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The Dissonance of Professional Employment




Click here to read the preface to the Indian Edition of Jeff Schmidt's "Disciplined Minds".


For anyone who might have experienced discontent within the culture of professional work and the nature of such employment, this is most certainly the book to engage with.  Cutting to the bone with questions such as who a professional is, and what the nature of the system through which professionals are ‘produced’ is, Jeff Schmidt's "Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul Battering system that Shapes their Lives" serves as a lamp that illuminates the landscape of futility, alienation, insecurity and stifling compliance that many mid-level, "rank and file" professionals find themselves inhabiting.


Drawing on his experience as a physics professional, Schmidt examines the work place and the vast training grounds of professionals, the universities, with a searching and radical eye.  He suggests that practicing professionals, in any field of work, tend to demonstrate "timidity" in their beliefs and responses and are social ‘status-quoists’, and that this should not be surprising because they are designed to be exactly so.  Their training, in particular, inculcates such discipline of mind and practice that it blind sights them to any awareness of larger social goals they might be serving in their work places.  The oft quoted dichotomy between academia and the "real world" - that one is an ivory tower where the pursuit of knowledge is free & unhindered by the exigencies of the real worlds of business, industry and commerce - is, he suggests, misinformed - because academia, in fact, effectively "serves the system" by producing well oriented professionals who will play their 'desired social roles' and embody the appropriate ideological discipline needed to do so.


This is a bold and enticing inquiry.  For us in India, it is particularly timely and resonant to be seeing this kind of discourse. As he insightfully states in the preface to the Indian edition of his book (Banyan Tree, Indore, 2012, Pp 293, Rs. 400), "India is seeing unprecedented growth in the ranks of salaried professionals, meaning that formal education is playing a larger role ... competition for professional jobs has intensified and the opportunity for employment doing mental rather than manual labor has made education a high stakes game as people seek the credentials that corporate employers demand".  "Social reproduction”, he continues succinctly, “is easy for the very rich and the very poor, but grueling for families in between ... (who) must make it through much schooling and scrutiny", including, "college entrance examination hell".


Using physics education and professional work in physics as terrain for his analysis, Schmidt argues that although the world might view a discipline such as physics as the epitome of objectivity, in practice it is as imbued with the vagaries of real world bias, political control and external directionality as any other.  He uses the term "assignable curiosity" to describe how physics research proposals from academia, presumably representing the independent, 'pure' research interests of the community, overwhelmingly line up around areas of maximum funding and therefore interest to the establishment.  While this might appear somewhat obvious and in a sense 'natural', it is revealing how funding proposals are worded to conceal any hint of the motivating objectives, applications and goals of a project and, in fact, make them sound like pure, curiosity-driven scientific investigations.  Overwhelmingly, at least in the case of physics research in the United States, which is the sample space Schmidt examines, such goals tend to be militaristic ones, thereby influencing the whole professional community's research 'interests' to fall in line.  It is particularly noteworthy, he says, to see how professionals, especially the ones credited with "good judgment", very quickly, learn, internalize and begin to echo, and further, the interests of their bosses. 


The hierarchy of labor in society, and elitism along these lines, finds its reflection in physics and most sharply in the division between theoretical and experimental practitioners. This division mirrors, in a way, the divide and hierarchy that exists between non-manual and manual labor in larger society.  However baseless it may be, in both larger society and physics, the attributed higher status to certain kinds of work, is based on whether the work being done resembles that of "those at the top", those who "are vested with the power to treat the products of labor as their own".  Non-manual labor is ultimately seen as "more intellectual" and therefore "semi-divine" and worthy of a higher status. Even "the ranking of respect within physics", therefore, Schmidt concludes, "comes from outside of physics" - another example of how the practice of physics is imbued with social context.


This 'hierarchy of labor' is also responsible for the extreme specialization and division of work.  Anyone familiar with the modern, professional's work place - a large global corporation, for example - would immediately relate to how work is performed in tiny atomized chunks with tremendous pressure upon the professional to do absolutely the best job of what is assigned to her/him, with little or no awareness or control over how or where that piece of work is going to be ultimately deployed.  This atomization is responsible for self-driven (but ideologically aligned, disciplined and compliant) professionals both becoming easier to replace in organizations and developing a sense of alienation from meaning, ownership and purpose with respect to their own efforts.


Part Two of the book entitled, "Selection", deals in significant detail with the process by which professionals are produced in today's world - the system of selection, the process of training itself, ideological preferences built into the system of professional development and so on.


The chapter on "Opportunity" will be of particular interest here in India given our own live wire debates around reservations and 'merit'.  Schmidt suggests that the modern economic and corporate system makes a fetish out of 'opportunity', propagating a myth that there are limitless avenues on offer for the 'deserving'.  By doing so, it sets participants in the system scurrying off in a race to prove they are deserving - resulting in cut throat competition between employees in a corporation (for, say, promotions, raises, career advancement) and students (for admission, scores/grades, scholarships and so on).  In reality, the system is successfully diverting attention from the fact that there is a squeezing down of opportunity built into the highly pyramidal system and that there simply isn't enough opportunity for everyone.  The very few that do get promotions (or admissions) keep alive the hope of the multitudes and also their faith in the system (in ways like a lottery does, perhaps).


Opposition to affirmative action policies for college admissions (in the US) illustrates how anger and frustration among the large numbers who do not 'make it' is deflected from the system that is highly exclusive by construction, and redirected at the small numbers of policy beneficiaries.  In the an example from a famous 1974 "reverse discrimination" law suit, a small number of 16 minority students who were admitted to the University of California, Davis medical school, under its affirmative action program, were 'blamed' for 2000 rejected applications, while in reality, medical school admissions are designed to keep out as many as possible.


On the fecund question of whether there is 'dilution of merit' as a result of the use of affirmative action criteria (transcribe this to read 'reservations' in the Indian context), Schmidt's argument runs thus: given society's conflicting class and other interests leading to very different visions of what society should be, there are, in reality, no universally acceptable notions of merit or universal standards at all.  Therefore, he proposes, that selection criteria be examined by asking the following two questions - a.  Whether the criteria benefit the individuals and groups concerned and b. Whether these criteria end up best serving society.


Affirmative action criteria (the 'relaxed' version of the 'standard' criteria) increase the number of minorities, mitigating to an extent notions of classism, racism and sexism by better representing these populations among the ranks of professionals. As a consequence, they also benefit the "under represented majority" (a combination, by his definition, of minorities, the working class and women).  They therefore score well on the first criterion. 


Similarly, affirmative action programs tend to produce doctors who share, understand and are better attuned to the socio-economic and cultural milieu of their patients belonging to the "under represented majority". These doctors are unlikely to discriminate and do not merely treat the working class as machines that need to be 'fixed' and put back to work in the most efficient way possible in the service of the system.  "The competency of a doctor" from this point of view, he concludes, "involves questions of attitudes, values and outlook - in short, political questions".  Standard, (non affirmative action) criteria, on the other hand, select individuals who tend to be socially and politically conservative (irrespective of their ethnic and class backgrounds) and therefore do not best serve the needs of this 'underrepresented majority' in society.


There is nuanced argumentation in here, but it is hard to dismiss.  In an Indian context, as well, this should ring true for many.  Doctors, strongly serve the class interests of the employer when dishing out treatment to the working class. Most of us have experienced this in our own lives when a certain kind of medication or course of treatment is prescribed for people from one class background and not to others.  This is often done by doctors out of an implicit 'understanding' of the 'needs' and interests of the employer and in order to get the patient back to work as soon as possible.


Examining the vast enterprise of professional education, Schmidt argues that such institutions, in the end, transform students who enter it from enthusiastic, free thinkers, driven by their own goals and dreams, into obedient, 'directed" thinkers willing to abandon their individual and social goals and make the compromises needed to serve the needs of employers.  At every stage of post-graduate (graduate) education - admission, qualification, academic work and employment - Schmidt argues, using physics education as his example, that a process of disciplining is at work. Anxiety about the critical 'qualifying' examination, the stigma attached to failing it and the selection for 'right attitude', in the process, further narrow down the field in the production of professionals.  Eventually, after all this shaping and boxing-in, such professionals, Schmidt suggests, are ideally suited to perform "alienated labor" at their employers behests, impoverishing themselves in the bargain.

Even the all important qualifying examination, while it may appear to be an objective mechanism testing knowledge and grasp of the subject matter is, in fact, soaked in social context. The exam serves as a grand selector and gate keeper - admitting those who pass into the hallowed portals of qualified professionals and rejecting those who don't. By doing so, the exam, intrinsically intimidating to many and particularly those from backgrounds which are traditionally underrepresented (women, minorities, the working class) in the professions, becomes a far bigger deal - even a test of their social and racial equality itself.  Even the form of the test, a set of questions or problems that are abstracted from real life contexts, is imbued with the "social power" of the field of study itself.  Those examinees comfortable with the social status of the field of study are more compliant with preparing for and undergoing the examination than those who might ask tough questions, along the way.  Finally, the questions themselves, Schmidt illustrates with examples, require the use of certain kinds of problem solving 'tricks' - the ability for which, in most cases, is not of great value in the real world practice of the subject.  In order to do well on the exam therefore, examinees must familiarize, learn and practice these tricks.  Those willing to put themselves through this kind of specialized exam preparation are automatically also more 'willing', in their professional lives, to perform alienated labor, where the end goal may not be something they themselves see as particularly motivating.


So what course of action does this leave the dissenting student or rank-and-file professional, in our world?  Schmidt's suggests conscious, active resistance to the indoctrination that goes on in both the university and corporate worlds.  How?  Schmidt borrows and adapts techniques, and makes a fascinating case for doing so, from a US Army Prisoner-of-War manual on how to resist brainwashing and indoctrination when in captivity!  Understanding the professor, or your management chain, and the culture and practice she is representing is a first step. Organizing and teaming with fellow students and colleagues and sharing and critiquing common experiences of the system, is another.  The use of humor, jest, even ridicule, in circles of solidarity, are other coping and survival techniques to keep yourself from being completely consumed into, and internalizing, the way of the system. Reading this, almost anyone who has experience of an exploitative academic or work environment will be able identify to some degree with these approaches and might even have resorted to them, even if unconsciously, to cope and survive.


In a particularly chilling section on the extreme violence that can explode out of the highly oppressive, totalitarian and high stakes nature of the academic experience, and most dramatically centre-staged, at the time of writing this review, by the shootings by a University of Colorado neurosciences doctoral student that left a dozen dead, in the United States, Schmidt suggests this results from the extreme isolation which students experience and suffer without organizing themselves or developing an awareness or understanding of the systemic causes of their plight. "Students who carry out deadly violence don't all have the same depth of understanding of their problems origins", he writes..


For working professionals disenchanted that their hard work and toil is deeply unsatisfying or is in a direction entirely different from what they may have imagined when they embarked on their careers, Schmidt offers some suggestions to rationalize the situation.  The way to do this is to begin to see oneself as a 'radical professional' - one who seeks a more egalitarian world, holds a critical view of the social role of one's profession and "looks beyond the public relations images of the profession and instead at the actual roles they play in society".  She or he must find a way to make a real difference somewhere else, away from their job, and seek to "do things that would otherwise not be done".  Even on the job, he offers up a list of 'humanizing' courses of action that one could consider adopting, in order to stay true to one's beliefs - because, he concludes, "at stake is not only the nature of the workplace and society but your own nature as well - your very identity". 


This book is, at heart, counter cultural and is not for the contented. It will be seen as polemical and perhaps a little ‘over the top’ by many, and it might even anger some - but it will find an audience among those who question the social status and glamour of professional employment and academia and who might seek in the world a more independent, authentic, honest and satisfying work-life experience.