Washington City Paper
28 July 2000
Page 52

Losing Their Religion

By Garance Franke-Ruta

In college, my aspiring social-activist friends -- meritocrats from humble beginnings, all -- dreamed of an education that would give them the power to make a difference in the lives of impoverished immigrant Korean women or improve the transparency of the political campaign system. So they dutifully went to law school or enrolled in graduate programs in political science. Now, as they near graduation, some of them talk of the intellectual satisfactions of protecting major-label record companies against Internet interlopers or of maximizing the efficiency of New York's workfare program. What happened?

Is it that the graduates, older and wiser, have found a weakness in their adolescent dreams of social justice and democratic improvement? Or is it that the system of graduate education itself eviscerated their aspirations?

D.C. resident Jeff Schmidt would say that these newly minted professionals are still making a difference in society -- just not the kind they'd once hoped to make. Indeed, he argues in Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (Rowman & Littlefield) that students' professional choices -- and the lifetime of decisions they can look forward to making as professionals -- have a more powerful impact on democracy than their votes do. The reason, he says, that 80 percent of the entering students at Harvard Law School say they want to pursue a career in public service but 90 percent take jobs at corporate law firms after graduation is that the professional world demands their "ideological discipline," or adherence to an assigned point of view. Professional education transforms not just what you know, but who you think you are as well.

Schmidt, a former editor of the College Park, Md.-based science monthly Physics Today, has collected two decades of reflection on the problem of graduate training and professional life into his 280-page book. Schmidt holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Irvine, but you don't have to be a laser jock or lab rat to see that graduate programs combine sleep deprivation, too much work, rigorous competition, social isolation, and pressure to pursue particular pathways -- and force students to accept the regimen or be booted from the program. This is a strategy designed to reshape a young person's social and political preferences, says Schmidt. "[Students] enter professional training with deeply held feelings about the personal and societal promise of professional work, and during professional training struggle against what often amounts to a brutal attempt to change their very identities," he writes. The struggle of their lives, as any disgruntled associate at a law firm will tell you, is to square their beliefs with the bullying of their profession.

To lessen the conflicts, says Schmidt, the professions require that future workers be transformed while they're still trainees. These transformed employees then can "work within an assigned ideology rather than from a specific list of tasks, because the professional works with unpredictable events," says the 54-year-old author. And so the creative work goes to those who can be trusted not to stray from the path, while more creative types often find themselves working as waiters. (Schmidt does not except journalists from his critique of the professions.)

Schmidt's effort to help grad students resist their indoctrination through such chapters as "How to Survive Professional Training with Your Values Intact" was met with some resistance at Physics Today. In late May, Schmidt was fired after 19 years on the job, he says, for allegedly writing the book on company time. He successfully contested that charge with the State of Maryland Department of Labor and is now collecting unemployment benefits.

"The people who were most concerned about others seemed to be the least likely to survive," says Schmidt of his time in grad school. Not much seems to have changed for him, even in the working world.


Photo caption:

We're All Dissonant Beings: Jeff Schmidt with future worker (and daughter) Joshua Rose Schmidt

Photo by Charles Steck, Washington City Paper.