“Cooling Out” the Victims of the Grad School Pyramid System

     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. Jeff Schmidt. Disciplined Minds (Kindle Locations 3045-3047).

 

One of the best parts of Jeff Schmidt’s analysis of graduate school he borrows from Erving Goffman who in 1951 published an article about con men, and how they get their mark to go away by blaming themselves. What happens is this. A con man gets a mark to make a “pretend” bet on a fixed card game. The mark agrees, only because it is “just for fun,” and puts down $60. A group watches. The mark of course loses the “pretend bet” at which point the con man says that he has now won the $60. Someone in the audience agrees that the con man has won fair and square. A heated argument ensues with the observers, and the con man finally agrees to return $20, which those in the crowd agree is fair. The mark walks away $40 poorer, and perhaps even feels a bit of triumph at getting $20 back. Most importantly he does not even consider going to the police, because he has been “cooled out” by the process of he con. The con man and his confederates from the crowd of course split the $40.

But Schmidt is not writing about card games, he is writing about graduate school in general, and the qualifying exam in particular. He is looking at PhD programs which graduate 30 or 40 students for every 100 students admitted to the program, and asking how it is that the system gets those 60 or 70 to leave quietly, blaming themselves for their own personal “failure.” “I was just not meant to be a sociologist or anthropologist they tell themselves, and their family.” But is it really a personal failure when a 60-7)5 failure rate is engineered into a system?

So what does “cooling out” have to do with PhD. programs? Schmidt says the qualifying exam system works the same way as the con game, and solves the problem of too many disgruntled “marks” walking away blaming the system. The grad school con game is conducted, Schmidt says, at the level of the qualifying exam, a year or two into most PhD programs. The exam is a torture administered across several days, in which you write, and write, and write what you think an anonymous committee of professors wants you to write. Notably, you don’t write what you want to write about your discipline, or propose new solutions to old problems. Rather you try to tell the committee what they want to hear; the implicit question is, is the candidate aligned with what has happened in the department/discipline before, and are they ready to support that status quo. The exam is then “graded,” which means you pass or you don’t, without any explanation—it is all secret. In other words the qualifying examination is the ultimate expression of power, where those who have the power judge you the graduate student without external accountability. It is strictly thumbs up or down. Schmidt actually was able to penetrate one of the committees “grading” the tests, and found out that there was indeed favoritism played in how the exams were scored—personal relationships mattered as what was written. To keep the recipients quiet, and the pyramid scheme going, PhD programs issue a “terminal Master’s degree” for your troubles, after having derailed the student from the golden track to a doctorate.

…the colleges have become one of the pyramidal system’s main tools for cooling out people’s “unrealistic” career ambitions. They do it on a massive scale, yet by necessity conceal the fact that that is what they are doing. (Kindle Location 3053)

In other words, it is the “cooling out” that the con men pulled on their mark. Schmidt argues that cooling out is a built in part of the broader education system. Indeed, Schmidt’s best example is not of grad school, but the community college system which peddles the false consciousness of a “transfer” plan to a four year BA degree, a transfer which only a very low percentage will actually ever make—most estimates are in the 10-15% range.

The process of cooling out students’ high educational and career expectations begins, of course, long before college. Grades from high school teachers and advice from counselors have an effect, but it is easy to base your hopes and plans on the thought that these people are underestimating you. Their reactions to you have always been very subjective, after all, and so perhaps their professional assessments, too, contain errors of judgment due to misimpressions, personality conflicts, personal prejudices and so on. But then comes the big aptitude test, and a few weeks later when you open the envelope and look at your scores you feel like you really are looking at a true picture of yourself. SAT and ACT scores have a powerful impact on the self-images of students, and those whose self-images are hit hard lower their expectations. They may not even apply to the colleges that they most want to attend.  Kindle Locations 3055-3060).

 

In other words, the system of education is a selection system that relies on “cooling out,” just like in the con game. It is hidden behind ideology, and an acquiescence by the powerless students. It patterns itself by class, race, gender, and other taken-for-granted assumptions about the excellence of the pre-existing system. Or, as Julie Withers told me, the metaphor I often heard growing up “the cream rises to the top,” is also about color—it’s indeed the white stuff that seemingly effortlessly and justly rises to the top! Funny how such ideologies do indeed work for getting the losers in the game to question themselves, rather than the overall fairness of the stratification system.

“Cooling out” after grad school, means that the system expects the victim to go quietly into the night, blaming themselves rather than a system designed to foil the expectations of the majority of the people it holds promises to. After all the qualifying exam, admissions process, etc., is “objective,” just like the SAT. The anonymous SAT does not reflect values of the test-makers, so why would the qualifying exams of grad school? Except of course this is not true. Tests inherently reflect the values of the status quo, and the need to reproduce the status quo which the existing system always wants to protect, especially against the potential usurpers making their way up through graduate school.

In other words, it is the same phenomenon used by the con man who cheated the mark out of $40. The system wears you down—you can take only so much insult, low grades, anonymous brick-brats, and criticism before admitting that maybe “they” are right. Maybe I am just not “up to snuff,” and the brown-nosers to your right and to your left are really just smarter than you.

Which brings me to what is Schmidt’s sardonic and perhaps unintended conclusion: Brown-nosing really works!

References

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. Kindle Edition

Goffman, Erving “On Cooling the Mark Out,” Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 4 (November 1952), pp. 451-463.

 

How are the Minds of PhD Students “Disciplined” by Graduate School?

Thinking about getting a PhD? Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is the book to read. Already getting a PhD, ditto. Already have a PhD?   You should also read this book, even though it was published way back in 2000, and relies on data from the 1980s and 1990s. It applies to today as well—little has changed. What is more, it gives an insight not only to how graduate schools seeks to shape and discipline a conservative cadre of future professors, the principles can also be applied to the pursuit of tenure for people who have made it that far. Academic winnowing works the same way at the graduate school, tenure track level, and for that matter for adjunct hiring as well. All should read Schmidt’s book as a warning about the nature of “professional socialization.” Hint: It’s not about critical thinking and high quality independent academics.

Disciplined Minds is specifically about how PhD programs select for scientists (and others) who are disciplined to the pre-existing norms of the disciplines. The pinnacle of academic achievement he writes is not about how good the students is, or how smart, but how disciplined to reproducing the the previous group of academics. Academia does it by administering a system which selects conservative people willing to reproduce the status quo. This is done through a series of examinations, particularly the “qualifying exams” that are designed to select for people who

….have an intuitive feeling for the values, attitude, outlook and approach that the tests favor-they have internalized the spirit of the tests.

(Kindle Locations 2937-2938).

Values, attitude, outlook and approach are what is sought in graduate school admissions tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT and for PhD students the equivalent is the qualifying exams. And what the examiners are looking for are students who have internalized the spirit of the department and the discipline. Notably, this is different than getting general smartness, brilliance, or teaching well.

When the issue is how “good” the student is, there is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system functions to reproduce. (Kindle Locations 1911-1913).

What the tests seek is to replicate pre-existing power relations, meaning graduate school is conservative in its very nature—it seeks to reproduce the examiners, even when the examiners are left-wing professors voting urging change for other people’s institution.

Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. (Kindle Locations 3208-3209).

In the case of the physics PhD education Schmidt put himself through, they are seeking students willing to subordinate themselves to the funders of Physics experiments, which are the people in the US Defense Department and industry who fund grants to professors and universities.

When the professional leaves unchallenged the moral authority of his employer to dictate the political content of his work, he surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world. (Kindle Locations 3222-3223).

Lest Sociologists and Anthropologists think they are immune to such pressures, I would urge them to look carefully at the funding decisions that underpin administrative decisions to fund new positions as Assistant Professors and graduate students.

Schmidt’s book obviously made a big impression on me. I urge you to read it! I will also be posting now and then about other parts of Schmidt’s argument soon.

Max Weber on the Politics of Wives

One of the weaknesses of Classical Social Theory is that it deals poorly with the nature of gender and the family (for exceptions see Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriett Martineau). In two places in his essay “Politics as Vocation,” though Max Weber brings up the subject of wives. The first reference is near the beginning of the essay where he defines the term “politics.” He admits that there are a range of politics which encompass “independent leadership functions.”

     What is our understanding of politics? The term “politics” is a very wide one and encompasses many kinds of independent leadership functions. One talks of foreign currency politics of private banks, of the interest rate politics of the Reichsbank regarding bills of exchange, of union politics during a strike, a city or town’s school politics, and a club president’s politics of leadership. Finally, one talks even of the clever politics of a wife when she attempts to lead her husband. (p. 135)

After reaching this conclusion, he changes the subject, and only brings it up again 50 pages later when discussing the nature of relationships, and the fact that different ethical codes apply to different relationships. Thus, you do not have the same moral requirements for business relationships, or that with your wife.

     Is it possible that one can put together the same set of moral requirements for erotic and business relationships, family and ministerial relations, and for the relationship with your wife, the greengrocer, the son, the competitor, the friend, or the defendant at the same time? (p. 185)

 

In developing his argument in this fashion, Weber is leading up to a startling conclusion: Ethics is dependent on profession—a principal reflected in two places, first in the Holy Upanishads of India in which the duties of each caste are spelled out, and secondly in the ethic of “The Calling” developed by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

Reference: Weber, Max (1919) in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters. 2015 Palsgrave MacMillan

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

RIP Sociology, or the Most Successful Discipline of the Twentieth Century?

Last December, Julie lamented the decline of Sociology as a discipline in an essay provocatively titled “RIP Sociology.” As Julie noted in her post, it seems that the discipline no longer had the vim and verve she remembers from her undergraduate and graduate days of only 10 or 20 years ago. She laments with Les Back the dominance of “the audit culture” in sociology which avoids big questions in favor of some arbitrary metric, and in particular refuses to ask students to wrestle with big problems, or engage the broader society with a sociological imagination. At the end of her essay, Julie noted that this seems to be highlighted by a “hardening” of disciplinary boundaries, as the remaining sociologists hunker down, and resist the contamination of collaboration with people from outside the discipline.

Well, I have some good-bad news for Julie. This battle is already over, and in a strange way Sociology won big time. The fact of the matter is that Sociology is one of the big winners of the twentieth century. Today, it is unimaginable to operate a university, or any other institution, without the intellectual gifts that sociology bequeathed society. Everytime you see a pie chart, view the results of a questionnaire, or discuss the “unintended consequences” of a social policy, you are discussing sociology.

Indeed, the techniques of the “audit culture” that Julie and Les Back lament are nothing but an outgrowth of the statistical techniques Emile Durkheim (and others) wrote about in books like Suicide. The statistical techniques used to analyze social data were by and large developed by sociology, and the related social sciences. Their use today is so taken-for-granted that no government report would be written without discussions of correlations, and statistical significance.

Theoretically, sociology is doing better—terms from Marx, Weber, Merton, Bourdieu and others are taken advantage in day-to-day discourse. Bureaucracy is an epithet because Weber identified the phenomenon in the first place. Merton told us about self-fulfilling prophecies, while popularizing a term that in the sociology of science that is on Google Scholar’s landing page (“On the Shoulders of Giants”). Weber’s definition of the state (monopoly over the legitimate use of force…), and identification of the “Protestant work ethic” are at the heart of many policy discussions.

Gender and sexuality have emerged as social categories during the last fifty years largely in response to findings of sociologists. Then there are terms like social capital, and cultural capital. And Social Class. And ideology. And marketing. There is no shortage of sociological imagination in society today—in fact these terms are so common-sensically trite that it seems fair to say that the sociological imagination is the imagination of modern society. And on and on—to the point where one President Ronald Reagan was a sociology major, one of the most important senators of the 20th century, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a sociology professor, and even the daughter of one President, and sister of another, Dorothy Bush Koch. And that’s just on the right. The sociological imagination permeates the political left. Sociology: we won the twentieth century! The world is aware of sociology! Declare victory!

Just how successful is sociology? Well it is so successful that the practice of sociology is now taken for granted in departments like Communications Studies, Literary Criticism, Business, Social Work, Social History, Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Culture Studies, Peace Studies, International Relations and so forth. Many of these programs are just versions of Sociology—and they need faculty too. But alas, you would never know that Sociology is so successful on the university campuses from which it emerged, where sociology departments scramble with everyone else to preserve themselves. They even struggle with the many daughter disciplines, often in an unseemly fashion.

And what are they teaching? Primarily applied sociology, with a little theory development thrown in. Even the computer scientists who designed social media are practicing sociologists, at least according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And on and on

Can sociologists really complain about so much success?

Next blog: The other successful disciplines of the twentieth century: Psychology and Cultural Anthropology.

Academic Meetings, Graduation Season, and a Bit from Rousseau

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead.

Perhaps Rousseau was thinking of such academic meetings when he wrote in the 19th century “On this showing, the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them” (Rousseau).

Which of course starts me thinking about the many times I do indeed act like a herded cow, and so do my fellow academics. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune in an ungainly outfit, and then with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison moving rhythmically just like the her do cattle waiting to obediently rush down a chute, at the end of which we might, ro all we know, be devoured. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like the potted plants on stage. In fact, when I sat on a stage recently in Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students and their families felt.

But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings.

Honoratioren are invited for their notability and prestige, are there to make such rituals work, for the professional who Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber says Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting sheep,” content and sated notables who herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1]

We potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at the other ends of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00. Or if you are in a legislative body, or corporate board of directors, the meeting is held in Las Vegas, Hawaii, or some other luxury place where the vanity of the Honoratioren is most easily plied with drink, food, song, and sex.

Being so plied indeed is part of the job of an Honoratioren, where you grimly hold onto an ethic that one hard-bitten politician explained was “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. Because yes indeed, we did not give into the sin of vanity.

The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, demurely pour the coffee, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren.

The lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” serve the coffee and shove files under our noses, to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered. We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly.

This is necessary because we Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, we don’t know that much about what we are doing; and are really only “dilletantes” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic sausage factory where real decisions are made.

Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).

But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s (and Rousseau’s) “herding bovine” metaphor is a good on—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?”

 

References

Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).

 

“Politics as Vocation” is One of Bill Clinton’s Very Favorite Books—But Our New Translation Doesn’t Have a Book Blurb!

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Earlier this year, my wife and I published a book Weber’s Rationalism, which included four new translations of Weber’s essays, including “Politics as Vocation.” President Bill Clinton lists on his web-site “Politics as Vocation” as being one 21 of his favorite all-time books, right up there with Yeats Poems, The Imitation of Christ, and his wife Hillary’s book Living History. I am of course intrigued about why one of the master politicians of this era thought so highly of Weber’s essay, and wrote to him via his web site. What would Bill Clinton think about how Weber wrote about the dangerous vanity of politicians, the assumption that politicians are always violent, while admitting that indeed, there are ways for the “true human” to be a good politician—“In Spite of it All!”

So I wrote Clinton at his office in New York to tell him about our new translation, to inquire about the possibility of getting a book blurb—admittedly an audacious request. Such favors, as Weber notes, are primarily for “table companions,” political Honoratioren,” and the other who whirl around the politician basking in power. I knew this well from translating Weber. But still it was a small request, and I hoped for at least a polite “no thanks” from one of his staffers.

Then this week, the reason why I did not get a response to my emails—not even a courteous “no thanks” from a staffer—became more apparent. I do not pay to play. News stories of the last week highlight how much the Clintons ask to speak or consult. I don’t pay, so I guess, so no response. (Actually I do pay sometimes—earlier this year I paid $35 to publish a cartoon!) Anyway, should have listened more closely to the cynical Max Weber inside of me!

But despite it all, I do indeed have some nice book blurbs, two from important Weber scholars, and a third one from an important political scientist. They all highly recommend our translation, and they did so simply as an academic courtesy to the publisher.

Speaking of academic courtesy, here is a commentary that the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Schmidt, once wrote about Weber’s essay, “Politics as Vocation”—he gave it as a speech to the Kant Congress in 1981 (in German).

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

My Mass Grave Rediscovered!

In 1994-1995 I helped finance and dig a mass grave on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.   This happened because the refugee assistance agency I worked (TCRS) removed bodies from the Kagera River from June 1994-June 1995. Tanzanians were hired to first clean up the bodies that were there from earlier months when the genocide was occurring, and after that to make a “net” to catch any other bodies which might float down the river from whatever source.  The “Body Project” during this time took 917 bodies (or so) out of the river. 311 came out in June-July, 1994, which is when the genocide was still going on. But then 606 more victims came down the river after the genocide was “over” and caught in the net we made. These were fresh bodies who often arrived with their hands tied behind their back, and a bullet in the head. We asked one of the Rwandan border guards from the new government who the floaters might be, and he said they were either victims of the genocide committed by the former government, or perhaps had committed suicide. It was clear from what he said that there was to be no blame for the new government.

We tried to imagine the gymnastics involved with tying your hands behind your back, shooting yourself in the head, and then jumping in the river. Somehow it didn’t compute.

Anyway, we made reports to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who passed the reports up to Geneva, where there was finally some view that perhaps things were not as peaceful as the new Rwandan government asserted. This was important at the time because the international community very much wanted the refugees to return to Rwanda so that they would not have to pay to succor them in the large Tanzanian refugee camps established in 1994.

Which caused us to wonder: Who was sending us these bodies, and what were they trying to say to us and the world? Here is what I wrote in January 1995 after a particularly busy December when 80 new victims came floating down the river:

So who is sending bodies to TCRS’s “body project” so faithfully? Is it the new Rwandan government? A revitalized Interahamwe militia [from the old government]? Both? I still do not know. However, my own conclusion after six months of collecting and burying 700 bodies is that both sides like the polarizing effects that bodies in the river creates among the 400,000 Hutu refugees in nearby Ngara refugee camps. The Hutu militants of course want the population to remain the refugee camps so they can organize a resistance movement. The Rwandan government on the other hand is avoiding the politically untenable consequences of…the millions of Hutus outside Rwanda returning. Seemingly, the bodies in the river serve both parties. Certainly, this would explain the ambivalence both sides have for the continuing appearance of bodies in the Kagera River.

Bob 2

In the strange world I lived in at the time, 917 bodies did not seem all that much—after all the death toll from the genocide and its aftermath is typically estimated at 800,000. At many of these sites in Rwanda, there are today massive memorials, and a national holiday when respects are made there. Forensic anthropologists sometimes go to evaluate how the victims, who were killed by the former Rwandan government. They evaluate how they died, and seek to identify victims, most of whom were from the minority Tutsi group who were the target of the genocide.

TCRS made a memorial too—a monument with words in four languages (English, French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda) which was dedicated in 1996 just before I left Tanzania, and then forgotten. After all, our memorial was a couple of kilometers inside Tanzania, and the victims probably included a lot of victims from the new (and current) government of Rwanda. So our memorial had weeds grow up around it. No memorial services, and no archaeologists. No on has ever contact me, either, even though I published about it in my 2001 book Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan. As for victims, only one has ever been identified—Ngirabatware son of Rubashurwelere whose Rwandan i.d. was sticking out of his pocket, and given to me in August 1994 still smelling of his death. For what it is worth, he is a Hutu, not Tutsi.

Bob 1

Our memorial was rediscovered in 2009, according to press reports, and there are plans to create a memorial there as well, according to later reports.  So my mass grave was lost and found in a period of 14 years. In the process, though, the memorial has become a “genocide” memorial—which means that the fact that so many of the victims were post-genocide execution victims, and arrived in Tanzania after the genocide ended is forgotten.

As for Ngirabatware, the Hutu victim we buried, I have never heard from his family, despite publishing his name in my book (p. 195).   He was born in 1957 and is from Cyabinbungu prefecture. He had four daughters born between 1980 and 1992. Maybe they are still in Rwanda wondering what happened to their father.