book review: disciplined minds

I read Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives because of a conversation between a bunch of newly-/almost-graduated librarchivists I know talking about the terrible job prospects in our chosen field. Now, a week from being done with my library schooling, the book was an interesting perspective what this training had prepared me for and how.

The big thesis of Disciplined Minds is that the main difference between a professional and a nonprofessional is that non-professionals are only allowed to do non-creative things, while professionals do the creative work. This is often why people engage in the paper chase for degrees; they want to be able to do the fulfilling interesting parts of the job, not just the rote mundane things. But creative people don’t necessarily do things that their superiors want them to do, which is why they need to be professionally trained; they need to be trusted that they won’t act against the system’s interests. The book talks about how professional training is designed to make professionals into reliable servants of the hierarchical system of society’s status quo.

These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.

Jeff Schmidt draws a lot of his examples from the world of physics academia, which is his background, and I have to say that the worlds he describes are much harsher than whatever I experienced in either of my professional degrees (neither of which had certification/qualifying exams like passing the bar or whatever). But it’s still there. The first term core is really crappy at our school, filled with busy-work that serves little purpose but to ensure that you’re capable of following orders and engaging in alienated labour (work that you feel no connection to).

And then there’s the job hunt. Trying to convince people that you will be a good employee is a recipe for soul-crushing. From the book:

It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect… Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.

That about sums up what it’s like looking for a library job in the current system.

I’d like to think that in general librarians are different than the professionals Schmidt describes, but I can see how we are inculcated with certain values that will help us be good workers in systems, not necessarily good individual thinkers. Librarchivism does seem to have a better focus on its social benefit to society than Physics though. And the hum of free-speech and preserving institutional memory ideals in the background does influence how we’re taught. I have friends who are beginning their training to become teachers this fall, and I’m really interested to see how their professional training experiences match up to mine (and each others’ since they’re going to different universities).

The final section of Schmidt’s book is about how to be a radical professional, and the emphasis there is on identifying as a challenger of the status quo first, not as a professional. This means having solidarity with non-professionals and challenging for what is better for society and the people we serve than our bosses. I like to think that’s part of librarianship anyway, but am not completely naïve. I’m glad I have colleagues who are more radical than me to challenge me to not just get swept up in politics as usual as I try to be an employed librarian.

All in all, a fascinating book. I’d love to see a more contemporary book like this (which is from 2000) written in the smaller-scale Canadian system.

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