I spent the morning rereading the comments on my eight entries spanning August to November. The entries concern work, education, opportunity, and politics—and most of them were in some way linked to the presidential election. It was a nice, quiet morning, a little brisk but warm at the desk by the garden window.
There were 31 reader posts, some a sentence or two long, others paragraphs and paragraphs. Many contained stories about work, or reflections on education and opportunity, or expressions of concern or hope about our political culture and its future.
A number of people wrote with great feeling about family and friends who work with their hands, paying tribute to their knowledge and skill and to the opportunity they created for others, in some cases for the writer her or himself. A woman writes about her father, a factory worker, figuring out a more effective and safer way to move heavy materials on the factory floor. And an anonymous writer—who was once a waitress herself—honors her waitress mother coming home exhausted from the graveyard shift. While her mother slept, the writer would count the tips in a worn, black apron, the tips that helped keep the family afloat. I remember doing this very thing.
There is a portrait of a railroad worker inebriated at the end of the day, labor behind him, declaiming in the middle of a small-town street lines from Shakespeare. And there are childhood memories from another writer of Italian construction workers in my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania. In addition to homage and memory, there are contemporary accounts of favorite restaurateurs, hairstylists, gardeners, even a chimney sweep. And a lovely point gets made about these workers: The importance of relationship, of familiarity and history, of trust—the giving oneself over to another person’s skill and workmanship.
All this becomes part of community, helps create it. One person writes of going to the same diner for forty years and the sense of belonging, even solidarity that fosters. Another writer quotes the manager of a favorite restaurant. He talks about the value of having a “third space,” a place in addition to home and work where you feel accepted. We share each others lives in such places.
There’s a Whitmanesque quality to all these tributes taken together: A celebration of a wide sweep of the citizenry, the work they/we do, our interconnectedness. I also think here of another American treasure, Jane Jacobs, who in The Death and Life of Great American Cities testifies to the importance of the street, the vibrant mix of apartments and shops and pedestrians, of mingling and interdependence in a common public space.
As I’ve been trying to argue in this last series of blogs—and generally in The Mind at Work—there are civic and political implications for the way we think about labor, intelligence, and the meaning of work, and a number of readers commented on this cluster of issues. In America we do live amidst an awful tangle of attitudes about intelligence: who’s intelligent, how intelligence is defined, its association with formal schooling, backlash to that association, a mean aristocratic streak in the culture in tension with a dangerous populist anti-intellectualism. Several wrote about teaching in the midst of this cultural mess, “working with students whose intelligence is obvious but who hold vastly different interests” than those represented in the traditional school curriculum but that hold real merit in the world of physical work.
Various writers decried our anti-intellectualism and the way some politicians play to it, the cynical manipulation of it. Several underscored the desperate need for critical thinking, for developing a healthier strain of it in civic life.
This leads to something I’ve been pondering for a while: The personification of the citizen that emerges in political speech. That is, who is the “American citizen” created in, say, FDR’s Fireside Chats, or Reagan’s “Morning in America” speech, or George Bush’s speeches after September 11, 2001, or Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention address or his speech on race? George W. Bush’s former Chief-of-Staff Andy Card once said that the President saw Americans as children he needed to protect. In several of my blog entries I wish for a much different construction of the citizen in political speech, for political discourse helps create a citizenry.
In line with this is my desire for a political environment that has mass educational potential, that instructs and encourages deliberation. A potent example is Obama’s speech on race. Whether you thought it was marred by missteps and omissions, or that it didn’t go far enough, it was still unlike any national political speech in recent memory. Newscasters and commentators scrambled to characterize it, and, suddenly, the adjective “nuanced” emerged with…well, with surprise. Nuance was that unfamiliar in political rhetoric.
There is so much national chatter about education, raising expectations and achievement, the need for 21st Century skills, etc. yet on the civic level we veer continually toward the shallow, the culture-war caricature, the sound-bite over substance (the average length of a president candidate’s television sound-bite in 1968 was 42 seconds, by 2000 it was 7.8 seconds), and debate formats that you wouldn’t find on the high-school circuit. We surely can do better.
Some blog readers expressed a cautious optimism, fearful, though, that our national strains of bigotry and xenophobia could trump an appeal to our better angels. But some writers expressed a deep, weighty hope—an act of faith, perhaps—that we might generate a different, more thoughtful, more democratic political culture.
I want to close by returning to the act of reading this last four months worth of posts. I started the blog at the end of February, 2008, and I think that I’m just now understanding something about the potential power and beauty of the medium.
Perhaps because I read the 31 posts all in one setting, I was struck by the choral quality of the experience, the many voices playing off the various themes of the blog entries. In their own tiny way, the comments, taken collectively, represent the kind of community of voices so many of us long for on a larger scale.
All you commenters—and all other readers, too—please chime in, keep us talking.