(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) by Jeff Schmidt
Volume 32, number 2 (2001), pages 211-213
Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, by Jeff Schmidt
Policy Center on the First Year of College
Brevard, NC 28712
“This book was stolen,” Jeff Schmidt announces in the opening sentence of the book. A Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Irvine, he wrote Disciplined Minds in large part while on the job as an editor for Physics Today magazine. Physics Today responded, upon the book’s publication, by firing Schmidt, giving him a boost of attention for the book that it would not otherwise have received. Whether the attention was merited on the book’s rights is at issue.
Schmidt’s focus is professionals, which he defines roughly as salaried employees beneath a very thin stratum of real managers and bosses. His thesis is compelling, if not completely original: Managers are clued to the reality that escapes professionals in Schmidt’s schema. Professionals think their work is largely self-directed, but in fact a continuous process of winnowing, indoctrination, and rewards of money and status shape their labor -- and their thoughts, political persuasions, and loyalties -- in the interest of bosses. We generally accept that education sets us free, but professional education, Schmidt holds, restricts this freedom to such a narrow range and such relatively trivial issues that it isn’t a liberty that’s worth much.
Schmidt is a very good writer, and particularly skilled at constructing his case through example and anecdote. For example, when American journalist Bernard Kalb left behind his four-decade vocation to become spokesman for the United States Department of State during the Reagan presidency, the seemingly cataclysmic shift from neutral reporter to partisan advocate and dissembler, hardly anyone in the administration or without expressed concern that he could serve a different philosophic master. Responsibility and considerable discretion came with Kalb’s new job -- but these were exercised within a very narrow value system, created by others, and one basically oppositional to his professional responsibilities of the previous day. While attorneys and PR flaks may be professionals whose viewpoints and narrow-band discretion are more obviously bought and sold, Schmidt holds that such is the case for all professionals, unless they become conscious of the circumstance and take remedial, subversive measures.
The book has weaknesses. Among them is the exhaustive -- and exhausting -- microscopic examination of professionalism and physics. The detailing of the field’s symbiotic, money-laden relationship with the military-industrial complex is revealing. But after several chapters of focus on this circumstance, and the doctoral-studies tyranny that Schmidt endured in his own career, the reader wants to respond: “OK, OK, I get it. Let’s move on.” These sections of uncomfortably personal accusation can be lightly skimmed without losing the tread.
Other fields are touched upon so lightly or with such absolutism that Schmidt’s case risks summary dismissal. Education is a prime example. Higher education is the handmaiden of the professional uniformity and subjugation in his grand unified theory. Colleges and universities are compared to the street scam of Three-Card Monte, a bait-and-switch operation in which high hopes dissolve because the mark doesn’t know the game is rigged. Schmidt links this fraud to higher education through citation of 40-year-old, albeit groundbreaking, work by education sociologist Burton R. Clark and his thesis that higher education “cools out” minorities and the poor by channeling them to institutions of low quality, or allowing them to enter and fail in better programs. Schmidt ignores the progress and diversity in higher education occurring over most of the last half century, and acknowledges not at all that there might be a few people in the broad enterprise of higher education who seek to remedy social and economic class inequities, rather than to perpetuate them.
(This being said, teacher education -- particularly in our era of globalized standards, repetitive testing, and “teacher-proofing” of curricula -- would have been a fascinating topic to examine through Schmidt’s lens, but it didn’t happen.)
Schmidt ends with discussions of how the professional or professional-in-training can maintain personal standards, a clear conscience, and allegiance to personal values. These are always good practices. But when Schmidt makes his case through point-by-point parallelism with the tactics of prisoner-of-war resistance as enunciated by the United States Army, he invites dismissal by the slightest extension of his metaphor. Professional training and practice are monoliths on a par with World War II axis powers or Saddam Hussein’s aggressions? Please.
In summary, Schmidt’s provocative case is made most strongly and eloquently in his first few chapters. Like a good lawyer, an archetype of Schmidt’s description, he should have known when the case was made and then rested.