Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals
and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives

(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) by Jeff Schmidt

Teaching Sociology
volume 31, number 2, pages 250-251
April 2003
ISSN 0092-055X

Review of Jeff Schmidt’s
Disciplined Minds

Review by David Schweingruber


David Schweingruber is an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa


Let’s 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.


The 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.


Part 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).


In 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 abolish professionals.


Three 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.


This 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.




Ritzer, George.  2000.  The McDonaldization of Society, New Century ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Ruark, Jennifer K.  2002.  “Physicists Unite in Defense of Time-Pilfering Editor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, p. A12.


Sharlet, 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.