Professional Deformation

There is a fascinating article about the discontents of professionalization here. It was written shortly after September 11, but what it says is still of interest. I don’t agree with absolutely all of it, but what of that; I do with most.

Readers in a variety of fields may identify with the experience of a soon-to-be Ph.D. in English, someone who has always worked hard and played by the rules intellectually, who told me that since the terrorist attacks, she’s derived less comfort than she expected from working on her dissertation. She also confessed that she can’t blame the people who look at our discipline from the outside and say, “If you’re not getting at anything that sustains people, what’s the point?”

That’s the main bit I don’t agree with. Sustaining people isn’t the only thing scholarship does, and there is plenty of point in doing non-sustaining (I take sustaining to mean consoling, helping to bear up) things – epistemology for example, or scientific or historical research. The truths that researchers find may well not be in the least sustaining or consoling, but there can be many other sorts of reasons why they’re still worth finding out.

I was in great conflict about continuing to observe certain intellectual rules that were a part of the dominant thinking — rules that I thought were very limiting but that I couldn’t challenge without courting disgrace. Specifically, I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my convictions about what sustains people — my faith, for example, in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful…I was writing about Joyce’s insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead — an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I drew support for the notion that this is a universal phenomenon from the field of historical anthropology, which explores what is common and what changes across cultures and eras. Yet I was still afraid I’d be attacked for “essentializing” — for supposing that there are shared features that constitute the essence of being human. For some reason, this fear of attack can be utterly compelling, particularly if your intellectual position can be dismissed on moral or quasi-moral grounds because it has something in common with ideas widely held on the political right.

Indeed it can, and that fear and its compelling quality is the evil demon. That’s the very demon B&W was set up to exorcise. The fear is an understandable one – I experience it or a close relative of it all the time, as I’ve mentioned here before, for instance when I find an interesting article on a site belonging to the Cato Institute or similar. One does not want to assist people who have an agenda that one does not share – that’s simple enough. The Cato Institute’s chief agenda (as far as I can tell) is that of promoting the idea that the market and profit ought to be the final arbiter of everything, and that’s an agenda I dislike intensely. But if an article there makes an important point or has useful new facts to consider – then which political commitment is happy to hear it should be irrelevant. Indeed one could argue that that’s a useful thing – discovering facts or ideas one can agree with in a political stance that is the opposite of one’s own could get all of us into the habit of considering ideas on their merits rather than according to the company they keep, hence could make all of us far more reluctant to be blindly loyal to bad stupid counter-productive harmful or unjust ideas, or untrue or badly-founded facts.

In Disciplined Minds, the physicist Jeff Schmidt claims that professional training in physics, and by extension many other fields, has something in common with brainwashing, and that survival is a bit like deprogramming. The impediment to deprogramming in any environment is the threat of ostracism by the group…Many professions (conceivably all professions) bind initiates to themselves by inducing a subtle spiritual depletion — what the legal theorist Duncan Kennedy, in his 1983 manifesto Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, called the “sneaking depression of the pre-professional.” In a superb book called Nuclear Rites, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson describes how weapons scientists are subjected to training that involves rules of secrecy that have a debilitating effect on reasoning and moral judgment…Systematic demoralization seems to be a hidden feature of many kinds of professional training, though each field develops its own mechanisms for producing this change. The theoretical models that have dominated English and the related disciplines in the last two decades are especially effective tools (along with the institutional factors that have always existed) for creating demoralization.

Physicists, lawyers, weapons scientists, ‘theorists,’ all receiving training that empties them of qualities that they probably need. It’s a fascinating and fairly alarming idea.

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