As we head into August, I would like to orient some of the entries on this blog toward the election. So we’ll consider education, work, and social policy with an eye on November 2.
I’ll begin with a revision of an opinion piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Times a while back. I’m convinced – though I haven’t fully worked out the argument – that one way to bridge the cultural and emotional divide between the Democratic party and some working-class voters is not only to respond to the bread and butter issues they face but, as well, to demonstrate understanding of the detail and texture of their daily lives.
I’d love to hear from readers on this issue.
I am watching a carpenter install a set of sliding French doors into a tight wall space. He stands back, chin in hand, surveying the frame, his eyes moving over it. I ask him what he is doing. He says he is “picturing the door in my mind.” He is imagining the pieces as he would assemble them, thinking, for example, how the threshold will have to angle down so that the rain will run off it. He is also picturing the sliding panels moving across the stationary ones, and considering where problems might develop. As well, he is imagining the look of the casings that came with the door, and realizing that they’re too big, given the other woodwork in the room, and trying to visualize alternative casings he could fashion.
The carpenter is assembling the French doors in his mind’s eye and is also reflecting on them, and the mental work he’s doing involves both the function of the doors as well as their appearance. This is intellectually rich. But you won’t find mention of such intelligence in the typical political speech this election season – even from Democrats.
Blue-collar and service workers are addressed and invoked, of course, but usually in the context of healthcare, job security, and the like. These bread and butter issues are critical ones. But when the working class is celebrated, the tribute is typically some combination of the economic contribution labor has made to the country and the value of the work ethic. What is curious is that we rarely hear about the intelligence that goes into work, the thought it takes to do work, any work, well. I grew up watching among my family and their friends the daily display of know-how, strategy, sound judgment, and tricks of the trade. And a while back I spent six years studying the thinking involved in physical work, exploring the way knowledge is gained and used strategically in trade schools and job sites, in businesses ranging from the restaurant to the welding shop. And I’ve been struck by the intellectual demands of what I saw.
Consider what a good waitress has to do in the busy restaurant: remember orders and monitor them, attend to a dynamic, quickly changing environment, prioritize tasks and manage the flow of work, make decisions on the fly. The carpenter regularly uses a number of mathematical concepts – symmetry, proportion, congruence, the properties of angles – and develops the ability to visualize these concepts while building a cabinet, a flight of stairs, a pitched roof…or those French doors. The hairstylist’s practice is a mix of technique, knowledge about the biology of hair, aesthetic judgment, and communication skill. The mechanic, electrician, and plumber are troubleshooters and problem solvers. Even the routinized factory floor calls for working smart. When has any of this made its way into our political speeches?
The omission, I think, points to a larger cultural issue: an underappreciation of – at times blindness to – the mental content of manual labor.
For some time, we in the United States have made distinctions between work of the hand and work of the mind, blue collar versus white collar. These distinctions do reflect real and consequential differences. Many types of white collar and professional work, for example, require a huge investment in formal schooling. And, on average, white-collar work leads to higher occupational status and income, more autonomy, and less physical risk. Little wonder that my parents, like most working class parents, wanted their offspring to move from blue collar to white.
But these distinctions carry with them unwarranted assumptions about the mental capacity of the people who do physical work. The assumptions have a long history, from portrayals of Eighteenth-Century mechanics as illiterate and incapable of participating in government to the autoworkers I heard labeled by one supervisor as “a bunch of dummies.” Such beliefs are intensified in our high-tech era. Listen to the language we use: new work involving electronic media and “symbolic analysis” is “neck up” while old style manufacturing or service work is “neck down.” In the body only. Mindless.
Judgments about intelligence carry great weight in our society, and we have a tendency to make sweeping assessments of people’s intelligence based on the kind of work they do. Political tributes to labor over the next three or four months, especially around Labor Day, will render the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but few will also celebrate the thought bright behind the eye, offer no image that links hand and brain.
It would be fitting, in a country with an egalitarian vision of itself to have a truer, richer sense of all that is involved in the wide range of work that surrounds and sustains us. And I think that those politicians who can communicate that sense will tap a deep reserve of neglected feeling.
Judgments about intelligence affect our sense of who we are and what we can do, as individuals and as a society. If we think that whole categories of people, identified by their occupations, are not that intelligent, then we reinforce the social separations that divide us and constrict the kind of civic life we can imagine.