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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Monday, September 15, 2008

Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote, Part Two

In my entry for 08/08/08 "Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote" I said that I was trying to fashion these ideas into an opinion piece. Well, I finally did, and I offer it below. It appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on 09/11/08 (as "Blue-Collar America is Smarter Than You May Think").

LOS ANGELES - "They treat us like mules," the guy installing my washer tells me, his eyes narrowing as he wipes his hands. I had just complimented him and his partner on the speed and assurance of their work. He explains that it's rare that customers speak to him this way.

I know what he's talking about. My mother was a waitress all her life, in coffee shops and fast-paced chain restaurants. It was hard work, but she liked it, liked "being among the public," as she would say. But that work had its sting, too – the customer who would treat her like a servant or, her biggest complaint, like she was not that bright.

There's a lesson here for this political season: the subtle and not-so-subtle insults that blue-collar and service workers endure as part of their working lives. And those insults often have to do with intelligence.

We like to think of the United States as a classless society. The belief in economic mobility is central to the American Dream, and we pride ourselves on our spirit of egalitarianism. But we also have a troubling streak of aristocratic bias in our national temperament, and one way it manifests itself is in the assumptions we make about people who work with their hands.

Working people sense this bias and react to it when they vote. The common political wisdom is that hot-button social issues have driven blue-collar voters rightward. But there are other cultural dynamics at play as well. And Democrats can be as oblivious to these dynamics as Republicans – though the Grand Old Party did appeal to them in St. Paul.

Let's go back to those two men installing my washer and dryer. They do a lot of heavy lifting quickly – mine was the first of 15 deliveries – and efficiently, to avoid injury. Between them there is ongoing communication, verbal and nonverbal, to coordinate the lift, negotiate the tight fit, move in rhythm with each other. And all the while, they are weighing options, making decisions and solving problems – as when my new dryer didn't match up with the gas outlet.

Think about 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.

There's the carpenter using a number of mathematical concepts – symmetry, proportion, congruence, the properties of angles – and visualizing these concepts while building a cabinet, a flight of stairs, or a pitched roof.

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 smarts.

When has any of this made its way into our political speeches? From either party. Even on Labor Day.

Last week, the GOP masterfully invoked some old cultural suspicions: country folk versus city and east-coast versus heartland education. But these are symbolic populist gestures, not the stuff of true engagement.

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 two months will render the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps. But few will also celebrate the thought bright behind the eye, or offer an 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.

Those politicians who can communicate that sense will tap a deep reserve of neglected feeling. And those who can honor and use work in explaining and personalizing their policies will find a welcome reception.


  1. YES to every word about smart blue-collar workers! I'm reminded of my father, who worked all his life in factory jobs. Had he been born in another time and place, he probably would have been a highly paid engineer or would have taught engineering, as he was quite intelligent. But he supported a family of seven on the blue-collar southside of Chicago, fixing factory equipment and such for bosses who, I'm sure, considered him just another grease-stained guy on the work floor. On one such job he spent weeks -- voluntarily, in his spare time, giving himself a challenge -- coming up with a technique for lifting huge concrete blocks onto a conveyor belt, replacing his employer's cumbersome, undependable and downright dangerous method. I remember him coming home and excitedly explaining his breakthrough invention to me, and my listening only half-heartedly until suddenly it dawned on me that he had a headful of complex geometry and physics principles that he pulled together to solve that problem. My dad was a lot smarter than anyone gave him credit for.

    And now, enjoying my genetic inheritance, I get to sit in a cushy office all day, acting like a know-it-all -- occasionally reminding myself that the maintenance guys adjusting the heating vents and the guy choreographing package deliveries and the secretaries at their spreadsheets have plenty of smarts, too. Maybe they're even smarter than me.

  2. I often think about how attracted I was to the construction work many of the men in my family did (Italian-Americans living in Altoona, as a matter of fact!). And how easily I could have chosen to go in that direction instead of education. It was, in fact, a near thing between carpentry and teaching. Would I have been any less intelligent as a carpenter than I am sitting in my office at Lehman College? Absolutely not. I'm sure I would have cared just as deeply and learned just as much about that work as the work that I do.
    As a member of the New York City Writing Project (a group of educators helping teachers use writing to learn) your book, The Mind at Work, had a profound on me and my colleagues when we read it as a focus of an inquiry a few years ago. It put into words the ideas that we intuited as we taught students whose intelligence was obvious but who had vastly different interests that would lead them to all areas of work.

    As I read this latest entry it reminded me of how that book influenced my thinking. In March of 2009, the NYCWP will be having a Teacher-to-Teacher conference. 200 teacher from throughout the city will attend workshops given by other teachers. We will also have a keynote speaker. I think it would be wonderful if you were available to be that speaker. I know this is an unconventional way to ask, but if you think you might be available and interested, please contact me--Jbellacero@aol.com--and I'll provide more information.

    Joe Bellacero, Associate Director, NYCWP

  3. Mike,
    In reading your blog I found myself reflecting about working with teachers. In many ways, even though they all have at least a bachelor's degree, I feel there is a similar dynamic. I think part of it is the amount of bad professional development, the "teacher proof" curricula, and the amount of people who will tell them how to do their job right. There is always a feeling out period, where teachers are deciding whether I have something of value for them, how I will treat them, and whether or not I will stay working at the school.

    In some ways your blog made me think of professional developers/faculty members who work with teachers as different classes. Some faculty will go in and tell teachers what to do, not respecting teachers' knowledge and intelligence. So I understand the response I get and where teachers are coming from, but it's also sad that our view of teaching has come to this. It's possible that this is an oversimplification of the analogy, but the dynamics of working with teachers is very pronounced.

    It makes relationship building with teachers all the more important. Valuing their knowledge and negotiating the space for collaboration. It also means spending time in their classrooms, knowing their children and practices, and building from the bottom up. But in some ways, because society's views of teachers is so low, it means starting this all over again when moving schools. The entry just made me think about how classism plays out in the field of education as well.

  4. I absolutely agree that American culture/society judges the intelligence of individuals based upon their employment status. This form of social class judgment is nearly (if not completely) impossible to eradicate in any society.
    As our American culture overlooks the multiple intelligences of blue-collar workers, I find myself being disappointed not only in the under valuing of the blue-collar workers, but also in the notions of "supremacy" our culture likes to place on white-collar work. Perhaps "supremacy" is a strong word to use, but it's true that we naturally consider the intelligence and very worth of the individual to be greater or lesser based upon their employment status.

    Recently, I have been thinking about the huge pressures that some parents place on their children to get into college. It seems like getting into college is a making or breaking point for the child's life and will define the amount they are worth. If that child fails at meeting his or her parents expectations, then the child will feel like an idiot. It is sad to see that college (with white collar work in mind for the future) is seen as one of the greatest achievements in life. Yes, it takes dedication and a gifted individual to complete a college degree and participate in white collar work, but if that is the only option presented to children who are born of many different intelligences, then we will only continue in the pattern of a class-based society (no matter how subtle or how well we attempt to hide it).

  5. My first year writing students will write about their own work experience using Mind at Work. I also want to read op-ed pieces with them, so I'm looking for some related to the themes of the book. I'm thrilled to find this blog as one source. Whocan suggest others? Thanks.

  6. Dear Comp 101,

    Mike Rose here. I have some possible Op-Eds for you:

    “Extol Brains as Well as Brawn of the Blue Collar,” Los Angeles Times, (September 6, 2004).

    “How Should We Think About Intelligence?” Education Week, (September 22, 2004). Reprinted in California Schools (Winter, 2004).

    “The Mind Is Always at Work,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 4, 2005).

    “The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 2, 2006).

    “Americans Should Be More Respectful of Working People,” The Buffalo News (September 21, 2006).

    “How the Governor Can Advance ‘Career Tech,’” San Francisco Chronicle (March 26, 2007).

    “The Work is Hard, Never Mindless,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (August 31, 2007).