In a Mad in America blog post examining why seemingly disproportionate numbers of anti-authoritarians are diagnosed with various mental disorders, psychologist Bruce Levine — definitely an anti-authoritarian himself — looks at how professional and graduate schools train individuals to be compliant:
Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities.
…In graduate school, I discovered that all it took to be labeled as having “issues with authority” was to not kiss up to a director of clinical training whose personality was a combination of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and Howard Cosell.
This training creates a cohort of mental health professionals with authoritarian biases:
I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. And it also has become clear to me that the anti-authoritarianism of their patients creates enormous anxiety for these professionals, and their anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.
Bullying and mobbing in academe
I won’t claim any expertise to parse the implications of Dr. Levine’s thesis for mental health diagnosis and treatment generally, but I find that his commentary illuminates our understanding of bullying and mobbing behaviors in academe. After all, many professors are products of this very socialization process.
First, the value placed on compliance empowers some to bully others who won’t go along. A minor “rebellion” such as declining to follow a suggestion for revising a paper or dissertation, or a major one such as refusing to vote a certain way at a meeting, can trigger retaliatory responses. Graduate students and junior faculty are especially at risk in this regard.
Second, the embrace of authority explains the frequency of “puppet master” bullying and genuine mobbing in academic workplaces. Especially in academic workplaces that cannot tolerate dissent or diversity of opinion, individuals seen as not being with the program may face an onslaught of hostility or isolation. These behaviors may be inflicted on anyone, ranging from a graduate student to a senior tenured professor.
Even when the prevailing value system does not prompt abusive behavior, it can create a damaging culture of conformity. Last year I wrote about how academic careers are shaped to fit within the box, at a significant cost to intellectual inquiry and academic freedom:
OK, so higher education is all about academic freedom, thinking about and expressing significant ideas, and challenging students to think outside the box, right?
Well, not nearly as often as you might think. Aspiring professors would do well not to be seen as being daring or bold. Those seeking academic appointments are counseled to stay on the good sides of their advisors, even if it means tempering their own views.
Tenure-track faculty are advised to play the same cautious game when it comes to courting those who will be voting on their tenure applications and reviewing their work. Engaging in some vigorous bootlicking doesn’t hurt, either.
The end result can be a disappointing one: Once junior faculty have jumped through the tenure hoops successfully, all too many of them have been conditioned not to test the academic freedom protected by their tenured status.
What is academic tenure? (2011)
Hat tip to Dr. Maryanne Spurgin for the Levine article.