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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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Writing about Inequality

            This post is a reflection on the writing I’ve done over the years concerning economic and social inequality in our country. A slightly shorter version appeared in the May 16, 2014 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review.


For close to thirty-five years I’ve been writing about a cluster of issues that involve social class, education, and work: literacy, intelligence, academic underpreparation, and the purpose of schooling. Looking back on it all, it seems that I’ve been using writing for a long time to try to understand and portray the ways opportunity and inequality play out in American life. One of the challenges I’ve faced is rendering the kind of complexity I have found in the lives of the people I’ve interviewed. They bear witness to the damage wrought by inequality but also to the resilience and intelligence of those affected by it. Let me offer an example from close to home.

Several years before my mother died, I interviewed her about the waitressing she had done for much of her working life. She was pretty sick by then, but she liked to reminisce about her work and had keen recall of the details of restaurant service. We would clear off the kitchen table, and she would demonstrate taking orders and delivering them, talking about the way she would organize the flow of work and the memory tricks she’d use to remember who got the steak and who got the chicken sandwich. She could still balance plates along her right arm while holding tight to two cups and saucers. As well as I knew my mother, my interviews with her would reveal a more complex set of feelings and beliefs about work than I had imagined.

            Waitressing was physically punishing but provided my mother, a woman with a 6th grade education, a way to exercise some control over her life—she knew, she said, that she could always find work. A customer might be rude and insulting, but she defined such behavior as ignorance and mocked it with her co-workers. My mother grew up destitute and isolated in the domestic labor of her household, and waitressing enabled her to “be among the public,” a source of pride and enjoyment for her. That social exchange helped create an educational setting: “There isn’t a day that goes by…that you don’t learn something.” For all its constraints and demands, the restaurant provided the occasion for my mother to display a well-developed set of physical, social, and cognitive skills. It was her arena of competence.

            The interviews with my mother became the most personal part of The Mind at Work, a study documenting the significant cognitive content of physical work. The dynamics of social class and occupational status as well as our enchantment with high technology blinker our perception of the mental acuity involved in blue-collar and service occupations, waitressing to welding. I wrote what I called cognitive biographies of people like my mother, for so often our depiction of the inner lives of working-class people, and certainly of the poor, might give us fortitude or courage or, conversely, conflict and despair, but not a fuller picture of their intelligence and everyday creativity.

As I tried to capture this fuller picture, I drew on a range of disciplines—cognitive science to labor history to sociology and economics—consulting experts in each of these fields. Each discipline provided a different line of sight on inequality, brought into focus a particular aspect of it. I remember listening years ago to a lecture by an economist on the devastation of neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, an area I knew well, having grown up there and written about it. The economist was right on many levels: local industries were long gone, unemployment was high, street crime and gang violence plagued the area. But as he spoke, I kept thinking of the side streets where houses had mowed lawns and flowerbeds, where people had turned an empty lot into a community garden, where small churches distributed food and clothing. None of this negated the economist’s analysis, but could have enhanced it, an ethnographic portrayal that suggests a pulse of rejuvenation amid the terrible problems his analysis revealed.

            One of the likely differences between me and the economist is that we have different goals. He was presenting a quantitative summary of key trends for an audience of other scholars or of policymakers. In quite a different way, my work, I hope, also reaches some in those audiences. But I have another audience in mind as well: those affected by inequality. Two high school girls from South Central are watching a feature about their neighborhood on the evening news. The camera pans an empty street as the newscaster says this is like a Third-World country. The girls are more than aware of the poverty and danger in their neighborhood; they were just talking about it before the newscast. But they’re taken aback by the reporter’s characterization. “This isn’t the Third-World,” one says. “This is where we live.” My goal is to write in a way that combines the economist’s analysis with a more anthropological investigation of those side streets, a combination that might assure those girls that they and their community are more than the sum of economic indicators or a stigmatized catch-phrase, yet also get them to consider the broader forces impinging on their lives.

            To achieve this end, along with the use of multiple disciplines, I attempt to blend genres, to weave together analysis with narrative, descriptive detail with exposition. This experimentation began while writing Lives on the Boundary, a book about academic underpreparation in American schools and colleges and, therefore, about education and social class. I present, for example, vignettes of students struggling to make sense of a lecture in psychology or philosophy or to write a paper explicating a poem, and, as with the cognitive biographies I mentioned earlier, I try to convey not only these students’ backgrounds and the feelings triggered by their academic struggles but also their thought processes, the reasoning behind an error, or previously learned reading or writing strategies that don’t work now, or insight that gets lost in confusing syntax.

            These vignettes are set within a discussion of the history and sociology of underpreparation in higher education. I think that embedding such vignettes into an examination of the conditions that lead to them gives a conceptually more substantial account of underpreparation than would vignette or disciplinary analysis alone. Also, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems that this blend of genres resonates with students who themselves struggled in school. The pairing of vignette and analysis helps make the analysis come alive, humanizes it. Equally important, a story or descriptive portrait doesn’t stand alone, but connects to explanatory ideas. The people being portrayed aren’t lone actors, aren’t odd or unusual—there are reasons for their circumstances.

            Inequality has caught the public's attention, and it is the writer's job to hold that attention when so much else competes for it. How do we find the words to capture the brutal magnitude of the problem and the political and social forces that created it? At the same time, how can we portray the minds and hearts of the residents of a beleaguered neighborhood, of young people struggling in school, of workers on the factory or restaurant floor, of those on the street with no work at all? There are many ways to analyze and write about inequality. I try to look for the trend and the life lived within the trend. 

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Monday, June 2, 2014

What We Talk about When We Talk about Career and Technical Education

            Here is a slightly different version of a commentary published as “Reframing Career and Technical Education” in Education Week, May 7, 2014.


The English teacher is reviewing a list of vocabulary words drawn from an essay she assigned to her eleventh graders. She writes “aesthetics” on the board and invites discussion. After a few minutes, a boy who is a talented student in the school’s Wood Construction Academy raises his hand and respectfully submits that the word “doesn’t have anything to do with us.” This fellow daily engages in woodworking activities that have an aesthetic dimension to them—in some cases tasks that centrally involve aesthetic judgment—yet sees no connection between the concept as discussed in his English class and his artful work on a table or cabinet.

            I witnessed or heard of a disturbing number of moments like this when I was doing the research for The Mind at Work, a study of the often unacknowledged cognitive demands of physical work and the effects this lack of appreciation has on education, work, and civic life. Our nation’s egalitarian ethos notwithstanding, there is a tendency in our culture to diminish the intelligence of those who do manual work, from negative editorial characterizations of nineteenth century laborers to contemporary autoworkers I heard labeled by one supervisor as “a bunch of dummies.” This tendency is amped up in our high-tech era, as anything associated with the “old economy”—from manufacturing to restaurant service—is glibly labeled as “neck-down” work.

            Young people who are interested in working with their hands grow up amidst these commonplace beliefs and utterances, and even in a post-curriculum tracking world, pick up the biases of occupational status in school. At a key developmental juncture, students have to form their sense of self and their conception of their ability within a web of attitudes that diminish the potential richness of work, that lead a promising woodworker to think that nothing he does involves aesthetics.

            This situation might change as computer technology and design are incorporated into some areas of Career and Technical Education (or CTE). And there is increased interest at the policy level to get more young people into trades and mid-level technical occupations, with a favorable push by the President and his Department of Education toward community college certification and degrees. But virtually all the policy talk about Career and Technical Education in briefs, opinion pieces, and speeches is strictly functional and economic: This training will lead to good jobs. You will be hard pressed to find a sentence in all this discourse that addresses intellectual or social growth, or civic participation, or aesthetic judgment, or the involvement in a craft tradition and the ethical stance toward work that tradition can yield.

If we are serious about improving Career and Technical Education and creating more and better pathways into the world of work, then we need to think hard about the deeply ingrained attitudes we have about certain kinds of work, and the public language that issues from those attitudes.

During one of my visits to high school occupational programs, I spent several weeks with a plumbing instructor who had his students doing volunteer work on old houses—low-income projects, women’s shelters—for old houses present a host of plumbing and construction challenges. Students will encounter previous generations of fixtures and layer on layer of repairs. The teacher and his junior crew replaced sinks and toilets and did a variety of repairs that called for troubleshooting and problem solving. The teacher spent much of his time hovering over his students, peppering them with questions, having them explain what they were doing and why, and probing the logic of what they said.

After a long day when I was checking in with him about what I had seen, he began talking about the mental “library” of mechanical knowledge his students were developing, a library of devices and fixtures, how they’re constructed, and how to work with them.

I couldn’t get the teacher’s use of the word “library” out of my mind. It’s not a word you hear used in conjunction with plumbing, yet it fit. The library metaphor suggests that the knowledge these young people are developing is cognitively substantial, emerges out of a tradition, and matters to society. Our culture deems it worthy of study.

From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, mechanics and engineers developed a variety of picture books and charts that classified and illustrated basic mechanisms and mechanical movements: gear assemblies, for example, or ratchets, or levers and pulleys. These books and charts had names relevant to the present discussion: a “Mechanical Alphabet,” for example, or “Theaters of Machines.” As we continue to try to improve Career and Technical Education, we need to push our thinking by considering CTE in the unfamiliar but generative terms of libraries and alphabets, aesthetics and ethical traditions—for those terms reveal the kinds and range of knowledge inherent in work.

I’m not simply asking for rhetorical flourish; a change in language alone would simply be a semantic do-over. I’m seeking a way to unsettle the limited ways we typically describe the substance and goals of CTE, limitations that reflect our biases about physical work. My hope is that such a shift in understanding would affect the way we teach students in CTE, how we talk to them and about them, and the policy discourse we use to define what they do.

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