on a number of fronts. What they have in common is an acute awareness of the limitations of professional training, especially the training of academics. They each draw attention to the way that research degrees lead to conformism rather than creativity. They each point to the conservativism of successful academics, at least within the academic system. They each deplore the massive waste of talent as well as the destruction of idealism in the credentialing process.

However, the purposes of their analyses are rather different. Cude's purpose is to show the limitations of the PhD as a training mechanism, whereas Schmidt's is the broader task of revealing how professionals become so timid politically and intellectually. Cude's goal is reform of the PhD system, whereas Schmidt seeks to encourage radical professionals to be part of a wider process of egalitarian social change. Given these divergent purposes, the commonalities in their criticisms of the credentialing process are striking.

Cude, a humanities scholar, writes in elegant essay style, drawing on classic works in a discursive fashion in order to reveal the intellectual continuities in critical perspectives on the PhD. Cude builds on earlier critiques in order not to appear too radical himself. Schmidt, a scientist, essentially has designed his own intellectual framework from first principles, rather analogously to the way a theoretical physicist would start with a set of equations (such as Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism) and derive consequences. This makes Schmidt's work much more original, but by the same token he does not situate it within the large literature on the sociology of education and the sociology of professions (e.g., Collins, 1979; Larson, 1979), as well as works on the "new class" or professional-managerial class (e.g., Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979; Gouldner, 1979). For some readers that will be a weakness in Schmidt's book, but perhaps his independence of earlier scholarship -- given that he has read into these literatures but decided that they do not add to his perspective -- are part of what it takes to produce such an original analysis.

Both authors focus on the North American experience, using frameworks and examples close to their own experience. Credentials and professional training are different elsewhere, to a greater or lesser degree. Readers will need to use their judgement about how much of these critiques apply in other systems.

Both Cude and Schmidt are fascinated by dramatic expressions of frustration by disgruntled students and academics, giving examples of research students who either committed suicide or killed their supervisors, or both. Both authors look at the credentialing process from the point of the view of the student and both are attuned to the enormous waste and frustration involved, perhaps leading them to expect and notice those few cases where frustration manifested itself as violent rage. Their books, in their own ways, show why such rage is predictable. Perhaps the surprising thing is that there is relatively little violence!

Whereas Cude's personal experiences led him to write his book, with Schmidt the sequence was reversed. Employed as an editor at Physics Today for 19 years, he was dismissed after his employer saw Disciplined Minds. That's one provocative book!

It is hard to read these books without asking, "What did doing my degrees do to me?" and becoming either defensive or self-satisfied. Both Cude and Schmidt would like readers to ask the question and be self-reflective but then to go out and do something about the problems. The credential system is enormously powerful and is not going to change quickly. But for those who want to be more aware and make a personal contribution to change, these books are good places to start.


Collins, Randall (1979) The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification, Academic Press.

Dore, Ronald (1976) The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification and Development, Allen and Unwin.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Ehrenreich, John (1979) "The professional-managerial class," pp. 5-45 in Walker, Pat (ed.), Between Labour and Capital, Harvester.

Gouldner, Alvin W (1979) The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Macmillan.

Illich, Ivan (1971) Deschooling Society, Calder and Boyars.

Illich, Ivan et al. (1977) Disabling Professions, Marion Boyars

Larson, Magali Sarfatti (1979) The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis, University of California Press.

Disciplined Minds A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals

Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul Battering System that Shapes their Lives

Reviewed by Terry Downes

San Francisco, California

Jeff Schmidt's Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul Battering System that Shapes their Lives is a rallying cry to dissatisfied professionals and disillusioned students to organize and reshape the system that is stifling them.

Schmidt argues with conviction that the process of selecting and schooling professionals is by its nature a means to weed out potential troublemakers. Various stages of the process of professional training, most notably the qualification exam, are interpreted as "political" rather than "technical" tests that are designed to reward those that demonstrate ideological obedience.

The study is split into three portions.

Throughout the book, Schmidt (who has a Ph.D. in physics, and 20 years experience editing a physics journal) draws on his knowledge of industrial and academic research in physics in the United States. At first sight, this appears an odd choice. Nevertheless, as Schmidt points out, the lay perception that science is apolitical makes this field a useful vehicle for his argument.

In the first section, Schmidt describes the self-deluded, conservative attitude of the professional class. The author analyzes the difference between how professionals may see themselves and how their actions reveal them to be. For example, he argues that since almost 80 percent of physics R&D is funded by the federal government, "many professors could leave universities and take jobs in the military without affecting the social or scientific significance of their work." Moving to a military laboratory, however, would take a "big toll on any university professor's public image." More broadly, Schmidt takes the "timid professional" to task for projecting a liberal image, and yet failing to act outside the interest of the status quo within their own field when they have the opportunity.

There are instances, particularly in this section, where the author is guilty of generalizing and drawing conclusions based on limited qualitative findings. Despite this, some of the insights are valuable, and he makes it clear that he is not tarring all with the same brush. One can forgive this approach since the book has a target audience: people who plan to or have entered a given profession in order to make the world a better place. The aim is to alert the idealistic would-be "radical professional" to the potential pitfalls, and ensure that they qualify "intellectually intact," and apply their egalitarian principles when possible.

The second and strongest section examines how professionals are made, from selection to certification. Schmidt lambastes the educational establishment, and the businesses that have sprung up around it, for the cynical exploitation of those searching for a sense of accomplishment from their work. He asserts that during the training process, professionals are filtered based on their political bias towards the mainstream. This is a continuous process, but there are some striking examples of where it is applied surprisingly early in the training for certain professions. For example, a convincing case is built to support the argument that the qualification exam is often a potent secret weapon precisely because it is seen as impartial and purely technical in nature. The author demonstrates that the exam can be shown to be a "political attitudinal exam" that measures the willingness and ability to carry out tedious and repetitive work that is abstract in nature.

Schmidt discusses how the "backwash effect" necessitates that the curriculum and student approach are dictated by such an exam when it acts as an important hurdle to entering a career path to which so much time and effort has already been devoted. If the exam is limited to superficial tests of abstract rules, then the student will be trained to absorb, accept, and repeat large volumes of abstract theory rather than build critical reasoning skills. In addition, it is demonstrated that many qualification exams also reward those that are willing to learn its "tricks" which can only be garnered by targeted learning. Schmidt illustrates how such an approach will not only reward, but also produce, dependent thinkers.

The author contends that students who pass this process are likely to be the right ideological material for professional-hood. Students who do well in such environments demonstrate that they can obediently do alienating, monotonous work, and these are the skills that their future employers really want. Therefore, the "backwash effect" originates in the government, corporate, or education job market, and its implications wash back through the education system. It is for this reason that the study focuses on tertiary education as opposed to elementary and secondary school.

Whether you believe in an employer-educational conspiracy or not does not detract from the strength of this argument. Nevertheless, it would be worth examining if this conspiracy does exist. It could just be that university professors are too lazy to change their style, or to change their exam questions. Superficial questions, such as calculations, are easy to set and mark. In addition, it is no secret that the most prestigious universities are centers of research rather than of teaching excellence. Competition ensures that professors qualify in these schools. In the publish or die wars, academics must feel tempted to keep students in the system who will endure endless hours of tedious toil in order to feed them results.

An apparent conspiracy can also be merely a coincidence if both parties have a common interest or agenda. Academics may have an interest in curbing critical thinking, and clearly business has it too. There is a great deal of monotonous work to be done. Much of it does not require any thought. As Schmidt points out, the professional class could be defined as that doing the work that a machine is currently unable to do. Who better to do this work than a bright-eyed graduate student, who will feel amply rewarded with an opportunity to prove her/his worth. It would be unkind, not to mention dangerous, to produce a master race of socially conscious, free-spirited, independent thinkers if then only to chain them to a desk and an in-tray for 40 years. It is no surprise that employers will look for ideological obedience if they have that luxury.

Schmidt concludes that a qualification process characterized by a combination of long hours, poor diet, stress, faculty politics, and financial pressure serves to focus even the most idealistic students on the qualification process, rather than reflect on their values or reasons for wanting to enter the profession in the first place. Eventually, he claims, the student will seek material compensation for giving up these values. Then begins a self-perpetuating search for material reward to sublimate the compromise on core values, perhaps in the hope that there is some nirvana at the top of the pyramid. As a result, the once idealistic student is gradually molded into a mainstream thinker before getting to a position in the hierarchy where she/he can make a real difference. The alternative is to remain an independent thinker, and bail out or be thrown out before qualification. Through this process, the hierarchy replicates itself.

Schmidt aims his book at professionals who want to make the world a better place. His central question is whether the professional qualification process is designed to produce the professional that will best serve society. His answer is an emphatic no. It could be that the majority of would-be professionals are looking for an escape from the even more tedious work done by their future underlings, and are interested in their own progress, not that of society. Nevertheless, Schmidt argues that the idealist, even if in the minority, must be nurtured.

It is the nature of hierarchy that there is intense competition for each step up. Schmidt has concluded that the competition is resolved by selecting the most ardent disciples of the status quo. He then argues that any organization that feeds on dependent thinking will ultimately fail, because it fails to adapt. The crux of this book, therefore, is whether hierarchical institutions can ever evolve to produce a more progressive egalitarian society. Schmidt concludes that hierarchical systems are fundamentally flawed. This is where a cursory glance outside contemporary U.S. society might have proved illuminating. Among the advanced economies of the world, the United States is distinguished by having the highest ratio of managers and supervisors to workers. For example, this ratio in the United States is almost four times higher than in Sweden. Several studies have shown that there is a correlation between this ratio and the degree of cooperation in management-labor relations. The lesson is that a more inclusive approach to management enables a flatter hierarchy, and this results in a more egalitarian distribution of material wealth. This suggests that the United States is stuck, and that this really may hamper its future ability to adapt and compete. Perhaps those at the top of the tree should start to examine Schmidt's thesis also.

The last section of the book deals with how to survive the ordeal of professional training, and keep your ideals intact, so you can reform the system from within. Schmidt advocates an approach that centers on organizing with like-minded people wherever you can find them. This is a powerful concept since it fights the "divide and conquer" nature of hierarchies. He illustrates his suggestions with individual cases that highlight small but important successes won from organization and resistance. This section has the most imaginative source material, including the U.S. Army manual Prisoner of War Resistance.

Throughout his study, the author avoids a theoretical approach. This will attract criticism from certain academics, but it is obvious that he has done this deliberately. His tenet is based on independent thinking, not the tweaking of existing theory to understand the world's problems. Also, ask yourself whether, after spending 20 years editing a physics journal, if qualifying every statement may be rather less fun than saying what you feel to be true.

This book comes from the heart. Shortly after its publication, Schmidt was fired for putting his rhetoric into action. His employer apparently resented the author's claim that he used his spare time at the office to work on the book, and he was fired after a 20-year tenure. His employer's basis for dismissal was that Schmidt was not "fully engaged" in his duties. This is hard to reconcile with the fact that Schmidt had consistently received satisfactory or above average performance ratings, and that when fired he was 2 months ahead of his objectives. The truth appears to be that Schmidt has been taking his own advice for the duration of his career, and has come into conflict with his employer several times when acting on his conscience. For example, he had pushed for increased employment for minorities. The book must have been the last straw, and an irresistible opportunity to get rid of a troublemaker that had somehow infiltrated his profession.

Disciplined Minds

Let's hope that Schmidt will consider pursuing a second career as a social critic or even a social scientist. Schmidt was fired from Physics Today magazine, allegedly for writing his fascinating book, Disciplined Minds, "on stolen time," as he explains in the introduction (Sharlet and Ruark 2000; Ruark 2002). The story of Schmidt's fate -- his book was evidence of lack of commitment to his day job -- could fit nicely into his account of "the soul battering system" that shapes the lives of professionals. Schmidt argues that professional work is political, but professionals lack control over the political component of their work. Indeed, holding the right "attitude toward working within an assigned political and ideological framework" (p. 16), not a particular set of technical skills, is the primary qualification for becoming a professional.

The key job requirement for a professional, for Schmidt, is ideological discipline, or the ability to exercise creativity within firm political limits. He develops this argument in the first part of the book that includes discussions of jurors (professionals for a week), imposters, and disbarred attorneys. His main topic is the "assigned curiosity" of physicists, who tailor their work to receive government funding and then hide the military applications of their research behind technical language.

Part two, the longest section of the book, describes the selection mechanisms whereby people without ideological discipline are weeded from the ranks of potential professionals, particularly by standardized tests and graduate school qualifying exams. Schmidt makes a useful distinction between necessary and gratuitous bias. The latter include infamous SAT questions that favor those with exposure to horse riding and ballet. These are Freudian slips that suggest whom the exam writers have in mind as likely professionals. However, this bias is gratuitous because some lower class and minority students are able to develop the ideological discipline needed to function within the system. Necessary bias, by contrast, weeds out potential professionals who are unwilling to abide by the status quo. Standardized tests favor "those who feel comfortable working within arbitrary rules, who are used to working out technical details within a dictated framework, who make their way in the world through careful attention to the rules" (p. 191).

In the third and final part of the book, Schmidt covers ways that people can resist the system. Here he veers toward rhetorical excess, casting graduate programs as "cult indoctrination" and adopting resistance strategies from a U.S. Army field manual for potential prisoners of war. Still, the section is sure to generate classroom discussion, especially Schmidt's suggestions for becoming a radical professional, or one whose work contributes to "progress in the social structure -- to more equality and democracy, to less hierarchy and authoritarianism" instead of a professional whose "assignments do little more than service some part of the social structure" (p. 265). The book closes with 33 suggestions for radical professionals, such as whistle blowing, airing dirty laundry in public, educating coworkers in various ways about the ideological nature of their work, and working to abolish professionals.

Disciplined Minds A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals

The key job requirement for a professional, for Schmidt, is ideological discipline, or the ability to exercise creativity within firm political limits. He develops this argument in the first part of the book that includes discussions of jurors (professionals for a week), imposters, and disbarred attorneys. His main topic is the "assigned curiosity" of physicists, who tailor their work to receive government funding and then hide the military applications of their research behind technical language.

Part two, the longest section of the book, describes the selection mechanisms whereby people without ideological discipline are weeded from the ranks of potential professionals, particularly by standardized tests and graduate school qualifying exams. Schmidt makes a useful distinction between necessary and gratuitous bias. The latter include infamous SAT questions that favor those with exposure to horse riding and ballet. These are Freudian slips that suggest whom the exam writers have in mind as likely professionals. However, this bias is gratuitous because some lower class and minority students are able to develop the ideological discipline needed to function within the system. Necessary bias, by contrast, weeds out potential professionals who are unwilling to abide by the status quo. Standardized tests favor "those who feel comfortable working within arbitrary rules, who are used to working out technical details within a dictated framework, who make their way in the world through careful attention to the rules" (p. 191).

In the third and final part of the book, Schmidt covers ways that people can resist the system. Here he veers toward rhetorical excess, casting graduate programs as "cult indoctrination" and adopting resistance strategies from a U.S. Army field manual for potential prisoners of war. Still, the section is sure to generate classroom discussion, especially Schmidt's suggestions for becoming a radical professional, or one whose work contributes to "progress in the social structure -- to more equality and democracy, to less hierarchy and authoritarianism" instead of a professional whose "assignments do little more than service some part of the social structure" (p. 265). The book closes with 33 suggestions for radical professionals, such as whistle blowing, airing dirty laundry in public, educating coworkers in various ways about the ideological nature of their work, and working to abolish professionals.

Three problems limit the potential usefulness of Disciplined Minds in an undergraduate classroom. First, the book is not informed by sociological literature. In this respect, the book compares unfavorably with, for example, Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society (2000), that covers some similar ground but builds from Weber's analysis of rationality. Second, the large portions of the book devoted to graduate school qualifying exams may not be of interest to many undergraduates. Third, much of Schmidt's data is anecdotal. One wonders, for instance, how typical is the horror story of the physics graduate student who was failed on his qualifying exam even though he scored higher than another student who was passed.

This book could be used as a monograph in courses on the sociology of work, organizations, education, or science because of its material on the training and work of physicists. However, its best use may be in undergraduate seminars for future graduate students or graduate seminars for new ones. Although the book paints a rather grim picture of graduate school, no doubt many sociology graduate students will find its portrayal a more accurate reflection of their experience than the typical how to survive graduate school manual. Questions raised in such seminars may also be of interest to the sociology professors who lead them. Professors generally see themselves as critical and humanistic, but who, according to Schmidt and the sociology graduate students he quotes at length, actually contribute to an inhumane system designed to produce uncritical professionals.

From the archives Thanks, Daniel, for the excellent recommendation.

Last August, on one of my recurring posts about how awful grad school was, Daniel left me this:

Daniel said...
An excellent book on the same theme: "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt earned a PhD in physics from Cal-Irvine and worked as an editor at Physics Today for nearly twenty years. After writing the book, he was promptly fired.

In the book, he focuses on the experience of graduate students in physics, and how that professional degree program - like all other professional degree programs - is more focused on selecting those candidates who conform to a behvioral pattern than those candidates who would make the best scientists.

My favorite chapter was "How to Survive Grad School With Your Soul Intact", which includes long quotations from the Army manual on resisting interrogation as a POW.

I finally read it last week. It was an incredible relief to have my vague feelings about grad school confirmed. I knew I was failing something besides the material. I knew it was my attitude that set off the professor who told me I didn't belong. I didn't understand why at the time, because I thought that the purpose of grad school was to process the material and develop independent thought. Trusting that was such a mistake for me. "Soul-battering" sounds like a melodramatic overstatement, but that was truly what the isolation and harangues and endless requirements felt like.

The thing that kills me about my situation in second grad school, which I fled with a masters, is that I wasn't even trying to rebel. I am not naturally defiant; I tend to respect and trust authority. I would have been happy to absorb and parrot the party line. My problem, I realized as I read Disciplined Minds, is that I was in too many programs and they had contradictory party lines. I would have been indoctrinated if I could have been, but I simply couldn't do them all at once.

Coming from an engineering degree, I simply could not believe that policy studies were a science. Since I was in law school, I couldn't catch on fast enough that for ecology students, habitat preservation was the sole and overriding goal of everything and not a subject with trade-offs that we should discuss. While I took econ, I didn't understand why you would have any faith in a law you couldn't derive and prove with data. I wasn't sure about econ's laws either, because after taking all that physics I thought that real laws enforce themselves every single time. In law school, the justice issues behind a decision were worth pointing out. But not in econ or ecology.

I didn't want to stand out and be forever blurting out irrelevent stuff that trivialized people's disciplines and offended them. But I wasn't fully immersed in any one program, so I didn't have time to absorb and adopt any one doctrine. The walk across campus wasn't long enough for me to fully shift gears, so I'd point out something interesting! and then realize that I was defying the norms of the discipline. Again. Enough of that and there was no one who would help me stay and work, much less back me against the prof disparaged me in and out of class.

This makes me so sad. Schmidt talks about preserving your radical soul and challenging power structures and doing socially worthwhile work. I wasn't trying for any of that. I wasn't even being noble. I just wasn't nimble or discreet enough. For the costs being a critical outsider caused me, I should at least have been deliberately disobedient. What a waste. What a relief to understand more of why second grad school was so awful.

(The thing that I find interesting is that first grad school wasn't nearly as oppressive. At first glance, you'd think first grad school might be worse. Smaller school, entirely older male engineers, some overtly religious, in the generally conservative culture of agriculture. But at first grad school, my perception was that the deal was "if you show you thoroughly understand this material, you can think anything you like." I was obviously a very strange bird in that program, but I never once felt like my thoughts infuriated people or that they were evaluating me on anything but my classwork. They'd answer anything I asked and as long as I could tell them how pumps worked, I was never scared they wanted me out of the program. I think it was due to the head guy, who still gets all my respect.)

Water plant operator

Dear Jeff Schmidt,

I am grateful that you wrote Disciplined Minds. I must admit that I had always held higher education in greater esteem than it deserved, naively believing that "professionals" held themselves to higher standards. I was just brainwashed. Your book was a breath of fresh air, and it was timely: With our culture becoming ever more technologically complex, the last thing we need is for the technical experts and the everyday users of the technology to not think clearly and critically. People need to be taught to be skeptical, to be street-smart in the area of the politics of work, and your book is a good start in that direction.

What I think I observed in your book was the tragedy of the betrayal of the educational system toward those who love - that's the appropriate word, love - the science and math they discovered. The system seems to be seriously flawed when the awe and wonder that science and math can inspire are shunted aside only for the purpose of performing a job. The killing of that passion is not right. It's like cutting down a grove of mature fruit trees just for the firewood. Those trees produce not just seasonal fruit year after year, but they provide a welcome reminder of the seasons, food and cover for wildlife, places for children to climb, summer shade, and that intangible that makes us stop and stare - sheer beauty.

To this day I wish I could find a job where I could use the trigonometry and calculus that I worked so hard to master when I took night classes at the local community college over ten years ago. It was a struggle; math doesn't come easy for me, but I have always enjoyed it, always felt a sense of amazement at its power to solve problems. I took four terms of calculus, earning A's and very much enjoying the discovery process. I had a dream of being an engineer, but gave that up because of the responsibilities of a job and a marriage and helping to raise three daughters.


Dear Jeff,

I am employed as a professor of physics at the University of Ottawa.

Your book Disciplined Minds touched me very deeply -- in fact it shook me up and has changed how I teach undergrad classes and how I interact with my graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. One of my graduate students is now reading it, as is one of my colleagues.

It is one of a few books that have had this kind of effect on me. Others are Representations of the intellectual by Edward Said and On power and ideology by Noam Chomsky. I now define myself as being both an intellectual (in the sense of Said) and a radical professional!

Would it be possible for you to accept an invitation to give a talk on this campus? If so, I would be most happy to organize it and to host your visit.


Denis G. Rancourt

Department of Physics

University of Ottawa

Ottawa, Ontario


Disciplined Minds

Dear Jeff

I received my copy of Disciplined Minds on Friday and read it and finished it Saturday. I then immediately re-read 1984 by George Orwell, because I think your book falls in that intellectual political tradition. And while reading 1984, I came across this passage: "...That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston." I thought this passage captured the essence of the idea that informs your book.

Apart from reading, I know the process and the system you describe in your book from my own experience as a graduate student. Your book gave me a better understanding of the politics of affirmative action. Like most leftists, I have always supported affirmative action on the bases of diversity; I have never really thought about the ideology control that goes with the politics of affirmative action. Your book made me look at my situation. Because of South African history, affirmative action is a big thing in South Africa. Consequently, people like myself are accepted to do postgraduate work at predominantly white universities. Under "normal" circumstances the ideological radar would alert the people in power that I am an undesirable. But because of affirmative action the powerful get to find out later and have to make political concessions in the process.


Name withheld

Graduate student

Disciplined Minds

Hello Mr. Schmidt,

"People in this managed milieu become detached from society. Socially isolated and lacking outside references, they lose their ability to make reality checks, judge circumstances independently and, therefore, maintain a unique identity. The group becomes their dominant source of reality, and they adopt behavior and beliefs that make sense within that reality."

-- Disciplined Minds, chapter 14

Being a recent law school graduate, I can vouch for the accuracy of that statement. And this is just one reason why I am of the firm belief that the law is too important to be left solely to the monopoly of lawyers. For me, one of the reasons why this statement is accurate is because I witnessed adults becoming nervous and terrified at the thought of submitting their first legal writing assignment. In fact, I had the question posed to me why I was so calm, considering that we were about to submit our first objective memo for review. You see as 1Ls we were supposed to be terrified ("first they scare you, then they work you, then they bore you"). It was not just the fact that someone was attempting to scare me that I found repulsive, but also the fact that I had just left a Gulf Coast area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Having survived and assisted to rebuild in the aftermath of Katrina, I could not help but be disgusted by the complete lack of perspective and reality in legal training, such as the fear being generated in anticipation of a grade on a paper, when there were people in the outside world who had legitimate fears. I knew I had to and did resist.

For this reason (and many others), I say THANK YOU for this penetrating and straightforward book. I can't tell you how much I appreciated your discussion of the real world/academic dichotomy; you are the only other person I know of so far that I have read to speak about this concept. I can't tell you how much I appreciated your discussion of resistance, since I am committed to the elimination of the monopoly that lawyers have over the law. The chapter comparing professional institutions of learning to the brainwashing of totalizing institutions is brilliant; I couldn't believe that someone was making these connections. Many of the connections you made in the book often caused me to pause and put the book down so that I could remind myself that someone else was really making these connections. My copy of your book is rapidly becoming indecipherable with all the annotations of "absolutely correct" and "thank you." This book is one of the most important books in my library.


Cedric McGee

Disciplined Minds A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals

Recent particle physics PhD

United Kingdom

11 October 2004

Hi Jeff,

First, I must congratulate you for your bravery and hard work in writing Disciplined Minds. My story may be of some interest to you, if only to add another yes vote to your tally. I embarked on a particle physics PhD program at a UK university, full of optimism and never having considered a search into unofficial opinions of the doctorate process beforehand. Perhaps if I had consulted your book then the story would have been different. Instead, I have recently finished the PhD "successfully" with the feeling of having slowly and painfully emerged from a huge mistake. My PhD included an extended work period onsite at a major accelerator center in the US, and the wide exposure to methodologies, politics and mindsets allows me to feel comfortable commenting on your work.

Your book examines a number of issues that I had become aware of independently and later on through a circle of disillusioned companions. I tended to split PhD students into two major categories. The first type, in which I classify myself, is curiosity driven with global interests in relationships between objects, and between people and objects. Physics can then initially appear as a discipline offering an unparalleled number of insights into the world around us. The other type seems generally reward driven, with their internal drive determined by approval from authority figures such as parents or teachers. The reputation of physics as a "brainy" subject has appeal in such cases. I found that these latter types are obviously more controllable and hence desirable on a large-scale experiment, where bright young people are essentially conned into menial work. As illustrated by your parallels between university and workplace, sadly there appears no place in professional society or mainstream science for the former type of student. Your description of the two types of female student able to find success -- masculinized or ultra-feminine -- was completely accurate in my observations.

My experiences could be generalized further among several concepts not seen in your book. The first concept at play, the British "class system," is perhaps not specific to the PhD system but a wider spirit of professionalism in the UK. The students who seemed to be given a degree of warmth, support structure and teamwork within the British contingent were either those from the educational institutes (private schools and the Oxford-Cambridge sectors) that most heavily mould behaviour or those that aped such behaviour. The divisions of such a hierarchy within staff members at my university department and others was quite clear, with the foreign researchers placed subtly yet perpetually on the lower rungs of power and social ranking.

Another concept was that of a constant guilt trip to always do work. A number of students commented on the feeling that whatever you do is never seen as enough, although there was no intellectually satisfying reward for completing assigned tasks -- just more work of the tedious variety and responsibilities akin to speeding up the treadmill pace (hence my earlier description of the "authority approval" students as the models of success in particle physics). Many researchers worked long hours, depriving themselves of the possibility for a balanced lifestyle.

The atmosphere in the "cold, logical and intellectual" scientific establishment was such that none of the students who wanted to "get on" were spontaneous or ever discussed feelings, seldom permitted themselves to smile or relax, and for the most part "talked shop" about the technical details involved in their job outside of the workplace through either guarding their emotions or simply having nothing of variety or interest to say!

One aspect I feel that you did not touch on deeply was the marked social skill set of typical establishment figures in physics. By this, I mean that the successful physical sciences researcher generally has very poor social skills, a highly conventional mindset and strong disapproval of stepping outside the boundaries. I believe social skills deteriorate partly because of peer reward for a cold, logical detachment, and a person will quickly learn to adapt by means of social disapproval and exclusion or plan their escape from the field of science. The fact that society labels the job holder as highly intelligent no doubt plays no small part in researchers believing they have little need to learn about the world around them and consequently often have zero interest in art, politics, general science and so on. Training process associations such as these killed interest in a science career for a number of PhD student friends alongside my disenchantment.

It seems doubtful to me that the attitudes we hold will ever have any impact on those figures accepted into senior scientific establishment roles. Nevertheless, I have widely recommended your book to aspiring scientists, and the hope is that with the sacrifices made clear at least some of these bright young people will turn toward alternative careers with a far greater likelihood of personal satisfaction and benefit to our world.

Yours truly,

Name withheld, PhD


PS: Please hide my personal details before posting this letter on the Web, as I still need job references from the PhD process.

Brainwashing the Corporate Way Truthout

June 24, 2011

by: John Pilger, Truthout | News Analysis

One of the most original and provocative books of the past decade is "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt (Rowman & Littlefield). "A critical look at salaried professionals," says the cover, "and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives." Its theme is postmodern America, but also applies to Britain, where the corporate state has bred a new class of Americanized manager to run the private and public sectors: the banks, the main parties, corporations, important committees, the BBC.

Professionals are said to be meritorious and non-ideological. Yet, in spite of their education, writes Schmidt, they think less independently than non-professionals. They use corporate jargon - "model," "performance," "targets," "strategic oversight." In "Disciplined Minds," Schmidt argues that what makes the modern professional is not technical knowledge, but "ideological discipline." Those in higher education and the media do "political work," but in a way, that is not seen as political. Listen to a senior BBC person sincerely describe the nirvana of neutrality to which he or she has risen. "Taking sides" is anathema; and yet the modern professional knows never to challenge the "built-in ideology of the status quo." What matters is the "right attitude."

A key to training professionals is what Schmidt calls "assignable curiosity." Children are naturally curious, but along the way to becoming a professional they learn that curiosity is a series of tasks assigned by others. On entering training, students are optimistic and idealistic. On leaving, they are "pressured and troubled" because they realize that "the primary goal for many is getting compensated sufficiently for sidelining their original goals." I have met many young people, especially budding journalists, who would recognize themselves in this description. For no matter how indirect its effect, the primary influence of professional managers is the extreme political cult of money worship and inequality known as neoliberalism.

... ... ...

This was the final act of corporate coup d'état, now disguised by a specious debate about "cuts" and a "national deficit." The most humane premises of British life are to be eliminated. The "value" of the cuts is said to be £83 billion, almost exactly the amount of tax legally avoided by the banks and corporations. That the British public continues to give the banks an additional annual subsidy of £100 billion in free insurance and guarantees - a figure that would fund the entire National Health Service - is suppressed.

So, too, is the absurdity of the very notion of "cuts." When Britain was officially bankrupt following the Second World War, there was full employment and some of its greatest public institutions, such as the Health Service, were built. Yet, "cuts" are managed by those who say they oppose them and manufacture consent for their wider acceptance. This is the role of the Labour Party's professional managers.

Marie Nubia-feliciano "menubia" (Irvine, CA)A must read for all students, January 10, 2003

It took me three days to read this book. I could not put it down...I took it with me everywhere and have told everyone I know about it. The level of insight into the motivations of professional training schools is right on the mark. I am currently a graduate student as well as an employee at a major university. I can see first hand the professionalization (read indoctrination) of the graduate student. I can also see with more insight the dynamics that go on in an academic office. I now understand why those in charge of forwarding the ideology of the office are not micromanaged, and those not trusted to forward the accurate ideology are micromanaged.

Dr. Schmidt also does an excellent job in describing the role industry and the military has in professional training programs. A professional schools is seen as an extension of the profession, not an extension of the educational institution in which it is housed. There are tremendous forces pushing and pulling on professional training programs to produce the "right" kind of student.

Unfortunately the force that wins out is the one with the money...private industry and the military. Students have to be aware that their very futures can be determined by what kind of funding a department receives. He is right to say that if one does not remain connected to one's values and convictions, one can succumb to the whims of those in power. After depressing you with his accurate interpretation of the role professional schools play in society, he gives instructions on how to fight the indoctrination process.

I'm buying extra copies and giving them away as graduation gifts. A MUST READ for anyone who wants to survive professional school with their conscience intact.

Jonathan Armstrong "enantidromian" (Denver, CO United States) 5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent - incisive and long overdue, May 31, 2002

First, Jason Hong's review must be addressed. _Disciplined Minds_ is not a "Marxist" book in any way shape or form. It is more anarchistic, but only as Noam Chomsky would describe it: something that calls into question any sort of irrational authority and questions it. Mr. Schmidt's witty analysis of two-year "professional training schools" - which he rightfully calls "professional rip-off academies" - is far from Marxist. Rather, Jeff rightfully recognizes that those employed in non-professional jobs view "credentialied" professionals as having a degree of freedom and prestige that they strive for, even though they might actually have a higher salary. The premise behind _Disciplined Minds_ is that this perceived "freedom" professional jobs offer comes only after a series of tests are passed - successful navigation of secondary school, a four year bachelor's degree, and then proper professional credentials after that. Since professionals must operate with a high degree of autonomy, they must naturally be expected to not do anything that would upset the balance of power in their particular industry. When I was interviewing for jobs right out of college, there was little care paid to what my field of study was IN college - rather, it was whether or not I had a "four year degree". A "four-year degree" connotes a tacit acceptance of a certain worldview, a certain ability to know the consensus and abide by it.

Far from being just "objective indicators of knowledge", each rung on the ladder of professionalism carries a political component with it as well. It is those who buy into the system, and those who play by the rules, that will successfully climb this ladder. At each successive level - high school graduation, entrance into a four year college, and then a J.D./M.D./Ph.D after that, there is a successive weeding-out of those who are different, those who could pose a possible problem to maintaining the status quo.

Jeff does a superlative job at illustrating this by drawing heavily from his own area of study, physics. (Jeff has a PhD in physics and if Mr. Hong were to have actually read this book, he would've found Jeff saying that his own experience in grad school was highly rewarding - alas, he must have skipped this chapter.) The vast majority of physics grad students eventually find employment in the defense and aerospace industries, and the subtle weeding-out process that occurs is obviously going to favor individuals who do not see any consequence in building weapons of mass destruction. Such individuals are naturally going to perform better on tests that view knowledge as simply a series of reductionist hoops that have to be jumped through, devoid of any wider social or environmental context.

The only slight criticism of this book was that it could've drawn out more of a conceptual framework for its criticism, echoing a review I read of a (oh, the irony) "professional" sociologist who critiqued it for not being "sociological enough." However, this book was written for a wider audience and I am glad it didn't get relegated to the academic social science scrap-heap. In short, this is an immensely readable and convincing piece of social science in the finest C. Wright Mills tradition, destined to strike a nerve.

Almon D. Ing "Almon Ing" (Austin, TX) Disciplined Minds -- Now I don't need to write this book myself., July 9, 2010
This review is from: Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives (Paperback)

This is an excellent book for anybody trying to understand: How does our modern society really work?

This brilliant book seeks to understand "the system" as a hierarchy of salaried professionals. The author considers a complex of interleaved factors that determine the nature of this hierarchy.

Anybody would love this book, but it would be especially interesting for graduate students, administrators, doctors, lawyers, business people, etc. (i.e. members of a strict hierarchy).

My favorite passage:
The intellectual boot camp known as graduate or professional school, with its cold-blooded expulsions and creeping indoctrination, systematically grinds down the student's spirit and ultimately produces obedient thinkers--highly educated employees who do their assigned work without questioning its goals. I call upon students and professionals to do just such questioning, not only for their own happiness, but for society's sake as well.

Matthew Siegel (New York, NY)A new way of seeing what you should have known all along.April 3, 2000

In a way it's obvious. In an industrial society, large organizations need some technically skilled people who can be relied upon to look after the organization's interests. Whether you're a lawyer, accountant, teacher, or whatever else -- to the extent that your work is unsupervised, information-intensive, and varied in its details, your employer counts on you not just to follow his direct orders, but to give yourself the orders he would have given had he been there on the scene, and to carry them out with technical skill.

It's also obvious that to act in accordance with the values of a large organization -- for instance, the value of "profit maximization" so common to the large corporation -- one must suppress one's natural values, the values one has held since childhood. (How many of us, as teenagers, got lumps in our throats at the thought of devoting our lives to profit maximization?) And, it only stands to reason that the institutions of higher learning that are most successful at producing people who are skilled at adopting "values to order" are the ones that select and train people who are good at suppressing their own values.

Somehow, though, what's not obvious is the logical consequence of these observations: that Harvard Law School, NYU Medical School, and just about every PhD program in the country are really, at their core, ideological boot-camps, where people are carefully winnowed and shaped into able servants of another person's ideology -- and where their own ideologies that might conflict with those of most employers are, to the extent any remain within them, mercilessly beaten out, so that upon graduation they all emerge pristine and ready to accept whatever goals their new employer assigns them.

In a century that has seen so many instances of technical competence being exercised in service of such ghastly idiologies -- whether one is speaking of Nazi scietists or Soviet economists or lawyers for tobacco companies who use the attorney-client priviledge to bury important scientific research -- especially now, we should have no illusions that values and technical skills are necessarily linked.

Yet some of us forget. And for those need it, this book is a great reminder.

Disciplines Minds is probably not the first book to note that academia serves monied interests, that monied interests need a steady stream of technically competent and ideologically unquestioning souls, and that graduate and professional school somehow seems much more brutal than it needs to be to teach the subject matter taught in its classes. But perhaps it is the first book to line up these facts in such a way that the linkage among them is so clear.

All the while the book manages to treat these grim subjects with good humor and, ultimately, with hope -- as it concludes that those entering graduate or professional school *can* protect themselves against ideological indoctrination, using techniques borrowed from an Army manual on how to resist brainwashing by enemy captors! The analogy may seem a bit melodramatic -- much more so, though, if you've never been in grad. school yourself.

I confess an interest in the success of this book. Its author is a friend and former co-worker of mine. Yet I hadn't read most of it before it was published, and when I did finally get a copy I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Anyone who is a professional, knows professionals, works with professionals -- in short, just about anyone at all in a modern capitalist society -- will find this book delightful. And, whether or not you agree with all its subversive conclusions, much of it will ring true...because, clearly, much of it is.

Disciplined Minds is much more than a theory about the role of professionals and professional education in a capitalist society. It's a voyage of discovery, which takes the reader through grad-school horror stories, indoctrination procedures within religious cults, and POW resistance techniques -- all in an effort to explain this institution that has become so all-important in the U.S. economy, the institution of "the professional."

I'd definitely recommend the book to anyone.

M. Siegel

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