Review of Jeff Schmidt’s
Review by David Schweingruber
Schweingruber is an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State
University, in Ames, Iowa
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
George. 2000. The
McDonaldization of Society,
New Century ed. Thousand Oaks,
Jennifer K. 2002. “Physicists Unite in Defense of
Time-Pilfering Editor.” The
Chronicle of Higher Education,
April 5, p. A12.
Jeff and Jennifer K. Ruark.
2000. “Physics Today Fires Author of Book on ‘Soul-Battering System’
of the Workplace.” The Chronicle of
Higher Education, June
9, p. A24.