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Friday, February 17, 2006

Disciplined Minds

This is the title of a book written by Jeff Schmidt, who worked for 16 years at Physics Today and was fired for writing it.

The subtitle is "A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives"

Christopher Bradley wrote a very interesting review of this book over [here]

Let me pull out some choice bits:
Schmidt hits on the head when he talks about "constrained curiosity". They are disciplined to have internalized the system to such an extent that they are free to "do what they want" -- because they have been so rigorously vetted by the system, in the first place, that employeers know that very few professionals are capable of framing a thought that is incompatible with the system they serve. So a journalist working for the New York Times is simply incapable of writing a story that doesn't support the status quo; by the time they are even considered for employment by the NYT their ideological credentials have been demonstrated a thousand times in a thousand ways; any ideologically incorrect thought that such a journalist presents is likely a transient misunderstanding of the desires of the NYT management and swiftly changed (and by that time, likely without even a twinge of remorse). Professionals are workers that the management, the employeers, the people in charge of the system, can trust.
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That's a big difference and it explains why the education system is designed the way it is -- to eliminate so many from professional jobs. Most people can't do it. They might be able to turn off their consciousness and just do a job for eight or ten hours a day, just pass the time in thoughtless repetition of the job, but to be at work for eight or ten hours a day and to be thinking would draw their attention time and again to the strangeness of what it is they're doing. Get too many people like that together in an office, thinking but not thinking about the creative task at hand, and you're asking for a revolution. So people in these creative jobs, well, a different sort of compulsion is required. The non-professional worker the employeers can just compel through force (not just the stick to the head, but the slower but equally deadly unemployment); the professional worker has to be tricked into accepting their role in the system because their creativity and energy are needed in specific ways that different qualitatively from non-professional workers. Since most people lack the ideological discipline necessary to be professionals, well, you gotta get rid of them. Efficiently and in a way that doesn't reveal the ideological nature of the selection. Through the use of the "neutral" arbitrarion of education and professional credentials to create the illusion that when a student fails it's "their fault" -- because most people believe education is largely value free.
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The book is explicit that most people actually learn the technical skills on the job -- the education and certification process is largely ideological; so, if every physicist on earth vanished today the technicians who set up the experiments, grad students, interested amateurs and the rest could largely pick up where the "professionals" left off with little trouble. For me this was an important piece of information, as well. I have long felt there is an arrogant bias in the professions concerning the depths of their knowledge, but often when talking with professionals I have felt sorta surprised about how little they know. Or, rather, they seem to know a great deal about a very narrow sub-set of a field and often lack what I'd consider to be the basics and often lack an ability to qualitatively describe what they're doing, or have done.

I mean, I've known for a while now that professionals aren't necessary for a field to continue and advance, and often a hinderance to it -- but only historically. The example I use is the massive glut medical knowledge that happened in Revolutionary France when all the learned aristocrats were thrown out of medical practice. The quality of medicine dramatically improved when the doctors were fired . . . or, y'know, executed 'cause it was Revolutionary France. There are other examples as well -- like the reason why 19th century German chemistry and physics was so much better than everyone else's was because Germany opened up their universities to the middle classes, letting a large number of people with different values into the system to its great benefit.


...anyway you should probably go ahead and read the whole thing.

Link

2 Comments:

Blogger iceberg said...

but often when talking with professionals I have felt sorta surprised about how little they know. Or, rather, they seem to know a great deal about a very narrow sub-set of a field and often lack what I'd consider to be the basics and often lack an ability to qualitatively describe what they're doing, or have done.

Reminds me of that old adage, which goes something like this; "Engineers know everything about something, but secretaries know something about everything"

5:34 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lenny said...

Adem - i like the snippets that you chose for this piece, which means that i'll continue on and read the whole thing. As we overlap well in background and philosophy, i will add you to the crosslynx section of the zone.

as a vested professional that pitched the tenure scene before starting, i can vette the fact about very smart people with little common sense. They construct the narrow world they live in, and never return to reality, although i question the modern concept of reality. and the concept of time.
very rarely will you find a PhD science specialist that pulls it back and becomes a generalist, using his field as a frame of reference. Sagan did it, Pauling before that. Ghandi was the best in modern times - historically Thoreau and Swift come to mind first. Of course this assumes that religion is a science and allegory an artform.

1:10 AM  

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