About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, August 8, 2008

Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote

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.


Deborah Meier said...

Hi Mike,

How appropriate this message is. Interestingly even when physical labor pays well we assume it requires less intelligence. Many manual trades pay better than white collar jobs and yet they carry with them this stigma--which then becomes a matter of pride. There's a history of past humiliations in this fierce pride, and the anger toward schooled elites.

The way to "prestige" is through formal schooling. When we founded the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards we were imitating the medical field, which in turn dragged itself out of its previous state of poverty by claiming the need for more and more "academic" credentials. To be a "professional" one needs a diploma. It has a Wizard of z quality--remember that scene when he confers intelligence, heart, etc??? Although, of course, we know that they already had them. I suspect that was an intentional spoofing of academia.

It's a dangerous double-edged sword--it hurts in both directions, and impoverishes society and divides fellow Americans along phony lines. In short, this is a far more important subject than most realize, and one of the "hidden injuries" of our schooling histories. I'm so glad you are sticking with this because it insidiously creeps into every aspect of our culture--including, of course, presidential politics.

Thanks agin.


p.s. I just called my "chimney sweep" to get an estimate on some work related to getting a new furnace. He was once a high school biology teacher and decided he needed a respite from the back-biting at his school. He loves this work and has been a great ally in my years of living in the country. In fact, as in many manual jobs there is far more autonomy in chimney work than in professional or office jobs! Reality and stereotypes just don't match.

Kate Chanock said...

Dear Mike,
It is dispiriting. And most insulting, I think, is a candidate who cultivates in themselves new prejudices and stupidities to appeal to a constituency to whom they attribute these prejudices and stupidities -- seeking to persuade them that they've been disrespected by people who DON'T attribute those things to them and therefore ignore the "need" to represent them.

Your last entry brought to my mind the expression "working stiff", I guess because it's a related, and similarly dispiriting, bit of language -- suggesting not the stiffness that comes of purposive movement such as you describe, but "stiff" as in a corpse -- suggesting that you might as well be dead as doing some kinds of work, and essentially, you already are. It's not that I don't understand where that feeling comes from; just that the phrase then stakes out a place in our collective imagination, crowding out what we know about the intelligence of physical work.

We've talked about the intelligence of hairdressing, which I discovered as an academic when I was asked to write a hairdressing curriculum, and had to learn the basics in order to think about how to learn them. That was a revelation to me, just in that I'd grown up in the kind of family where if you wanted to conjure up a real airhead, somebody who was wasting their life, you thought of a hairdresser. (Needless to say, none of us looked like we'd ever been to a hairdresser....)And after thinking on the drive to work today, I'd like to add taxi driving to your list. I realised this in Istanbul where, as a taxi driver explained what was going on all around us (and I was flinching and covering my eyes), there is only one road rule: that you don't hit a car that's ahead of you. If everyone follows it, nobody gets hurt -- and it turned driving into a sort of dance, with great bodily concentration doing the job that's done in more rule-bound countries by the rest of the rules of the road.


jotterne said...

This is not about the intelligence needed in manual labor but rather about a time when my understanding was changed. I grew up in a small Minnesota farm town - 800 people or so. There was a crew working on the railroad and they would come into town on the weekend ( Saturday when traditionally all the stores stayed open until 9 - the bars later.) I was perhaps 10 and walking home with a couple of friends and one of the track workers whose name I can only recall as Mickey. Mickey had had a few drinks and as we walked down the street at dusk, Mickey was declaiming lines from Shakespeare and other writers whose name i didn't recognize. To me at that age, used to hearing the adults disparage manual laborers - especially those who worked the tracks- it was a jolt to my sense of reality - these guys were smart! It must have had an effect since it's been on my mind for 60 years now and it had an effect on my teaching and the people I have met. I wish I could say "Thanks, Mickey for the lesson."

American Puzzle said...

In America, we tend to de-value what we don't understand. I love this essay and how you articulate the assumptions made about manual work and the people who perform these tasks. Like Deborah Meier, I also know people who have chosen a life or a career (even temporarily) that involves manual labor - highly skilled and highly educated people who decided, for various reasons, that they wanted a different type of life. We have gotten so far away from the Transcendentalists' belief in the dignity of manual labor. Not that 19th century America embraced that idea wholeheartedly either, but at least there was a movement and a well-educated group of people who were trying to encourage the larger population to recognize the value and dignity in working with your body, hands, AND mind. Has there EVER been a moment in human history when a society valued manual labor as an intelligent activity?

Cindy Howard said...

Cindy Howard

While I realize that you have not updated your bog on the topic of Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote, Part Two within the last year, I had to add my comments to the subject as it came very close to home for me. As one of the many sons and daughters growing up in a small West Virginia town with my family, Blue Collar was and is our middle name. To me, it is a sense of pride that comes from my family’s heritage. While my father did not work in the coal mines, he was and is a retired chemical plant worker; a maintenance man that worked as an insulator for the company. My grandfathers and uncles shared similar job descriptions. My mother, one of the few for her era, while never attending college, worked outside of the home with the town accountant. She completed the yearly taxes for most in our town, while her boss signed off on them. Being a teacher, I am considered a White Collar worker, but I know without a doubt that there are great intelligences within my family of Blue Collar relatives. They were the beginning point of me as well as countless cousins that attended and successfully graduated courses of study from accredited colleges and universities. As odd as it sounds, I believe that my father thought himself that Blue Collar workers were not as “good” as White Collar workers. I remember him telling me that I would go to college. It was not an option. He didn’t want me to work in the physical labor world that surrounded him and much of his generation. He told me that he did not want me to, “come home from work dirty, sweaty, and tired.” Well dad, I do come home tired or mentally drained on many occasions after a day of teaching, and I am often covered in marker, ink, and playground dirt and wonder if my life wouldn’t be easier if I had a Blue Collar position. The grass…is it greener?

Today I live in an urban area, just outside of Savannah, Georgia. Teaching for the last 17 years in a successful educational system, I work with students from all types of families, of both Blue Collar and White Collar heritage. I will tell you that the color of the parents’ collar means little within the walls of a public education classroom. Children learn. Children have different interests and thinking skills. Children learn differently, think differently, and will grow up to follow the different paths that their goals and hearts take them to. As the teacher of these students, I must communicate with their parents in language that they can all understand. I would not expect a doctor to speak to me using only medical terms anymore that I would like for my mechanic to talk to me using mechanical language. We all, when discussing our futures, our children, must speak the same language.

Teaching is the job that I do wearing my White Collar blouse over my Blue Collar heart.

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