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Write on Radio Interviews > Jeff Schmidt - Disciplined Minds

10 Jul 2001



Write on Radio interview with Jeff Schmidt

July 5, 2001 live broadcast


JN: We’re now going to join author Jeff Schmidt, who’s joining us by phone from Washington, D.C. Jeff is the author of "Disciplined Minds: A Critical look at Salaried Professionals land the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives," published by Rowman & Littlefield. Jeff is the former editor of Physics Today and he was working there for 19 years before he was fired for writing this book. He has a PhD in physics from the University of California, Irvine, and has taught in the United States, Central America and Africa. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he now lives in Washington, D.C. where he is joining us by phone! This is the first phone interview from the Write on Radio studio, so hopefully you’ll be clear on the air.....Your employer has given your book a "punishing" review.....

JS: Yes indeed...they took one look at the book and escorted me to the door, literally. It did illustrate the power of ideas that could illicitate a physical reaction like that, but it was quite an event....

JN: And, I’m also going to welcome Mike Ryan, who’s done many Write on Radio interviews in the past, he joins us in the studio, so we’ll be having a three-way conversation here.... Jeff, you have a quote that fits in perfectly, since we just celebrated Independence Day, you said "Independent thinking and Independence Day -- Corporate employers maintain a repressive environment for more people today than the British did in 1776." I thought that was real interesting.

JS: Well it’s true indeed, the Bill of Rights now doesn’t really cover people’s main social interaction, people’s biggest interaction with society now is through their job. And that’s a pretty repressive environment. Just run down the list of the Bill of Rights and you see that the employers reserve that for themselves, you see that there’s no free speech right for employers in the workplace. And through the Second Amendment the employers of course have the security guards working for them, there’s no right of self-incrimination, you can’t plead the Fifth Amendment if your boss questions you about something and so on.

JN: When you started writing this book, you wrote it partly on work time and partly on home time, did you ever expect to get fired for writing this book?

JS: No, I didn’t, although I was pretty much targeted for reprisals from the employer. I had been involved in workplace organizing activities and they had tried many measures, escalating and escalating, a series of measures trying to shut me up, basically. And I think that when they saw this book they realized that none of those measures were going to work, so they fired me. They imposed a gag order on me and another outspoken employee and when that didn’t work they tried to ban our private conversations in the workplace; they said that all conversations had to be open to monitoring by management.

JN: You also have a part in your book where you’re explaining the actual process of what you were doing at your workplace. You also compare graduate school to the workplace, that the educational institution, at least some of them around the country, are almost as repressive as the coroporations.

JS: Well, yes, it’s not really two distinct areas. The book is about the process of work and it really talks about a single system of education and employement. So one prepares you for the other. The thesis of the book is that work is an inherently political activity, not just an economic activity. That you’re hired to advance your employer’s point of view, both directly and by increasing your employer’s weath, and therefore, power in society. But one way or another your work changes society. If you have a job you’re politically active, but probably not in the way you want to be, because the employer assigns the idealogy. And graduate school and other education prepares people to play this politically subordinate role in the workplace. The book focuses on professional training, and that’s why professional training is so abusive, because it’s preparing people to play a politically subordinate role. The conformity of thought is rewarded in graduate school and professional school.

JN: Right...I guess I haven’t had a chance for you to read something. Do you have a part of your book you’d like to share with us?

JS: Sure, I’d like to read the first three paragraphs of Chapter One. It’s a passage set in New York and contrasts two groups of people: those who ride the subways and those who ride the suburban commuter trains, like Hillary Clinton’s neighbor.

"No two people are allowed to read the same thing," I said above the noise, gesturing towardt he other passengers on the crowded subway car. My out-of-town visitor glanced around the clattering train. Indeed, the commuters hurtling toward their jobs in Manhattan’s office building, restaurants, shops and other workplaces were reading such a wide variety of material that my joke almost held up. That typical weekday morning found riders engrossed in all kinds of magazines, paperback books, the Daily News, the Post, the Times, office documents, a software instruction book and, yes, the Bible. Those who weren’t reading were listening to headphones, talking to others or, apparantely, just thinking.

Seeing this every day on the subway set me up for a surprise one morning when I went to catch a suburban commuter train to Manhattan. I had stayed overnight in Westchester County, an upscale New York City suburb where many executives and professionals live. I would be riding into the city with lawyers headed for big corporate law firms, financial analysts going to invesstment banks, editors bound for publishing conglomerates, as well as accountants, journalists, doctors, architects, engineers, public relations specialists and a host of other professionals. Boarding the train felt something like entering a library. There were no conversations even though nearly all the seats were occupied. Almost everyone was reading. But the dozens of passengers were reading only two things: The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I could have formulated another joke about allowed reading matter, but the scene was too spooky, like the aftermath of an invasion of the body snatchers: everyone dressed the same, in suits, sitting silently in neat rows and columns, each holding up a large newspaper, abosorbing the same information.

A herd of independent minds? (1) Something seemed very wrong with the picture. It was obvious that when the subway riders and the suburban train riders converged at the workplace, the people who showed the greatest diverstiy in their dress, behavior and thought -- the non professionals -- would be asked to do the least creative work, while the most regimented people who would be assigned the creative tasks. This seemed just the opposite of what one might expect. And even more disturbingly, it indicated that people who do creative work are not necessarily independent thinkers.

(1 - noted in book) The phrase comes from an essay title: Harold Rosenberg. "The Herd of Independent Minds." Commentary, vol. 6 (September 1948), pp. 244-252.

Mike Ryan: In another area of the book you say "outright professional training tends to kill off natural creativity." Can you kind of go into why that is?

JS: Well there’s...you mean how it is or why it is?

MR: Why it is...

JS: Well, why it is is because training is to prepare people for the workplace where they’re going to be assigned an idealogy and have to carry it out. And how it is, is this abusive process that I mentioned where really, graduate school and an all-consuming, high-pressure intellectual bootcamp...in fact, only about half of the entry students survive, and that half really doesn’t ‘survive’ because they’re really not themselves by the time the process is over. If you’re in a graduate program, it’s usually not at all with independent thought, it’s one of fear and confirmity, and students are reletessly(?) scrutinized and judged, not just briefly, and they can say this is just temporarily and I can hold on to my real ideas and just pretend for awhile, but this goes on for years on end....the students are ever aware that their tickets to the profession can be cancelled at any time, no matter how many years of work they’ve put into it. People realize that the best way to conform, the best way to succeed, is to literally really adopt a favored idealogy. Not to pretend, but to actually adopt it. This is something they see in the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome," have you ever heard of that?

JN: No, please explain that...

JS: Well, that’s where hostages emerge from a period of days of being held captive and often there articulate dissent is that when people are being held hostage...

JN: I remember reading that, and it’s amazing when you were saying that graduate school is like boot camp, because you’re also talking about the Army, and all the Army’s "be all they tell you to be" kind of thing, and how they train their people for resisting capture and POW resistance and how to act if they’re ever captured and how to avoid the brainwashing techniques that go on, and it’s kind of an oxymoron, the Army avoiding brainwashing...but...

JS: They’re avoiding with competing systems. How I came to that was, through my interviews with students I realized this really strange idea of cult indoctrination shed light on professional training. Organizations that are used to brainwashing their members into unthinking slums, really seem to have a lot in common with graduate training. So I said, well I’ll look into totalarian organizations in the interium and see where the techniques are they used on people to play a politically subordinate role. I identified eight themes of totalirian organization that I lay out in the book. And that led me to think, well what can we do about that? Maybe I can find an actual brainwashing resistance manual, a real one, and I tracked one down, which is from the United States Army, that they use to train their people how to hold onto their beliefs as prisoners of war, how to avoid brainwashing...

JN: Right...and they actually faxed that to you? It’s now classified, right?

JS: (laughs)..well, I got it here in Washington in the Library of Congress and the Second Edition was classified. I got the first edition. I got the first edition and I think they let the cat out of the bag...all the techniques are there. And in "Disciplined Minds," my book, I say that the United States Army issued a survival manual for graduate school. And I say that lightheartidly, of course. But in many ways the military manual is superior to civilian advice books. There are civiliain books on how to survive graduate school....

JN: Or your employer, you could translate this into either one...

JS: Yes, it applies to all these heirarchial organizations. The problem with these workplace and graduate school survival guides is that they train you to conform, to succeed by conforming to the demands of the institution. Where the Army manual emphasizes keeping control over your identity. They have a term for this, the miltary calls it "honorable survival." So I quote extensively from the Army Manual in "Disciplined Minds." The basic technique is that you cannot do it alone. Whether you’re a student or an employee, you need to seek out like-minded people and do a little agitating for change.

JN: So you have to have that support system. Basically, you said at the beginning that your whole life can’t be wrapped up in your employer, you have to have that other support network out there..correct?

JS: Yes, in your workplace or your department, you have to maintain your own vision, and you’re not going to be able to do that on your own when you’re in the middle of an institution with its own idealogy and its own vision.

MR: When you first thought of writing this book, you were in graduate school, right?

JS: Yes, that’s right. I got interested int he topic when I was going to professional training myself, getting a PhD in physics at the University of California, Irvine. It seemed like the best of my fellow graduate students were either dropping out or being kicked out. And by ‘best,’ those were the most concerned about other people and seemed less self-centered, less narrowly-focused, most friendly people...they seemed to be handicapped in the competition. They seemed to be at a disadvantage not only because their attention was divided, but because their concerns about big picture issues like justice and the social role of the profession and so on, caused them to stop and think and question, whereas their unquestioning gung-ho classmates just plowed right through with nothing to hold them back. As I mentioned, there’s about a 50% drop-out rate for students entering University programs in all fields; and what I found was that this weeding out is not politically neutral. To put it bluntly, the programs favor ass-kissers. I don’t know if that’s an acceptable term on KFAI, but that’s the fact of the matter....

JN: (laughs).....yeah, it’s okay on the air...brown-nosing is another term...

JS: The brown-nosing, the ones with the politically-subordinate attitude who will be the best servants of the employers and that status-quo.

MR: So, is this book in the works in the works since graduate school or is there something that happened that, like, maybe decided to finally come out....was it hard to find a publisher for this book?

JS: Yes, it was hard to find a publisher. I had the idea for the book in graduate school and worked on it for about two decades after that. Worked on it for two decades just like your previous guest today (referring to Linda Back McKay, local Minneapolis poet). Yes, it was hard to find a publisher, you don’t see much publishing of radical books these days. You look at the books that are reviewed in major newspapers and you’ll see some mildly critical books, but ...

JN: And it’s that whole corporate media filtering thing.....

JS: Right....

JN: What are you doing now, Jeff. Are you spending most of your time fighting your former employer trying to get your job back?

JS: That’s right. The main strategy here is public pressure, really. The law isn’t going to do much, although there are some lawyers that have volunteered to help on a pro-bono basis. But I don’t really count on that work...however, there’s been a protest. Norm Chomsky? collected signatures on a group letter, 145 people signed that..and there’s been a lot of individual letters of protest from physicists and others, people from all kinds of fields. Writers, scholars, union people and so on. All of this is posted at our website: www.disciplined-minds.com.

JN: And you can get this book on your website also, and order it off the internet or from you.

JS: And it is in some bookstores too, the publisher wound up getting it distributed widely across the country, but very thinly in terms of the number of copies of books in each bookstore. But they can order it for you in a few days.

MR: For the last question, at this point, do you know of any work environments that are truly democratic or what such an environment would be like?

JS: Welll, this has to be invented. What I suggest people do is make their own workplace more democratic. Every workplace has some degree of democracy. Workplaces are generally not totalatarian, they’re authoritarian. The degree of authoritaritiansm varies from place to place. So if you organize on your job, if you develop an alternative community there, even if you just have a few people out of many, it can make a difference. You can carry some power and make it more democratic....I certainly did that at "Physics Today" magazine. Over the years, sometimes we had an alternative community and sometimes not. It depended on how politically aware people were on the staff at the time. And when we were organizing, work was fun for the staff because they were players in the big picture issues and not just cogs.

JN: Right, and it gives you a sense of ownership when you have that repoire. Well, it’s been a lot of fun talking to you, Jeff and thanks for being on Write on Radio.

JS: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for entrusting your audience with my radical point of view.