Housebreaking professionals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 29 16:48:20 MST 2000

>From chapter 8 " Narrowing The Political Spectrum" in the newly published
"Disciplined Minds: a critical look at salaried professionals and the
soul-battering system that shapes their lives" by Jeff Schmidt, (Rowman &

‘All I want to do now is make some big bucks," a physics graduate student
told me as he neared completion of his PhD and was starting to look for a
job. He knew this simple statement said a lot about how his goals had
changed during graduate school. While he may not have even clearly
remembered his original intellectual interests or his original degree of
determination that his work he of benefit to society, he did realize that
somewhere along the way he had become very flexible in these personal and
social goals. Listening to him I could see that he sought "big bucks" not
as payment for valuable skills that he would put at his employer’s
disposal, but as compensation for intellectual interests and social goals

Once the student abandons his own agenda, his course is set, and before
long he is working like the physicists described in chapters 4 and 5: as if
the agenda of the dominant sector of society were his own. How does the
professional physicist come to abandon his own agenda and adopt an outlook
that is appropriate for what physicists actually do in this society? This
chapter looks at the steps. Most people, including leftists, do not think
of professional training as changing people; they think of it as simply
teaching people facts and skills. Anyone holding this static view of the
individual will not be able to explain why professional education is the
way it is or why professionals are the way they are. Those who run
professional training programs certainly take a dynamic view of the
individual, and we should, too, if we want to understand how they make


The outlook of students completing professional training programs is
markedly different from that of students entering them. (By professional
training programs I mean traditional professional school as well as
graduate PhD programs.) While the new professionals emerge from training
somewhat more conservative on average than they were when they entered, the
most striking difference is that they show less diversity in their
attitudes—their views of the world, the nature of their intellectual
interests, the roles they see for themselves in society, the roles they
think their chosen field should play in society, and their goals for
society itself.

The student beginning professional training is usually highly optimistic
about the opportunity for an intellectually rewarding and socially
beneficial career. This is certainly the case in physics, where the
beginning graduate student sees "the kind of work physicists do" as
research on intriguing fundamental questions aimed at furthering human
understanding of the universe, leading sooner or later to socially
beneficial technology. The student enthusiastically anticipates doing
creative work in this quest for seemingly eternal truth. Moreover, both the
economy and the culture respect the scientist and uphold the notion that
the good scientist’s professional work is objective, politically neutral
and universal in content. Thus the beginning student sees the possibility
for a rare combination: career work that is intellectually, materially and
socially rewarding, and that is free of political direction or
interference. (The expectation of political freedom follows from the
student’s faith that the search for truth transcends even the most serious
earthly struggles for social power.) The student outside the sciences
anticipates the same rewards and freedom, expecting that professional
status will bring autonomy in the workplace and a career free from
domination by any powerful hierarchy.

If students are overly upbeat about what becoming a professional can do for
the individual and for society, that is not because they are naive,
although naivete makes this possible. Rather, they are searching with some
urgency to find a way to achieve their personal and social goals. Students
are well aware that in a hierarchical society one does not automatically
get to live a life with any significant independence from management and
its monitoring and control of the details of work and even of some leisure
activity. Students beginning professional training are not properly aware,
however, that there is a price to pay for any independence gained by
becoming a professional. A look at those who have paid the price—students
emerging from professional training—gives a hint as to what the price is.

Students finishing the ordeal of professional training often appear to be
pressured and troubled, as if under some sort of unrelenting duress whose
source they can’t pinpoint. Anyone who has been around a university
graduate department or other professional school has undoubtedly seen many
such students. These students end up doing much of their work while in a
state of physical and mental fatigue, precluding the creativity and
enjoyment that were once their priority. They are no longer the upbeat
students who entered the professional training program. Students who were
adamant in not wanting to become cogs in the machine, students who would
join the system only on their own terms, students who stood solidly behind
their own goals for society—many of these students now have a tired,
defeated look about them, and an outlook to match. Many are now quite
willing to incorporate themselves into one or another hierarchy, and to put
up no resistance there, overt or covert, as they help do work that furthers
their new employers’ goals.

The willingness shown by the new graduate to function harmoniously with the
system is usually not the disingenuous kind shown by people who have
fundamental reservations but who are reluctantly going along with the only
choice available. The new graduate often feigns reluctance so as to
maintain appearances, but it is usually painfully obvious that deep down
something has changed. The individual has taken a step toward adopting the
worldview of the system and goals compatible with the system. Students who
once spoke critically of the system are now either silent or fearfully
"fair and responsible"  in their criticism. They are careful not to be
provocative—not to do or say anything that might displease individuals in
authority. Any opposition is now  sufficiently abstract and theoretical to
not be provocative. (Don’t assume that behavior motivated by fear is
disingenuous. It usually isn’t, because the  safest way to behave in a way
that will please the powerful is to do so genuinely. The  most blatant
examples are cases of the "Stockholm Syndrome," named for a 1973 incident
in which hostages taken during a bank robbery in Sweden grew to identify
with their captors.)

Although the professional has sidelined his original goals, he usually
retains some memory of them. Any such memory inevitably points to the
compromises he has made and therefore can be an unrecognized source of
unease in the professional’s life.

None of this is to imply that new professionals are left without goals.
Ironically, however, the primary goal for many becomes, in essence, getting
compensated sufficiently for sidelining their original goals. Robert H.
Frank, a  Cornell University professor of economics, tried to find out
exactly how much compensation people deem sufficient for making this
sacrifice. He surveyed graduating seniors at his university and found, for
example, that the typical  student would rather work as an advertising
copywriter for the American Cancer Society than as an advertising
copywriter for Camel cigarettes, and would want a salary 50% higher to do
it for the cigarette company. The typical student would want conscience
money amounting to a 17% salary boost to work as an accountant for a large
petrochemical company instead of doing the same job for a large art museum.
Indeed, employers that are seen as less socially responsible do have to pay
a "moral reservation premium" to get the workers they want. Frank found
that men are more likely than women to sell out, and this accounts for at
least part of the gap in average salaries between equal men and women.’

Once the professional adopts this new, quantitative measure of success, the
system has him in the palm of its hand, for he maximizes his compensation
by working hard to further the goals of his employer, and thus the system.
And work hard he does—12-hour or longer workdays are standard for many
young professionals. According to the Wall Street Journal, "in some
investment-banking and law firms, seven-day, 100-hour work-weeks aren’t
uncommon." At First Boston Corporation, a large international investment
banking firm headquartered in New York City, "Young associates stay late
about three nights a week. The other nights they’re out by eight or nine,"
the chairman of the corporation’s recruiting committee tells the Journal.

Moreover, in spite of his marathon effort and to his employer’s further
delight. the young professional feels that he must not be working hard
enough, because the compensation never quite seems to satisfy him; the
feeling of "having it all" eludes him. In fact, his efforts are futile, for
no amount of income or status can make whole a social being who has
abandoned his own intellectual and political goals. The situation tends to
be self-perpetuating. The professional’s priority on compensation inhibits
him from developing and pursuing his own intellectual and political goals,
because the independent thinking necessary to do that is incompatible with
the mind-set necessary to do best for his employers and therefore to do
best in the rat race. Furthermore, the rat race is an all-encompassing
effort: The young professional works the week like a sprint and is left
with only a few hours of leisure time out of the week’s 168 hours. To
prepare his mind adequately for the professional work ahead, he must spend
his hard-won free time "working at relaxation," certainly not reflecting.3
Until the professional assigns highest importance to developing and
advancing his own political goals, serving the system will be not just his
job, but his life.


There are only two conceivable mechanisms by which those completing
professional training can come to be different in outlook from those
beginning it: ideological weeding out and ideological transformation. Both
mechanisms— elimination and assimilation—operate at every step in the
production of the professional.

In physics, about half of the students who enter PhD programs leave without
the degree,4 many due to outright expulsion. This massive elimination
allows the political biases in the weeding out process to have a strong
effect on the overall political nature of the graduating class. Adjustment
works hand in glove with this elimination in forming the class politically:
Many of those who survive the weeding do so by "shaping up" under the
threat of being culled, and in the process undergo attitudinal
transformations that make them politically compatible with the others who
are not weeded out.

Professional physicists are produced in five steps: admission, courses,
"qualification," research and employment. The weeding out and
transformation at each step shape the character of the final product, the
annual crop of new physicists. In admission there is a small amount of
weeding out and very little transformation: The large majority of
applicants to physics PhD programs gain admission, and they don’t have to
go through many changes to do so. In courses there is further weeding out,
and transformation gains in importance. Qualification is the step at which
the system decides officially whether or not the student may, in principle,
become a professional in his chosen field; it is around this stage that
most of the elimination and adjustment occurs. In the student research
project there is further transformation but only a small amount of weeding
out, as a few leave the field. Finally, in employment a small amount of
adjustment is often necessary, and there is also further weeding out, as
some graduates never get jobs in the field.

This series of steps is fairly standard for all professions whose members
are a product of graduate training. The amount of weeding out and
transformation at each stage of training varies from field to field and
from school to school, but the basic program is the same. Although training
for the traditional professions is structured somewhat differently,
qualification remains the crucial step. As I discussed in the previous
chapter, qualification in medicine is early, at admission to medical
school; accordingly, both transformation and weeding out operate at full
force: The admission process engenders the infamous self-centered,
competitive outlook of the premed student and involves a high percentage of
rejections. Because my main example is physics, I focus on the elements of
professional training in graduate school, which is where physicists are
trained, and I leave it to the interested reader to identify the
corresponding elements of training in traditional professional school.

Critics of education and the professions have paid very little attention to
the step of qualification, even though this is where students either get
the green light for careers in their chosen professions or have their hopes
for such careers reduced to fantasies. The critics evidently do not see the
heart of the selection system as favoring students with particular
attitudes and outlooks. The critics’ silence on the issue reveals the
unspoken assumptions they share with the system: Qualifying is mainly a
matter of meeting basic standards; the qualification process is a
nonpartisan evaluation of whether or not the student is good enough to
become a professional in a particular field; the question of whether or not
the student qualifies is prior to any question of ideology; all questions
of ideology aside, some candidates (and in some fields, evidently, most of
the candidates) just don’t have the right stuff to be professionals, so
qualifying is more a personal matter than a political one.

Even leftist critics of education and the professions can often be heard
using the rhetoric of personal merit in informal conversation. Consider the
difference between asking a student who recently took the qualifying
examination "Did pass?" and asking that student "Did they pass you?" These
two questions reflect vastly different outlooks. People often say,
"Congratulations on passing," in a xvav that implies "You’ve shown that
you’ve got what it takes." Or they say, "I’m sorry you didn’t make it,"
while resolving to themselves never again to mention what they consider to
be a personal failure. They make the subject a~s’kivard and embarrassing by
viewing it as a question of individual merit. Their focus on the student,
not on the examiners, announces their general acceptance of the examiners’
criteria for selection. When the issue is how "good" the student is, there
is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is
exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system
functions to reproduce.

Every professional training program reinforces the unspoken assumptions
listed above by presenting its process of qualification as an unbiased
assessment of the student’s aptitude in the field. The central element of
this assessment is the qualifying examination. This examination, which I
maintain is far from neutral politically, is the centerpiece of the
selection system because, ironically, as a technical test, it gives the
selection system its image of neutrality. But the qualifying examination is
part of the selection system not just to give that system an ideologically
unbiased look; the examination is also an important part of the mechanism
by which the selection system imposes its ideology. In fact, the qualifying
examination is the keystone of the ideologically biased process of weeding
and transformation. It serves simultaneously as an imposed objective,
disciplining student goals toward the norm, and as a measure, revealing the
student’s degree of orientation toward that norm.

I will discuss each step in the production of the professional physicist,
focusing on qualification. Disillusionment can strike the student at any
step in the process. In the example here, it hits late in the game, during

Louis Proyect
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