Prisoners of Higher Ed: Part 1
Higher education shapes, fosters, and rewards conformity, thus creating a professional class
that is willing to leave its independence — and critical thinking — at the door
In my recent pre-move houseclearing, the picture above was one of the photos I couldn’t seem to get rid of, though I didn’t really know why.
My mother is seated at one of those Wellesley tables, but that’s not why I didn’t burn it. I let go of literally hundreds of other photos of her.
I apparently kept it because this essay was waiting for me.
In an earlier essay, Speaking Up, I mention Jeff Schmidt and his book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. (I love that title.)
In it, Schmidt describes how higher education shapes, fosters, and rewards conformity, thus creating a professional class that is willing to leave its independence — and critical thinking — at the front door of a corner office.
Timing is everything, and Schmidt’s ideas are front and center right now, even if he is not.
On October 27, 2022, an anonymous Wellesley student wrote this:
“Here is a question no administrators seem to be asking: what does it mean when a college tells its students that their bodies belong to the whims of bureaucrats rather than to themselves?
It means that students are being groomed to believe that being an educated person means keeping one’s head down and submitting to every top-down order uncritically.” [Emphasis mine]
This disclaimer rests at the bottom of the article:
“Anon Wellesley student remains that way because she would like to continue as a student.”
I’m sure Schmidt, who earned a PhD in physics from the University of California, Irvine, and was a staff writer for Physics Today magazine for nineteen years, would appreciate that. Soon after publishing Disciplined Minds, he was fired for writing it.
Sure, it may have been the candor of the book’s introduction, in which he admitted that he spent a portion of his office time writing the book, yet it’s equally likely that Physics Today could not risk someone of his radical ilk “poisoning” the organization from within.
His ideas are radical. All the more so because he doesn’t just posit them as theory, he supports them with logical, practical examples — from his own educational career and that of many others who experienced similar cult-like indoctrination.
I was able to see this kind of indoctrination up close, when I enrolled in a master’s program in theatre and performance studies.
I’ll never forget the look on my professor’s face in our intimate little seminar when I earnestly offered up “community theatre” as a valid art form. Valiantly fighting the urge to allow his eyes to roll all the way back in their sockets, he instead flared his nostrils and grimaced with no teeth and plenty of disgust. It was as though a big, smelly turd had fallen from the ceiling onto the middle of our conference table.
My face immediately flushed, and I, like the rest of the students at that table who were now exchanging looks, knew immediately that I had stepped outside the status-quo ideology. It was clear: if I kept dropping bombs like that, I wouldn’t be welcome at the metaphorical grad school table much longer.
By the time we graduated, any one of us could have told you which views were acceptable to the department. Here’s a sample:
- Theatre that is “interesting” is better (more worthy of our attention, more valid) than theatre that is emotionally affecting.
- Performance art, that allows you to “draw your own conclusions” as to what the hell it’s about, is preferable to art that “telegraphs its meaning.”
- Throwing around names like Artaud, Glass, or Foucault scores points. Mentioning Neil Simon in any remotely positive way is immediate academic suicide.
I struggled to define my own beliefs about what makes for worthwhile art. It wasn’t easy. Falling neatly in line, some students created stuff that fit into the program’s “the more inscrutable the better” paradigm and were rewarded for it. I, on the other hand, got into a major showdown with one of my professors for having the temerity to question her handling of our creative offerings, and suffered grade reductions for my insubordination.
I can only imagine the kind of backlash Anon Wellesley student would receive from students, faculty, and administration alike if she were to disclose her identity. Speaking your unpopular truth within the system pretty much ensures either ostracism or downright ejection — as Schmidt experienced. Parroting the accepted beliefs does the opposite: Oh, the Places You Will Go!
The word “ostracism” provides a nice segue… to Emily Oster.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on the article in The Atlantic entitled Let’s Declare A Pandemic Amnesty, written by Emily Oster, a career academic. In it, she essentially argues for amnesty and amnesia — forgive and forget. I have my own thoughts about the article, and about forgiveness, which will probably show up in another essay.
At the moment, I’m more focused on Oster’s background, and how her academic training may have blinded her… along with an entire section of humanity.
The JJE Goldman Sachs University Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs at Brown University, Oster is a graduate of Harvard (B.A. and Ph.D. in Economics).
By all outward appearances, she is a success: a magna cum laude Ivy League graduate, a full-time professor at another Ivy League college, a New York Times Bestselling Author of three published books on data-driven pregnancy and parenting (don’t get me started), and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Atlantic.
Whew! The system has rewarded her handsomely.
Eugyppius writes scathingly here about Emily Oster and her article in the Atlantic. He characterizes Oster as what retired university academic Dr. Bruce G. Charlton calls a “Head Girl.” Here are some of Charlton’s proposed attributes of a Head Girl:
“…an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.”
“Modern Colleges aim at recruiting Head Girls, so do universities, so does science, so do the arts, so does the mass media, so does the legal profession, so does medicine, so does the military…”
“The Head Girl… does what other people want by the standards they most value. She will work harder and at a higher standard in doing whatever it is that social pressure tells her to do – and she will do this by whatever social standards prevail, only more thoroughly.”
Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Tracy Flick in the movie Election comes to mind.
Whether or not Oster fits that moniker, I can’t say for certain. What I can say, is that I’ve known plenty of Head Girls in my life. And Head Boys. Charlton emphasizes that the term applies to both genders.
I imagine you know some, too. Look. If I search my own reflection in the mirror, I can see tendencies in that direction, too. We’re all capable of conforming; in fact, we’re wired to do it.
Political commentator C. J. Hopkins writes:
“…human beings are capable of forcing themselves to believe whatever they need to believe in order to survive or remain in good standing with “normal” society (or whatever social body they are members of and depend on to meet their basic needs).
…this capability is a fundamental human attribute that has been documented, over and over, throughout the course of human history. It is not some “theory” I just made up. It is how we maintain social cohesion. It is how we socialize our children. It is how armies and university departments work.”
Anyone who spends time around young children will witness their natural, inborn curiosity. They want to know everything: What is that flower called? Why? Who named it?
“Modern” one-size-fits-all primary and secondary education, designed for the industrial revolution and splendid for assembly-line careers, stamps out children’s self-arising curiosity, and replaces it with what Schmidt calls “assignable curiosity:” knowledge-seeking that is fully oriented to tasks assigned by others.
That’s the “just tell me what I need to know to get an A” model, the “will this be on the test?” paradigm. It’s what passes for education, and it’s a joke. Students become more and more passive, less and less curious. Their single goal is getting in to a “good” college.
Then, as Disciplined Minds lays out, the indoctrination process from undergraduate admission through graduate school kicks in, with each component in place to select and promote those with the “best attitude.” Who are they? Yep, you guessed it — they are the ones with the highest level of assignable curiosity, the ones who enthusiastically and unquestioningly accept the work assigned. They are the Head People.
Graduate programs seek and then mold these Head People into docile professionals who will embrace ideologies and priorities uncritically. Competent and compliant, they get picked for plum jobs at law firms, get hired at Pfizer and Google and Goldman Sachs, and step into all areas of work life —health care, business, finance, education, and the arts — to fulfill their destiny within the system.
Which is? To maintain society’s status quo… and they do it very, very well. Why?
Because they depend on the status quo for their own status. Where, what, who would they be if the system collapsed? Or even if it changed substantially? They can’t afford that risk, and therefore they apply their considerable intelligence, talent, and work ethic to its preservation, with singleminded — some might say blind — devotion.
It is, quite literally, self-preservation.
As they become more and more successful, and ensconce themselves more fully in the system that supports them, what remaining individual political beliefs or contrasting opinion they might have had fall away, which works quite well for the organization that hires them. Who better to perpetuate its culture and fulfill its goals, than highly educated employees who do their assigned work without questioning those goals?
“The system of education and employment works to redefine who you are in the deepest sense, pushing you away from developing and acting upon your own vision and guiding ideas.”
So, is it possible for someone who has joined the professional class to act autonomously, from their own convictions and moral compass?
In a recent interview, real estate attorney Bobbie Anne Cox talked about the lawsuit she won against New York State and governor Kathy Hochul. I highly recommend you watch it, here. Cox is an inspiration.
It’s an extraordinary feat she pulled off, given that she is a real estate attorney, not someone steeped in constitutional law. But the part of the interview that is relevant to this essay is Cox’s description of asking fellow lawyers to join her in suing New York State. She says:
“When I was working on this lawsuit, just in the drafting stages… I reached out to a couple dozen colleagues and said, ‘Look at this regulation; you have to read this. This is horrific. Help me. It’s better to have a few lawyers working on this than just one.’
Nobody would step up. In fact, I was told, “Why are you doing this? You’re going to ruin your career. You’ve worked so hard to build it up.”
Unlike Emily Oster, Bobbie Anne Cox did not get her degrees at Harvard. She went to Hamilton College for undergrad — a fine school, to be sure — and Pace University for her J.D.
The acceptance rate for the Harvard economics Ph.D. program is 5%.
The acceptance rate at Pace University Law School is 50%.
Could that be one part of why Cox was able — and willing — to step out of the matrix? Did she have less to lose? Was she less of a Head Person? Were the other lawyers she contacted for help just too firmly embedded in the status quo?
I will never know. What I do know, after reading Schmidt’s book, is that there are ways to train ourselves to preserve our identity, interests, and values, rather than conform to an alienating system that seeks to promulgate its own interests.
Values like freedom, egalitarianism, and solidarity can remain intact, whether we have experienced the systematic soul-battering of graduate school’s boot camp or not.
Speaking of boot camp… Part 2 of this essay dives into the last chapter of Disciplined Minds, in which Schmidt helpfully explains how the military prepares its soldiers to resist brainwashing, should they become prisoners of war.