The Perils of a Good Education: how so many educated professionals become servants of the status quo

Originally published in the Morning Star on 19th May 2018

Recalling the work of physicist Jeff Schmidt, CALLUM ALEXANDER SCOTT traces how a good education can produce obedience, conformity and conservatism in young professionals.

In the late 1990s, the physicist Jeff Schmidt wrote a fascinating book called Disciplined Minds.

In the book Schmidt contended that, by and large, professionals of all kinds – across government, the civil service, the corporate world, journalism, the media, cultural management and the more articulate sectors in general – are conditioned to serve the agenda of established power by subordinating themselves to working “within an assigned political and ideological framework”.

This leads them, he argued, to become a far more conservative force in society than a progressive one.

For Schmidt, this conditioning begins in early education. Children are curious about all things, he writes, but must gradually learn to assign their curiosity to specific tasks set by teachers – a process he calls “assigned curiosity”.

At school, the children who are best able to assign their curiosity and subordinate themselves to the teacher’s instructions will generally obtain the best grades and receive the most praise. While the ones who are unable to do so will tend to experience the opposite – or worse, end up in the headmaster’s office as “behavioural problems”.

In this respect, subordination and compliance are encouraged and rewarded in the school system, while insubordination and nonconformity are discouraged and punished. The process, Schmidt argues, helps to instill the former characteristics in children and weed out the latter.

What this means is that by the time students reach university level and professional training, a significant portion of them will have made it because they were better able to subordinate themselves and comply with orders.

As Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at MIT, has hypothesised, the higher up the education system you go – that is, the more elite the university you attend – the more obedience and conformity you are likely to find since you are “getting the students who were better able to do it”.

The conditioning continues throughout university, writes Schmidt. Only, now it becomes more of a voluntary process for students.

Take, for example, when a teacher assigns an essay topic. Good students who have made it thus far will rarely consider writing about a topic that is not assigned.

In fact, the best, most obedient students will adhere strictly to the rules and go out of their way to please their teacher, finding ways to align with his or her outlook, attitudes and beliefs.

The students who eagerly adopt their teacher’s outlook, no matter what it is, the ones who subordinate their own desires and beliefs for the purposes of the task, will generally do better.

Another important part of the conditioning process, Schmidt writes, is socialisation – that is, learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, to hold the “correct” outlook, attitudes and values.

Sociologists have long recognised how attending a “good” school or university is critical to learning the correct etiquette, adopting the right speaking voice, and knowing what to say and what not to say in certain environments.

As George Orwell wrote in 1945, the “sinister fact” about censorship amongst the English intelligentsia is that “it is largely voluntary”:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark […] not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

This “wouldn’t do to mention” attitude derives very much from a “good education”, whether you attend Oxbridge, an Ivy League university or a Grandes écoles.

Ultimately, Schmidt argues, the educational system, the higher you climb it, amounts to a process of selection, training and qualification for obedience – what he calls “ideological discipline”.

This discipline is of course essential in professional work where employees are required to subordinate themselves to serve the interests of their employers without question.

While there may occasionally be moments for manoeuvre, good professionals, the well-disciplined ones, recognise that to seriously question the ideology, morality or politics built into their work and to voice their opinions on such matters would be too disruptive in the workplace.

To do so would reflect negatively on them in the eyes of their managers and colleagues and, much like the children with “behavioural problems” in school, they would become “managerial problems” in the workplace.

Image from the 1988 American science fiction horror film They Live, written and directed by John Carpenter.

But here is the really interesting part. The conditioning does not merely produce disciplined, obedient and conformist professionals – it also produces conservative ones.

To illustrate, Schmidt notes how it is commonly assumed that professionals with a good education are more liberal on social issues, while non-professionals without good educations are regarded as being more conservative. It is for this reason that professionals claim, often rather smugly, to be a more progressive force in society than non-professionals.

This is a fallacy, argues Schmidt, because while educated professionals may be more progressive on distant social issues (civil liberties, personal morality and cultural issues), when it comes to issues that might really affect them personally, such as issues in their workplace, they tend to be more conservative.

Think of the bricklayer or engineer who thinks most politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy or that Tony Blair should be on trial at the Hague for war crimes. He will freely proclaim such an opinion because it has no effect on him in his workplace.

The professor, judge, journalist or corporate manager, however, will likely refrain from saying such a thing because, as Orwell put it, it simply “wouldn’t do to mention” it, despite the fact that few people in broader society would be shocked.

Professionals can “rarely muster the courage to take a position that they think might displease their employers” or colleagues, Schmidt writes, because they do not “want anyone to think that their own views might affect their work”.

Independence of thought, breaking social norms and eccentricity would just seem out of line. As a result, the professional rarely ends up standing for anything other than the proclaimed values of the company they work for.

Another example of conservatism among professionals relates to the issue of democracy.

Liberal professionals will be the first to extol the virtues of freedom and plurality, both in and outside of their workplace. However, discuss politics in depth with them, Schmidt says, and “you will not hear a word in favour of a more democratic distribution of power in society perhaps because in the professional’s view ignorant non-professionals make up the large majority of the population”.

Think here of the scorn that many educated liberals showed poorer, less educated Brexit voters following the EU Referendum, and their subsequent efforts to reverse the result.

Or the liberal New Labourites (Blairites) who tried (and still try) to undermine the Labour Party’s membership who voted Corbyn as their leader. Or similarly how US Democrats treated (and still treat) Trump voters with derision and mockery. “Even the most liberal professionals”, Schmidt notes, “tend toward authoritarianism in their social visions”.

Ever hear of a solicitor who advocates free training for litigants to represent themselves? Or a doctor who supports people without medical qualifications (like experienced nurses) practicing medicine? Or how about teachers who support the opening of jobs in schools to people without degrees or teacher training – or even letting students run their own classes?

The point Schmidt is making here is that many professionals, while liberal outside of their work, tend to be more conservative when it comes to workplace issues. Non-professionals, on the other hand, while often conservative outside of their work, tend to be more liberal inside of the workplace. The result is that professionals have a far more conservatising effect on society.

The reason for this is because the societal impact people have in the workplace is far greater than the impact they have outside of it. Schmidt illustrates this with a simple statement:

If […] you were given the power to dictate the outlook that governs the day-in day-out decision-making of a professional at work, and I were given the power to dictate the outlook that governs what that professional does inside the voting booth once every four years, then your power to shape society would be vastly greater than mine.

Certainly, I can recall from my own experience how this works. For example, during my postgraduate study at Kings College London there was a professor who many students feared and disliked, but who carried an air of authority and respect in the department.

On the first day of classes he declared to us that he was “politically liberal but socially conservative”. This meant, as he would pompously remind us each semester, that he believed in “traditional power structures” and therefore required to be addressed as either “Professor or Dr”, or else he would not respond to us.

Just consider the hundreds of students he teaches each year, many of whom go on to work in prominent roles in the professions. The influence he is having on them and the example he is setting – and the subsequent influence they will have and the examples they will set in their own workplaces – will be far greater than the impact of his “liberal” vote at the ballot box once every five years.

The same of course applies to any professional manager who perpetuates “traditional power structures” in their workplace.

To conclude here, the ultimate point Schmidt is arguing in his book is that the process of a good education and professional training tends to produce obedience, conformity and conservatism in young professionals.

The system, by its very nature, helps foster what he describes as a “political and intellectual timidity” amongst our “most highly educated employees”. The result is that they end up constituting a more conservative force in society by serving the “interests of those who have power”, thus helping to “maintain the social and economic status quo”.

As a final note, it is worth noting that Schmidt’s aim is not to lambaste professionals – it is merely to build an understanding of the role they play in society.

He empathises with the many professionals who start off hoping to “make a difference”, but soon find they have been pushed to “accept a role in which they do not make a significant difference, a politically subordinate role”.

When this happens, he says, professionals tend to seek money and status as compensation for subordinating their ideals.

For anyone interested, he gives some brilliant advice on techniques for resistance and maintaining independent thought within the professions.


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