Is grad school a cult?

I recently stumbled across an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which “Thomas Benton” (a pen name) makes the case that graduate school is something like a cult. He’s driven to this conclusion largely by his sense that most graduate students, especially in the humanities, would be better served outside academia. He quotes the following rules of thumb for identifying a cult, taken from the anti-cult Freedom of Mind Center webpage:

  • Behavior control: “major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals”; “need to ask permission for major decisions”; “need to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors.”
  • Information control: “access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged (keep members so busy they don’t have time to think)” and “extensive use of cult-generated information (newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.).”
  • Thought control: “need to internalize the group’s doctrine as ‘Truth’ (black and white thinking; good vs. evil; us vs. them, inside vs. outside)” and “no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate.”
  • Emotional control: “excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)”; “phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave”; and “from the group’s perspective, people who leave are ‘weak,’ ‘undisciplined.'”

Of course, there are plenty of points to pick at — it may speak more to the “definition” given above than it does to grad school — but I think it’s an interesting observation.

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One Response to Is grad school a cult?

  1. jwambaugh says:

    I think this may be one of those spectrum issues; that is, cult-like aspects underpin many human social organizations to varying degrees. So, much like anyone studying psychological order medical illness for the first time, it is very easy to recognize aspects that are pathological in the extreme without them necessarily being pathological. On the other hand (and not having read the article yet), I do think there may be many benefits to not doing grad school that are minimized within academia to the disadvantage of grad students. I remember that when I was booted out of Georgia Tech that I was frankly told that I would make more money in the long run if I began work at a National Lab with a Master’s degree and accrued five-seven years of experience than if I started over and got a Ph.D.. I definitely think that advice was true although I enjoy the freedom I have to research more than the money I might have had. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what “they” want me to think… šŸ™‚

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