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, August 25, 2014

A Tribute to Historian Michael B. Katz

            My friend Michael Katz died this weekend. Michael wrote brilliantly about the history of cities, of poverty, and of education. His books are meticulously researched and argued; they sharpen, and often change, the way you think. Among my favorites are: The Irony of Early School Reform, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, The Undeserving Poor, The Price of Citizenship, One Nation Divisible (with Mark Stern), and there are others, all wonderful.

            He helped me immeasurably over the last twenty years with my work. Immeasurably. And a few years back, we got to collaborate, editing a series of essays on school reform. As I’m sure his many students would verify, Michael’s feedback was something. He was tough-minded and didn’t hold back, though he provided the hard news in a way that made your writing better. And when you got praise—and he was generous with praise—well, you could take it to the bank, for Michael was not a bullshitter. I will always remember and celebrate his intellectual integrity. I am going to miss him very much.

            I reprint below a post I wrote in October, 2013 when a revised edition of The Undeserving Poor came out. It’s a phenomenal book, and it couldn’t be more timely.


            Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

            The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

            The Undeserving Poor has just been reissued by Oxford University Press, and Katz has used the occasion to revise the book in major ways, not only updating it but adding a good deal of new material to it. Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the U.S. are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.

            More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

The Mind at Work Ten Years After

            This is a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of The Mind at Work. It first appeared in The Hedgehog Review, Summer, 2014.


There was a wood table covered with slick plastic in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen. My Uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, would come in from work, soiled denim, his face smeared with soot, and wash at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up, angling his arms under the faucet. He’d settle in at the table where my grandmother had placed a large plate of steaming macaroni. A fork in one hand, a big chunk of bread in the other, Frank ate with a focus and capacity that I can still remember. As I always did, I’d ask him questions about the railroad. He’d pause, and in the learned, methodical way he had, he’d explain in detail how something worked. Then he’d tear off another piece of bread and lean back into his plate, a deep pleasure against the bitter cold and exhaustion of the roundhouse.

I grew up around physical work, my uncles in the railroad, then the auto industry, my mother putting in split shifts as a waitress to keep food on our table. This kind of work represented security and competence to me, and it shaped the rhythms of our lives, the stories told at dinner, the satisfaction of warm food, the tired relaxation after, then bedtime and the cycle begins again. Through my mother’s iron-willed determination, a string of committed teachers, government aid, and unexpected opportunities, I do a very different kind of work today: I study teaching and learning and the many manifestations of intelligence in the schoolhouse and the workplace. In The Mind at Work, I tried to bring these two worlds of mine together, examining the sometimes hidden intelligence of the kind of work my forebears did with the analytic tools of social science—but also using my forebears’ work to test these analytic tools and revise some of our commonplace ideas about skill and intelligence. I wanted to change the way we see the everyday work that surrounds and sustains us.

Once the book was out, there were letters and emails and radio interviews where listeners could call in. I heard from waitresses, welders, and carpenters, a drill press operator and a landscaper, a hairstylist and an electrician. They described some aspect of their work: its pleasures and difficulties, what they saw as key to expertise, a success or horror story, frustration at the lack of understanding of what they do. It was particularly gratifying when people would write that they had been reading the book in a restaurant and started watching the waitresses with a fresh eye or that they bought a copy for their hairstylist, so that they could talk about the work. A sociology professor who assigned the book wrote to me about one of his students whose father was a waiter, and how she began to “look at the work he does in a different way.”

Many people wrote or spoke about their families: a tanner, a stone mason, a milk-truck driver, farmers and factory workers, day laborers and beauticians, a butcher whose “mental arithmetic skills were prodigious,” a missionary father who could repair anything, including grinding the valves on the old mission truck, a mother who was a welder during the Second World War, and an uncle “who made money for everyone on his crew because he was so smart and strong and hacked more brick than anyone else in any of the five brickyards around.”  A number of the people being remembered had limited formal education and acquired their knowledge and skill from others and by doing the work itself. And some of the forebears were immigrants, bringing their skills with them, repeating a pattern that is as old as the republic.

People also bore witness for others beyond family, for local tradespersons or friends who had dropped out of or barely made it through high school. A physician characterized the young man remodeling his kitchen as brilliant in the way he could figure out angles and visualize what he was going to do. Another writer described a specialty machinist who rebuilds auto and marine engines from the 1890’s to 1940, fashioning some of the parts himself. And some people who contacted me were professionals who either from their blue-collar upbringing or through years of trial and error had become competent at carpentry, mechanics, or a craft—and, in a few cases, had abandoned their white-collar occupations for the physical challenge and satisfaction of working with their hands. “We’ve been imprisoned,” one wrote, “in our heads.”

Some of the people I met through this book were, like me, studying the mind at work. A former NASA employee was doing research on aircraft maintenance, for example, and a small team of social scientists was detailing the many skills of so-called unskilled immigrant laborers. There were also community activists involved in labor education and living wage campaigns. And there were sobering reminders of work being lost. A woman teaching in a retraining program for silversmiths describes “the pride these men felt for their craft, and the sadness they felt as they saw their work disappearing.”

During the time I was writing an earlier book about our nation’s public schools, I drove across the United States to try to get a feel in one long arc of this vast, diverse country, its varied landscape, its languages, dialects, and cultural practices, its local economies, its multiple histories, manifest in everything from residential patterns to a figure of speech. Sorting through the radio notes and correspondence generated by The Mind at Work, though a stationary and solitary act, had a similar effect. So many of the themes are central to who we are right now, to America finding its way through the early decades of a new century: The nature and meaning of work and the connection of work to one’s identity; the loss of work; social class and class divides; education; immigration; maximizing our national intelligence. All of this emerged from particular stories, particular lives, a machinist in California, a cabinet maker in South Carolina, a New Englander reflecting back on the work that surrounded him as a young boy. A wide sweep of work in the moment and in memory.


When my mother Rosie would come home after a long day waiting tables, she used to spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.

I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car.

There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.

There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and one half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.

Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. I wrote The Mind at Work to document their ability and pay homage to it.

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