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.

Subscribe

Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Email:
Visit this group
Showing posts with label working-class vote. Show all posts
Showing posts with label working-class vote. Show all posts

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.

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.