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, April 25, 2014

Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker

            In a few days, Penguin will release the 10th Anniversary edition of my 2004 book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. I wrote a long new preface to update the book. Over the next two or three blogs, I will reprint some essays and commentaries I’ve been writing to coincide with the publication of this edition. A lot has happened since 2004 that is relevant to the book’s themes: from continued changes in work and the way work is understood, to developments in Career and Technical Education, to the emergence of the Makers Movement.

            The blog below was a contribution to a forum in the March/April, 2014 issue of the Boston Review. The lead essay was titled “How Finance Gutted Manufacturing” by MIT political scientist Suzanne Berger. The gist of Professor Berger’s argument is that the growing dominance of the financial industry in our economy has contributed to the decline of manufacturing. Stock market pressure to streamline and turn fast profits has stifled innovation in the creation and production of goods. You can read Berger’s essay here as well as all the commentaries on it. My commentary concerns the effects of the situation she describes on workers.

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In her thought-provoking essay, Professor Berger argues that our dominant financial strategies and incentives hamper innovation. She also suggests that these strategies are not good for workers either, and I would like to elaborate that point.

            Because of the transformations Berger describes, there are fewer apprenticeships for entry-level workers and fewer opportunities for in-house training. Some industries do establish partnerships with local community colleges to train students for specialty manufacturing or tech service jobs, though these arrangements are ad hoc and often short-term. On the whole, the arrangements do not emerge from a more comprehensive workforce development strategy.

            But even if a miracle happened and tomorrow a major shift occurred in the relationship of finance and manufacturing, we’d still be faced with a limiting web of cultural assumptions about certain types of work and the workers who do them—assumptions that would put a drag on the desired revitalization of manufacturing and innovation.
           
            Our egalitarian ethos not withstanding, there is a tendency in the United States to attribute lower intelligence to those who work with their hands. There are counter-examples, of course—culture is a complex business—but the tendency is manifest in the dynamics of occupational status, in the history of vocational education, and in the myriad injuries of social class, from negative editorial characterizations of the intelligence of 19th century laborers to the guy installing my washer who tells me that customers treat him and his co-worker “like mules.” Similar attitudes exist about the work itself. In an earlier MIT report on industrial productivity, a senior executive at a major U.S. corporation wondered if “smart people” were needed in manufacturing.

            This tendency to denigrate entire categories of work and workers is amped up in our high tech era. While there certainly are important distinctions to be made between the work of today and that of a generation or two ago, the commonplace “old economy–new economy” distinction leads to some terribly glib and inaccurate binary characterizations. The work of our time demands new “21st century skills” of problem-solving, trouble-shooting, and communication—as though the work of previous eras didn’t—for new work is “neck-up” versus “neck down” in nature. Consider this not atypical summary from an award-winning management book, “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone, in the Information Age intellect and passion—mind and heart—are also essential.” The significant cognitive content of physical work—some of which I detail in The Mind at Work—gets erased in such comparisons.

            Another element in this depiction of the American worker as inadequate is the much-discussed “gap” or “mismatch” between the skills workers possess and the skills needed by today’s industries. Granted that some job applicants have had poor educations and some lack the technological savvy that would give them a leg up, the ubiquity of the skills gap discourse further stigmatizes the American worker—and, according to Wharton management scholar, Peter Cappelli, masks a discomforting truth. It’s not that entering workers are necessarily inadequate, it’s that the apprenticeships and in-house training that provided the necessary skills for a previous generation have diminished. What in fact is an erosion of opportunity is transformed into yet another deficiency of the American worker.

            Along with contemporary changes in corporate structure has come a reinforcement—even an intensification—of negative and reductive ways of characterizing American workers. One result is an inaccurate assessment of the potential of those directly involved in production. Another is disinvestment in the educational programs and training that create a robust work force, from shop floor to market. If we hope to realize the innovative potential of manufacturing, we will have to address not only the structural dynamics that Professor Berger describes, but cultural ones as well.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the over-intellectualization of this whole notion. I believe instead of figuring out decade to decade what is working or for that matter the distinction between "working class" vs. what is "white collar" vs. our students vs. English classes vs. automotive repair vs traditional liberal arts vs school validation we need only return to Walt Whitman and others; the idea that "working class" is as valid as or more valid than all the "schooling" which seems not to be helping any under-privileged economic population to rise any higher than at any other time in history. There is a very slippery slope in discussing "class" in the U.S. to begin with. Why don't we reiterate the value of pre-existing poetry, philosophy, literature, etc bring back the Whitman the Emerson the Thoreau instead of arguing how some "line of work" or another either matters or doesn't or whether capabilities are race based - economic based - class based?? whether the opportunities we afford minorities are working or not working ...whether those people affording minorities are themselves minorities with an agenda of their own... whether old dead white guys actually destroyed education?? 100 years of pedagogical debate has gotten us nowhere in helping students. We need to re-introduce the universal vehicles of change -- the universal vehicles of introspection - the universal values which all human beings share. The questions which all races and religions ponder? Where are the facilitators? Can we please ditch the "teachers" with their frozen priorities?