Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals
and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) by Jeff Schmidt
International Socialist Review
Issue 40, pages 70-71
Career Advice for Radicals
OVER THE past fifty years the U.S., along with most of the industrialized world, has seen a massive expansion in higher education, accompanied by the growth of an ideology of professionalism. For many, the dream of getting rich quick has been replaced with the dream of becoming a successful professional. Millions of people, fed up with dead-end jobs, spend small fortunes on professional training or graduate school in hopes of leading more fulfilling lives as doctors, professors, lawyers, scientists, etc. A small minority -- not necessarily the most skilled -- move on to become highly paid professionals.
In Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt looks at the “professional training process” that prepares people to fill the conservative role that the society needs professionals to play. Based on a collection of interviews and correspondence with graduate students from around the country, the book offers a critique of the higher education system and suggests strategies for resistance.
For Schmidt, a professional is defined as an ideological worker. Most workers are not trusted by their employers to think for themselves about problems they encounter at work or to come up with creative solutions. Professionals are the workers trusted to do this, because they have been trained to internalize the worldview of their employers. When determining who will make a good professional, specific skills -- for example, skills in journalism, knowledge of science or math -- are often not as important as attitude and outlook.
Professionals are self-adjusting. When confronted with a new situation or an unexpected question, the “expert” can usually be trusted to come up with new justifications, new spin that serves the interests of the employer -- as if it were second-nature. In return, professionals enjoy the psychological reassurance that comes with having some degree of control over their work, the respect of the community, and sometimes a paycheck to match.
Testing, according to Schmidt, is the most important feature of the training process. Professional qualification exams have the effect of alienating the student from the subject matter. This is accomplished by force-feeding massive amounts of often trivial information which must then be regurgitated, within strict time limits, making it impossible to reflect and think critically or creatively about the material.
Under these conditions, students who initially take a genuine, enthusiastic interest in their field of study tend to end up seeing it simply as work that must be done. The big exam appears to the student as a temporary obstacle to overcome on the way to realizing one’s dreams. In reality, it’s the first step in a permanent process of attitude adjustment. The test’s function is to prepare students for the alienated labor they must perform in the professional world.
The system’s production of “failures” is just as important as the “successes.” Because of the limited opportunities in our society, the vast majority will not find fulfilling careers. They must be made to blame themselves for this failure if they are to accept their subordinate roles. If the tests are “objective,” low scores and failures must be the student’s fault.
Students often attend two-year colleges in hopes of transferring to four-year schools, but only 5 percent of them actually do. Of students who enroll in four-year institutions, 50 percent drop out before they graduate, either for financial reasons or because the system discouraged them from continuing, or both. This is not really a failure of the education system. It’s how the system is supposed to work.
As individuals, we are practically helpless to challenge the priorities of the education system or to change the policies of an employer. But, organized collectively, we can have an impact. Even well-trained professionals can break with the ruling ideas of our society and join broader movements for social justice. Schmidt uses U.S. Army Field Manual No. 21-78 -- a manual for prisoners of war (POWs) resisting indoctrination -- to offer suggestions for organizing on campus and in the workplace.
As the manual points out, some POWs will actively collaborate with their captors while others will actively resist. The majority will fall somewhere in between. Resisters must form an organization based on solidarity and equality of all members, regardless of army rank, with the aim of winning over the wavering elements. Every trick employed by the captors, and every injustice perpetrated, must be exposed quickly and thoroughly, if possible through an underground publication. Any victory for the movement, even the slightest improvement in prison conditions, can work wonders for morale and should not be underestimated, but rather publicized and utilized to build the movement. Tactical co-operation should not be confused with capitulation to the enemy.
Judging from the contents of this manual -- quoted extensively by Schmidt -- one wonders if its authors took their lead from What is to be Done? by V.I. Lenin!
Schmidt is upfront about arguing for students, workers, and professionals to join radical organizations and subscribe to radical publications. The book’s unapologetic stance in favor of organization with some degree of centralism is a breath of fresh air. The consistent contact and collaboration with like-minded people, which can only be provided by an organization, are essential for any radical-minded person to withstand the pressures of everyday life and remain true to principle.
Schmidt offers insight into the collective psychology of an important section of the middle class and the role they play in propping up the system when there’s a low level of class struggle. For example, the well-trained professional will always explain the problems of society in terms of poor decisions made by the powerful in pursuit of universal interests, rather than a conflict of interest between “capital and labor.”
“This restricted understanding” argues Schmidt, “renders the professional weak as a force for his own defense and impotent as a force for change in society.” Unfortunately, Schmidt never elaborates on “the conflict between capital and labor,” and thus fails to provide a context in which “radical professionals” can work to change society. He begins to point in the right direction when he mentions opinion polls taken during the Vietnam War that showed people in lower income brackets and with less education to be more likely to oppose the war. A movement for fundamental change is not likely to be led by a group that Schmidt himself labels “timid professionals.” If it is led by the working class, however, its strength can encourage members of the middle class to break from their professional training and put their skills at the service of the movement. This book provides some clues to how such a radicalization process could work.