Swigging the Koolaid

Getting a PhD in history has many of the characteristics of mind-control or a cult. Here are some common techniques of mind-control as described by a Berkeley professor, with parenthetical comments about how they apply to academia (see here for more detail).

  • Use strong in-group language that shapes the way we can think about things. (Jargon)
  • Cause members to think about the group most of the time.
  • Give rewards for conformity in language, dress and behavior. (Academics certainly watch what we say. And while the [dowdy] norms for dress and behavior are relatively loose compared to the army or a lawyer’s office, we still very rarely diverge from those norms.)
  • Attack members’ old concept of self, and encourage a new concept. (This is what we call ‘education’: making people think differently about the norms they grew up with, ‘opening their horizons,’ and  implying that old patterns of thinking are racist, sexist, chauvinist, elitist, uneducated or otherwise lunkheaded.)
  • Offer members something they want, and say it can only be achieved through commitment to the group. (Life of the mind, search for knowledge, summer vacations, tenure, full professorship).
  • Instill a sense of powerlessness. (Talk to anybody going through a comprehensive exam, a job search or tenure process about how they feel.)
  • Strong peer monitoring with feedback to the group. (Academia is an endless process of self-policing: applications, exams, reviews, defenses, comments, discussants, question-and-answer.)
  • Have people in power who are skilled at never losing an argument or admitting wrongness. (That is what we are trained to do.)
  • Get members involved in the initiation of new followers, giving us a stake in the group. (Our students! And even students initiate other students.)
  • Establish an endless structure of rungs and initiations, and insist that the great revelation will come if we only stick to it with faith and determination. (Admissions, exams,  defenses, job applications, grants and promotions. As if liberation will finally came with tenure. But what we get instead are new anxieties and a personality that is so habituated to anxiety that we can not even admit it to ourselves).
  • Make people feel guilty for questioning the structure. (Any questioning of academia itself only proves we are not smart enough or don’t work hard enough. And we have plenty of outlets for our frustration in our constant criticisms of each other, and of those who gained success only by gaming the system.)
  • Exert control over multiple dimensions of a person’s life–replacing family as the main locus of security (income, health insurance, housing, schooling for children, vacation time, retirement funds).
  • Reduce ties to outside relationships. (How many families ever really understand what you are doing and why for so long when you get a PhD? So few of us feel we could ever go back to a ‘real’ job.)
  • Instill a fear of leaving the group. (Failure! Incompetence! Impossibility of reintegration into society!)

It is not perfect mind control. There are a few things the university is not very good at. We don’t induce trances, chanting or other altered states, however hard we may try in seminars and lectures. Our concentration of power and leadership is also imperfect. Too many of us don’t take university administration seriously. And within a department, we are all rampant egoists and individualists (although our constant struggles against each other can obsessively bind us to each other nearly as much as group-building activity).

Our group work with disciples is excellent, however. I once saw a documentary about U.S. prisoners of war in Korea that (for me at least) drew out the similarities between ‘brainwashing’ and the university. They prisoners were first held in a North Korean camp, where they were beaten and starved. Then the Red Cross intervened, and they were moved to a Chinese camp. They said they were well-fed and never beaten, but it was even worse. “We had to go to school every day. We learned how American imperialists were hurting the world, why people resented us. We began to internalize it. We started to doubt our own identities.” The documentary called it ‘brainwashing,’ but the techniques were not much different than university seminars. We encourage students to talk about what they have read and how it is relevant to them. We then reiterate what they said, in the context of our preferred words and theories. Over time, they learn to say what they want in phrases that approximate ours, and in the essay format that we require. And once they have developed an ability to regurgitate in an effective manner, we praise them for having learned, for having expanded their minds. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades–but many students embrace the new identities willingly. Over time, the new ways of expressing and understanding themselves and the world around start to get internalized, and the old ways of thinking slip away, remnants of an uneducated youth.

It turns out that really effective mind control is hard work, and most of us—be we communist cadres or professors or priests—aren’t that good at it or don’t have ideal circumstances in which to do it. It works best in small groups in nearly constant contact, isolated from the larger world, and under the guidance of a very charismatic personality with a few devoted assistants. So our successes are partial, and the priests complain that that the parishoners keep backsliding, the professors complain that the students aren’t serious, and the cadres complain that the reactionaries are still subverting the revolution.

So why do we demonize some brainwashing/educational institutions as cults, while praising others as the cornerstones of our societies—teams, corporations, armies, political parties, families, universities? It can not be because cults demand near-exclusive devotion and even self-sacrifice. Would a good football team, military squadron, wife and child, nation, or 70+ hours-per-week professional job demand any less? Nor can it be that they shut down free thinking. The techniques to shape thinking and emotions are the same across cults and non-cults. It is more likely that cults promote skepticism of conventional norms. But universities and even political parties do that to some extent–and internal corporate and military documents often express contempt of those norms. No, that is not it.

I think the big difference is that cults promote withdrawal from the larger society, and encourage members to look inward.  Rather than engaging with or trying to control society, they encourage members to look into their souls, or at least to look no farther than the exclusive knowledge of the group.

Because, in the end, the techniques used by cults and for mind control are just the standard techniques used everywhere to promote group cohesion and strength. And the one thing that can not be tolerated are those who don’t want to go along with the group.


Posted on July 24, 2012, in Academic History, Society and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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