What’s Going On, Actually

When I was younger, I loved learning, and I enjoyed visiting college campuses. I thought these institutions were about Learning and The Life of the Mind and so on and so forth, and it made me happy to see these grand old buildings, all dedicated to a higher purpose.

Part of why I had such a rough time at Harvard was because I kept thinking it was about The Life of the Mind, whereas in many ways it was A Prestige and Capital Accumulation Factory with a Small Sideline in Classroom Instruction:

I was trying to learn things that would enrich me for life, while the school was trying to teach me exactly what I would need to work 100 hours a week for McKinsey & Co without complaint, and no more.

While there were of course individual teachers, departments and so on dedicated to a higher purpose, if a student such as myself was unfortunate enough to slam head-on into the undiluted “vibe” of the university, the vibe was “Fuck You, Peon.”

Anyways. Covid has shown me that I’ve made the same mistakes in my assumptions about other institutions. Take the institution of Medicine. It is not, as I previously thought, about Healing the Sick With the Power of Reproducible Science. Instead, medicine is apparently a Prestige-and-Money Factory with an Occasional Sideline in the Scientific Method (once all other methods are exhausted).

This is why, for example, you see photos of doctors at Infectious Disease conferences where none of them are wearing masks. “But,” you think, “They are literally doctors in Infectious Disease?! Gathering in-person, unmasked, during an airborne plague? Either I am having a psychotic break or something is very very wrong?”

If you think of them as “Doctors of Science” then of course none of their behavior makes sense. But if you think of Doctoring as a kind of big club, where you go to a club meeting and say “Heeeyyyy, Jack, how’s that golf game going? Let me slap you upon the back and we shall revel in our elevated status, together! Ho Ho!” then of course it makes sense. For them, going to medical school was just paying their dues to get into the club, and once they’re in the club they care mostly about staying in the club and not much else.

The problems arise of course when foolish people such as myself naively believe that a Doctor of Science must be interested in Science, that institutions that teach philosophy must be interested in Truth and Justice, that large religious organizations that follow the teachings of Jesus must be interested in the Poor, and so forth and so on.


In short, in every institution, there are the people who are there because of the institution’s higher or abstract ideals such as Learning, Music, Jesus, Sports, Science, etc. etc., and then there are the people who are there to leverage their abilities to gain power inside the institution and then leverage the institution to gain power in the world at large.

And there’s always some of each, but I always thought of the latter as the minority, but now I am not so sure.

Of course, it was ever thus. The hounding and ridicule that poor Ignatz Semmelweiss received for daring to suggest that perhaps when delivering babies, one should first wash one’s hands after Fun Cadaver Time, is legendary and disheartening. But this story used to be taught as, “Ha ha, see how ignorant and clubby doctors were *back then*, not like we are now in our advanced modern age!”

I guess we are all still prestige-seeking people looking for an in-group to belong to, and occasionally doing something great along the way, in spite of it all.