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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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Readers Weigh In on Work, Intelligence, Education, Politics, Hope

I spent the morning rereading the comments on my eight entries spanning August to November. The entries concern work, education, opportunity, and politics—and most of them were in some way linked to the presidential election. It was a nice, quiet morning, a little brisk but warm at the desk by the garden window.

There were 31 reader posts, some a sentence or two long, others paragraphs and paragraphs. Many contained stories about work, or reflections on education and opportunity, or expressions of concern or hope about our political culture and its future.


A number of people wrote with great feeling about family and friends who work with their hands, paying tribute to their knowledge and skill and to the opportunity they created for others, in some cases for the writer her or himself. A woman writes about her father, a factory worker, figuring out a more effective and safer way to move heavy materials on the factory floor. And an anonymous writer—who was once a waitress herself—honors her waitress mother coming home exhausted from the graveyard shift. While her mother slept, the writer would count the tips in a worn, black apron, the tips that helped keep the family afloat. I remember doing this very thing.

There is a portrait of a railroad worker inebriated at the end of the day, labor behind him, declaiming in the middle of a small-town street lines from Shakespeare. And there are childhood memories from another writer of Italian construction workers in my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania. In addition to homage and memory, there are contemporary accounts of favorite restaurateurs, hairstylists, gardeners, even a chimney sweep. And a lovely point gets made about these workers: The importance of relationship, of familiarity and history, of trust—the giving oneself over to another person’s skill and workmanship.

All this becomes part of community, helps create it. One person writes of going to the same diner for forty years and the sense of belonging, even solidarity that fosters. Another writer quotes the manager of a favorite restaurant. He talks about the value of having a “third space,” a place in addition to home and work where you feel accepted. We share each others lives in such places.

There’s a Whitmanesque quality to all these tributes taken together: A celebration of a wide sweep of the citizenry, the work they/we do, our interconnectedness. I also think here of another American treasure, Jane Jacobs, who in The Death and Life of Great American Cities testifies to the importance of the street, the vibrant mix of apartments and shops and pedestrians, of mingling and interdependence in a common public space.


As I’ve been trying to argue in this last series of blogs—and generally in The Mind at Work—there are civic and political implications for the way we think about labor, intelligence, and the meaning of work, and a number of readers commented on this cluster of issues. In America we do live amidst an awful tangle of attitudes about intelligence: who’s intelligent, how intelligence is defined, its association with formal schooling, backlash to that association, a mean aristocratic streak in the culture in tension with a dangerous populist anti-intellectualism. Several wrote about teaching in the midst of this cultural mess, “working with students whose intelligence is obvious but who hold vastly different interests” than those represented in the traditional school curriculum but that hold real merit in the world of physical work.

Various writers decried our anti-intellectualism and the way some politicians play to it, the cynical manipulation of it. Several underscored the desperate need for critical thinking, for developing a healthier strain of it in civic life.

This leads to something I’ve been pondering for a while: The personification of the citizen that emerges in political speech. That is, who is the “American citizen” created in, say, FDR’s Fireside Chats, or Reagan’s “Morning in America” speech, or George Bush’s speeches after September 11, 2001, or Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention address or his speech on race? George W. Bush’s former Chief-of-Staff Andy Card once said that the President saw Americans as children he needed to protect. In several of my blog entries I wish for a much different construction of the citizen in political speech, for political discourse helps create a citizenry.

In line with this is my desire for a political environment that has mass educational potential, that instructs and encourages deliberation. A potent example is Obama’s speech on race. Whether you thought it was marred by missteps and omissions, or that it didn’t go far enough, it was still unlike any national political speech in recent memory. Newscasters and commentators scrambled to characterize it, and, suddenly, the adjective “nuanced” emerged with…well, with surprise. Nuance was that unfamiliar in political rhetoric.

There is so much national chatter about education, raising expectations and achievement, the need for 21st Century skills, etc. yet on the civic level we veer continually toward the shallow, the culture-war caricature, the sound-bite over substance (the average length of a president candidate’s television sound-bite in 1968 was 42 seconds, by 2000 it was 7.8 seconds), and debate formats that you wouldn’t find on the high-school circuit. We surely can do better.

Some blog readers expressed a cautious optimism, fearful, though, that our national strains of bigotry and xenophobia could trump an appeal to our better angels. But some writers expressed a deep, weighty hope—an act of faith, perhaps—that we might generate a different, more thoughtful, more democratic political culture.


I want to close by returning to the act of reading this last four months worth of posts. I started the blog at the end of February, 2008, and I think that I’m just now understanding something about the potential power and beauty of the medium.

Perhaps because I read the 31 posts all in one setting, I was struck by the choral quality of the experience, the many voices playing off the various themes of the blog entries. In their own tiny way, the comments, taken collectively, represent the kind of community of voices so many of us long for on a larger scale.

All you commenters—and all other readers, too—please chime in, keep us talking.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

President Obama: Bring Back the Fireside Chats

This will be the last of my entries on the election, though not the last on the general topic of politics and education. I’m going to pick that up again in a few weeks.

I wrote this call on President-elect Obama to bring back FDR-style Fireside Chats a few days before the election, finally coming to believe (cautiously) the national polls. The piece is quickly becoming dated, however, as FDR comparisons abound and as the Obama team itself is announcing plans to use media in FDR-fashion. Still, there’s a few points in the piece below that might be of interest to the readers of this blog. As always, I welcome any comments.


Between 1933 and 1944, during another period of economic crisis and war, FDR gave a series of thirty memorable radio speeches to the American people. The speeches covered topics of pressing importance: from the banking crisis, unemployment, and federal works programs to national security, the progress of the war, and plans for peace. The speeches were both political and educational; they inspired and instructed during difficult times.

We need the same today. And President Obama is poised to provide it. He combines considerable intelligence and thoughtfulness with rhetorical skill. He could talk to the nation about the economy, about terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about climate change and energy.

He could talk further about the social issues that divide us. And he could continue the national conversation we are finally having about race – the conversation his candidacy sparked.

We already have, of course, the weekly presidential radio address, but the revived Fireside Chats would be of a different order. In this regard, it is enlightening to read the originals. They are rich in information that is carefully presented and explained, and they blend reassurance with hard truths. The first one on the banking crisis, delivered one week after FDR’s inauguration, is uncannily relevant today.

The media-savvy Obama team could use the tools it mastered during the campaign; television and radio but podcasts too and the multi-media internet.

The new Fireside Chats would be a concrete way to use Barack Obama’s message of hope to immediate and important ends: to calm nerves and markets but as well to shape a longer-term response to uncertain and rapidly changing times.

We are in the midst of a wrenching redefinition of our economy. Comfortable American ideas about the market, about government intervention, even about the dreaded “European-style socialism” are being turned inside out. Or consider the awful damage done in political battle through the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims and the inflaming of racial bias. And then there are the wars on two fronts.

During the campaign, Obama was mocked for being a professor, and the media tag “professorial” was deadly – implying aloofness and abstraction, a man out of touch. But there’s a flip side to this professorial business: someone who knows a lot, is thoughtful, sees value in teaching. Bill Clinton was the master president-as-teacher. Obama has the ability to be the same.

The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. Especially at this time in our history, we could benefit immensely from thinking about politics as teaching. The Bush Administration has diminished the value of knowledge. It substituted loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, the cherry-picking rather than analysis of evidence.

For the much of the last eight years fear has been the primary mechanism of political persuasion. We are left with a desperate need for a richer sense of purpose, an opening up rather than narrowing of our national imagination.

As a nation, we have a lot of learning to do, a lot of self-examining and reorienting of our economic and civic lives. Presidential addresses of the gravity of FDR's Fireside Chats would help guide us. Barack Obama could become the education president in a unique and powerful sense of the word.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On Opportunity…and a Tip of the Hat to Studs Terkel

My last entry comparing the McCain and Obama education plans centered on educational opportunity, and this entry, my first since the election, deals with opportunity as well.

I found myself again dwelling on the word when Barack Obama used it in his acceptance speech. Maybe now is a good time, in light of his election, to reflect on this core American notion. It is a complicated one, worthy of examination.

Opportunity has a deceptively simple dictionary definition:

Op•por•tu•nity 1 a combination of circumstances favorable for the purpose; fit time 2 a good chance or occasion, as to advance oneself

A favorable combination of circumstances. A good chance to advance oneself. These definitions seem disembodied to me, devoid of the particulars that compose an opportunity. Except for the rare event – a winning lottery ticket, the surprise departure of someone in a coveted position – circumstances typically don’t just combine, don’t randomly fall our way. We often work hard to create opportunity, as conservatives are fond of saying, but also – as those on the left underscore – a whole sweep of physical and social characteristics (gender and race, for example, or the markings of social class, or disability), economic policies, and social programs open up or close down opportunity. That opportunity emerges from this web of individual and structural factors seems self-evident, but at different times in our cultural history more simplified notions of opportunity dominate political discourse.

Since the Reagan years, the country has been in the grip of the individual responsibility view of opportunity. Conservative writers and politicians have been skillful in encouraging an ideology of self-reliance and individual effort and in discrediting and dismantling the protections of the welfare state, social programs, and other means of intervening in the social order. Think of Reagan’s famous quip that the eleven most feared words in the English language are “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” (Sadly, there can be a bitter, self-fulfilling truth to this statement if you strip resources and authority from government agencies and fill them with partisan incompetents – as we saw with FEMA in 2005.)

There is a lot of confusion in our society about the role of individual effort in achievement. As anyone in the helping professions and human services – not to mention any parent – knows, a person’s motivation, perseverance, gritting of the teeth are hugely important in achieving a goal. No question.

Where the confusion sets in is when we generalize from this fact to an overall model of human development and achievement. This is the individualistic, self-reliant, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps way of viewing the world. According to this model, it is you alone (though a family’s values are sometimes invoked) who are responsible for your success. As a model of development (versus an acknowledgement of a necessary element of achievement), this is nonsense.

No one, no one, develops free of local and broader-scale institutions (from a sports clinic to the military), social networks, government projects and programs (from transportation infrastructure to school loans), and so on. And, the social class of one’s parents – widely acknowledged as a critical predictor of one’s own prospects – is, in turn, affected by a whole range of factors (from local economic conditions to tax policy) that are well beyond individual control. Again, it does not diminish the importance of individual commitment and effort to also acknowledge the tremendous role played in achievement by the kind, distribution, and accessibility of institutions, programs, and other resources. And these resources, as everybody knows, are not equally available. Particularly now.

Despite the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the country’s slide into economic recession, the United States remains the global economic giant and for some time has posted strong productivity numbers. The rich have profited immensely in this economy, favored by a whole range of policies and practices, from lax regulation on corporations to tax cuts. And the very rich have been making a killing; their income rose 136% during the Bush presidency.

In contrast, the income of much of the sprawling middle class has stagnated. As well, their employment security has been buffeted by corporate restructuring, the influx of new technologies, outsourcing, and more. These people work longer and harder – thus the nation’s impressive productivity numbers – but don’t see their income increase accordingly.

Those in the working class have made some modest gains in income during the Bush years – a point that the President makes often – but their income is still paltry. Many live a tenuous existence, vulnerable to lay-offs, working in non-union settings with fragile rights, holding down more than one job. They have no, or minimal, health insurance. They’re locked into a working life of low wages, a paycheck or two away from big trouble. All this has intensified over the last few months. In October alone, the U.S. lost 240,000 more jobs.

Among the poorest, the threats to sustenance, shelter, and health are continuous and brutal – and increasing. The poverty that Katrina in her fury revealed to the nation exists across the republic, concentrated in cities, spread throughout rural landscapes.

We have been living in a time of flattened mobility. There are astronomical gains in income and wealth at the top, and chicken-feed increases in income among some in the working class, but for the majority of Americans, the basic driving principle that hard work will yield movement up the ladder of prosperity is not realized. And for a sizable number of people at the lower end of the economy, an already hard life has gotten harder. Over the last eight years, at least five million more Americans have fallen into poverty. “Income inequality is growing,” notes a special report in The Economist, “to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.”

The shredding of the social safety net both contributes to this widening inequality and intensifies its damage on those most affected by it. In such an economic and social structure, “a good chance to advance oneself,” “a favorable combination of circumstances,” is available to fewer and fewer people, particularly those at the bottom.

Americans have long looked to education as a way to advance themselves. They also see it as the primary means to overcome social class inequalities; Horace Mann called education “the great equalizer” for those born of humble origins. These powerful beliefs lead us to another cultural tangle. Education is a means to enhance one’s economic prospects. (And it provides a whole lot more in terms of one’s own intellectual development.) But education alone is not enough to trump some social barriers like racist hiring practices or inequality in pay based on gender. Furthermore, for disadvantaged populations – particularly the most impoverished – education must be one of a number of programs that would include health care, housing, family assistance, and so on.

So we should create educational opportunity for the poor, but we should also be mindful that for some, educational programs must be part of a broader network of assistance.

One more thing to say about the creation of educational opportunity, especially in the current climate of suspicion about interventions for the poor. The creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and, as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient. The creating of social programs, compensatory interventions, and the like are not, as some conservative writers claim, a giveaway, a soft entry into the meritocracy. If done well, the creation of opportunity in education (and this applies to other domains as well) also requires great effort, even courage. What that special program or compensatory intervention assures is that one’s effort is not just sound and fury, but is directed and assisted toward achievement.

In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are so often abstract (as in ideological debate) or conducted at a broad structural level – as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope, but it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do, pathways to a goal. And all this takes place someplace with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your emerging sense of what might be, of who you might become. Nothing is more powerful.


I can’t think of anyone who had a better feel for opportunity – and for a lot else in American life – than Studs Terkel, who died on October 31st at the age of 96. Terkel’s genius over many years was to interview a wide range of Americans and convert their words into one wonderful book after another on the Great Depression, on WWII, on working, on race, on hope, on the American Dream itself.

I had the good fortune of meeting him in 1996. He interviewed me on his long-running radio show on Chicago’s WFMT. The paperback edition of Possible Lives has just come out, and I was on tour. The guide who was taking me around to the interviews told me while we were waiting that Studs had been ill and recently underwent heart bypass surgery. She hoped he was okay, feared that he might be frail and failing.

Just then, this small man with a bright red sweater under his jacket rounds the corner at a good clip. He’s waving a copy of Possible Lives and talking away, talking as though we already were in mid-conversation. When he sat down, I could see that the book was marked up and dog-eared. Most interviewers never open your book; they work from their producer’s notes. This man had actually looked at the thing, and the interview demonstrated that as he moved from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, following the sharp associations of his own mind, a jazz riff. The music of ideas.

This was what it was like to be interviewed by Studs Terkel, someone who spoke with so many people in his long, rich life.

As I write this, I am imagining him moving among the crowd at Grant Park in his hometown Chicago, tape recorder in hand, talking to people about what’s on their minds on this historic day, November 4, 2008, talking and talking and turning what they say into one last memorable book about life in America.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Education and Opportunity: Rosie’s Dream

We’ve received some thoughtful posts on Politics and Knowledge ’08, and I hope to continue the conversation soon.

For the moment, though, I want to send along an opinion piece published on Sunday, 10/19/08, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which I compare the McCain and Obama education plans. If you find it useful, please feel free to circulate it.

Last week, I did an interview for the Huffington Post on this topic, though it got edited down to a focus on Senator McCain’s proposals for school choice. If you’re interested, here’s the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erika-szostak/mccains-plan-of-public-sc_b_134525.html

My mother's big dream was that I would go to college, and she worked double-shifts to start me on that journey. When I graduated, Rosie Meraglio Rose was there with her camera.

Education has been pretty much absent from center stage during this year's presidential campaign, but it is a big issue for families having a hard go of it and worrying about their children's future. With my mother in mind, I decided to examine what Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama offer the average family.

I got the candidates' positions from their Web sites, johnmccain.com and barackobama.com. Mr. McCain's education policy runs to four pages; Mr. Obama's, at 33 pages, is far more detailed. For instance, Mr. Obama cites examples from 13 states as evidence that his programs would work. Mr. McCain offers one.

Both candidates cover the same broad topics (early education, teacher recruitment, college) and share some general solutions, such as expanding Head Start or offering incentive pay for teachers who work in difficult schools.

But there are striking differences, too, which make me think Mr. Obama's plan is better for working families and the public schools that most of their children attend.

Consider early childhood.

The McCain plan calls for the neediest children to have access to high-quality programs and he would provide funding to turn exemplary Head Start programs into Centers of Excellence. He also wants to streamline and coordinate existing programs.

Mr. Obama shares these goals, but incorporates them into a broader plan to help children from birth through age five. He would help support low-income, first-time mothers and encourage states to adopt voluntary, universal pre-school. He wants to improve both the quality and accessibility of child care, and expand the tax credit for it.

For education policies to work, policy makers must know the on-the-ground realities of schooling. The Obama plan reflects a deeper understanding of those realities.

When it comes to teachers, for example, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain propose monetary incentives for difficult assignments or needed expertise, but Mr. Obama also realizes that most teachers crave other types of rewards: to continue their education, to have a meaningful role in improving curriculum, to mentor others, to bring their ideas into the broader reform arena. When teachers are fulfilled, children learn more.

Mr. Obama's underlying philosophy of reform is preferable to that of Mr. McCain, as well.

The twin engines driving Mr. McCain's approach are school choice and No Child Left Behind-style accountability. Accountability is also an element in Mr. Obama's plan, but he does not rely on the marketplace to improve our schools. "Choice" is an appealing notion to Americans, but it's worth considering its limitations as the primary mechanism of school reform.

Experiments have demonstrated that for school choice to work there must be enough good schools from which to choose. They need to be nearby or there must be a reasonable way to get to them. To offer real choice to some students, many charter or private schools would need additional resources for special-needs programs or simply to respond to increased demand. Most private schools also would need to relax admissions requirements.

In short, for a plan like Mr. McCain's to work on a broad scale, he would need to intervene significantly in the market, something that his philosophy of government and voting record suggest he would not do.

As the last few weeks have made clear, markets can be terribly unstable and inequitable. It's easy to claim in the abstract that broad-scale school choice would allow poor schools either to get better or fail as competition drives improvements overall. But failed schools bring turmoil to surrounding communities.

The bottom line is that while charter and private schools in many places succeed and prompt reforms in public schools, many also fail. They are not a wholesale solution to what ails our schools.

Another plus for Mr. Obama's education plan is that it reflects a richer sense of what education can mean to families of limited resources.

In "Reclaiming the American Dream," the speech in which Mr. Obama discussed college affordability, we see families after plant closings trying to make ends meet. We see people worrying about their homes, about health care, about sending their kids to school. I think about my mother in another difficult time, as the railroads failed and the shops closed and she worried about keeping a roof over our heads.

It is in this context that Mr. Obama calls for "putting a college education within the reach of every American." He proposes a $4,000 tax credit, programs to better prepare young people for college and ways to further develop community colleges. By the time we get to these proposals in Mr. Obama's plan, we have met the kinds of people they will help, people whom Mr. Obama encountered while working on the streets of Chicago. He puts a human face on public policy.

I don't agree with all of Mr. Obama's education proposals, and in some cases I wish he had gone further. I see things in Mr. McCain's proposals that are laudable. Furthermore, given the disasters on Wall Street, neither candidate will be able to institute all of his plans, at least in the short term.

Still, when I look at the plans and consider their particulars, their underlying spirit and the degree to which they reflect an understanding of real schools and average families, it is Mr. Obama's that offers the most educational opportunities to kids like Rosie's.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Politics and Knowledge '08

First, some catching up.

There have been a number of posts in response to the last four entries (Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote; The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion; Politics as Teaching: The Case of Palin, Obama, and Community Organizing; Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote, Part Two). A number of them offered stories about parents or relatives who also worked blue-collar jobs and paid tribute to the smarts it took to do that work well. Thank you for them.

I also want to call attention to a new post on an old entry, “Why Go to School.” The writer, Erika, has a fine blog herself, adfeminem @ www.adfeminem.org.

A new blog that the readers of this one will like is by Deborah Appleman who is writing about the teaching she’s doing in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, see http://blogs.carleton.edu/Stillwater/.

What follows is the world’s most expansive blog entry, but bear with me, please. I’m trying to work out some ideas that have long been on my mind.


Cultural Tensions

I have been thinking a lot these days about politics and knowledge, the way knowledge or being knowledgeable gets defined in the political moment – in the moment, but affected by a thick web of longstanding American cultural conflicts.

One small example that rivets me, that I keep turning over and over in my mind, is the way the McCain campaign has attempted to diminish Barack Obama’s education at Harvard Law School. (Their mockery of his work as a community organizer – and the experiential knowledge gained there – is another story, one I touched on last month, and one I want to cover again.)

The McCain approach, as others have pointed out, is a kind of low intensity Swift-Boating. Unlike the situation with John Kerry’s war record, there is no way to spark ambiguity about the facts of Obama’s time in Cambridge, no multiple stories to create. Barack Obama studied law at Harvard from 1988 to 1991, made law review, graduated with honors in 1991. No disputing that.

But what one can do is to diminish the achievement. And that’s what I want to focus on in this entry. The particularly American way this diminishment, even ridicule, is executed and what it reveals about our country and its culturally complicated relationship with knowledge gained through formal education.

I don’t want to claim that it’s illegitimate to raise questions – as was done throughout the primary – about Obama’s legislative record and experience. Rather, I want to consider this issue of knowledge and use Obama’s education as an illustration through which to explore some tensions in American culture–tensions that the Republican electoral machine have tapped powerfully over the last eight years. And tensions that we, as educators, need to ponder.

One obvious cultural tension in play around Obama’s Harvard degree is that of rural America versus the city, or the heartland (or, a variation, the frontier) versus the east coast. This is one of Sarah Palin’s trump cards, and, though his star is dim now, it was George Bush’s as well. No one’s blood is bluer, but Bush masterfully reinvented himself in Texas, altered his speech, bought a ranch, adopted country music and Nascar.

This rural versus urban conflict has a long history in the United States; it vibrates throughout 19th and 20th century American fiction and popular culture. Consider the standard story lines. Country boy or girl escapes the close-mindedness and constraints of the small town to find cosmopolitan liberation in the city – or finds in the city amorality, alienation, and sometimes death. (Think Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.) Flowing through these story lines is a good deal of condescension and ridicule toward country life or, conversely, moralizing and harsh judgment toward the city and its institutions…like Ivy League universities.

Related to this cultural conflict – though it can emerge solely within rural or within urban settings – is the longstanding tension between practical life, experience, and common sense versus schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits. Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a chronicle of this antagonism, and of the gradual ascendance of school-based expertise in the nation’s culture. But the contrary position still holds strong. My cousin is fond of repeating a well-worn saying, “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.”

Resonant with both of these conflicts are, of course, the conflicts of social class; for level and kind of education (and the kind of work that education makes possible) is a significant class marker. My cousin’s comment cuts to the core here: A valuing of hands-on versus schoolhouse knowledge. And the counterforce is familiar to all of us, the bias against those who work with their hands as ignorant and illiterate – a bias that goes back to the early days of the Republic.

The kinds of entertainment one chooses; one’s tastes, from liquor to wall hangings; one’s speech patterns and conversational style all filter in and out of these conflicts – and for all involved are a rich source of lampoon and criticism. It’s pretty deadly when Barack Obama’s answers to questions are labeled “professorial.” The implication is that he’s aloof, an elitist, out of touch with the common Joe.

It is this whole long multi-layered cultural history that is invoked when, in St. Paul or on the campaign trail, members of the McCain entourage say “Harvard” or “east coast” or in some way refer to being in school rather than out in the real world.

John Kerry got a dose of this treatment, but where Obama is concerned, there is one other factor, of course, and that is race. Conservatives get furious when race is brought up in the absence of explicit racist references. But let’s consider the situation for a moment. By labeling Obama an elitist or haughty and out of touch (the “professor” reference), you don’t have to say a thing that’s racist to spark in some people the sense that the young Obama rose above his station, or was/is too big for his britches (I actually heard a reporter on my local NPR station say this).

Another variation here is that, yes, it is quite an achievement, but you got there because of the color of your skin – or, conversely, if you got there, it must not be that big of an achievement after all. (As an e-mail rushing around the Internet suggests, if a poor white boy had a similar educational trajectory, he’d be hailed as a huge American success story by the Right.)



But, of course, these conflicts, though effectively invoked in certain political contexts, are not at all as neat and dichotomous as I’ve sketched them. And here the case of Obama and Harvard takes another turn in my mind.

There has always been interplay between rural and urban, east-coast and heartland. East-coasters have traveled west and settled, and sons and daughters of the heartland have traveled east to study, yet returned home to teach, or practice law or medicine, or set up shop. As Land-Grant Colleges emerged, they brought both faculty and eastern (not to mention European) traditions westward. Shakespeare was as popular on the frontier as in the city. Progressive political and labor movements emerged in both urban and rural landscapes and in some cases influenced each other.

As for the working class, it’s hard to define in the United States, and there is a good deal of confusion about who is working class. Working-class folk do not at all have a monolithic culture, and, for that fact, there are all sorts of working classes, variable by region, race and ethnicity, recency of immigration, and so on. Beliefs, values, tastes vary widely. My Uncle Frank, a railroad machinist, would quote Longfellow in his letters.

Though there is variation to be sure in the embrace of education – and gender and generation play in here – many working-class families would consider it a dream come true to see their children take the path that took Barack Obama to Harvard. I think about my Uncle Joe, a guy with a 9th grade education who was proud that his work at General Motors enabled him to send all three of his kids to college.

Among many of the working class people I grew up with and have gotten to know as an adult, there is a deep respect for knowledge, know-how, for expertise. There’s no faking it with machinery, or building a cabinet, or handling a rush in a restaurant. And when professional help is needed, it’s resources not inclination that keep the people I know from the Cleveland Clinic or the Ivy League lawyer.

I don’t want to deny the tensions around hands-on vs. school knowledge, but in my experience, school knowledge, especially as we move evermore toward complex technologies, is respected and desired. The problem is more in the bearing of the person who embodies that knowledge. Did that formal education bring with it condescension, arrogance, aloofness?


A Way Out

But these more blurred and hybrid realities don’t have the emotional tug of the simpler characterizations. In the heat of the political moment, the old-fashioned tensions can have rhetorical power.
And part of me understands it.

There are a number of legitimate criticisms of knowledge gained through formal education and the resulting professional standing and expertise it confers. Such knowledge can be abstract, removed from on-the-ground empirical reality. It can be exclusionary. It can be used to great harm – significantly one of the documentaries on Enron is called “The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

These are some of the reasons that there is resentment and suspicion toward such knowledge. But the conservative attack on knowledge over the last eight years does not emerge from such concerns, and conservatives have not advocated for, say, deep experiential knowledge as a hedge against bookishness.

Rather, as has been documented repeatedly, we’ve had the substitution of loyalty for expertise (from FEMA to the Department of Justice), feeling for rationality (our president could get the measure of Vladimir Putin’s soul by looking into his eyes), and the cherry-picking rather than analysis of evidence. I realize that all this was done to maintain power and bestow privilege, but it ironically runs contrary to fundamental conservative principles that elevate traditional education, scientific inquiry, rationality over feeling. There are people within the conservative fold who are deeply worried about all of this, but their voices don’t often make it onto the six o’clock news.
On a personal level, the current shredding of knowledge bothers me greatly, and I feel despair over the complex cultural history that is so easily evoked to such troubling political ends.

I certainly understand the suspicions about advanced formal education. To this day, I feel uncomfortable in some academic settings, the modes of interaction, the posturing, the retreat into pedantry. And growing up I’ve certainly experienced and looked on as others suffered indignities from professional people.

But knowledge gained in school eventually became a source of pleasure and competence for me, enabled me to craft and identity and career, and gave me a set of tools to help my parents and others navigate the professional sphere.


Cultural Strategies

So I feel compelled to separate out, to understand the cultural chords that get played when formal knowledge – like the study of constitutional law – gets trivialized in the political moment.

As I see it, there are at least three ways to respond in the moment. And though I frame these strategies in the political context of this essay, they might also have educational and, more broadly, civic uses as I/we try to make our way into and through this cultural mess that we’re in.

Obama, at various points, has used each of these strategies…though not as much as he could.

1) Confront the appeal to cultural rifts head-on for the cynical move that it is. In a nutshell: “You’re trying to get rural America at the throat of urban America, and people who went to school in Nebraska fighting with those who went to school on the east coast, and folks who listen to country music bickering with fans of hip-hop – but it won’t work. Don’t insult us. People have much, much bigger things to worry about. And those are…”

2) Offer a different story, a counter-narrative. Recast the place of learning and education in people’s lives, flipping the script from elitism to access. Obama does this richly in a speech attached to his website on education. The speech is entitled “Reclaiming the American Dream”, and it’s labeled as a speech on college affordability. Before we get to his proposals to make college more available, though, he takes us through the lives of people as the local plant is closing, as they try to figure out how to make ends meet, as they worry about their kids’ future. This is the context in which he discusses college. He doesn’t have to say a word about the cultural tensions surrounding higher education; he offers instead a story of access and opportunity.

3) A third way is to wade into the cultural tensions and – as I briefly do in the second section of this entry – try to complicate them, find the places of intersection or common ground. The places where city meets country or class interests intersect. Let’s even consider for a moment the deadly label “professorial.” When it’s used in the negative (as it always is with Obama), it implies aloofness, too much attention to detail, and the like. But it can also suggest that you’ve studied something, know a hell of a lot about it, and want to think carefully before rushing to action. In a lot of contexts, these are admirable qualities – and most people would respond to them. You’d want such a person treating your child if she had a chronic illness or if you were seeking advice on expanding your business. And people who are considered good at their work, regardless of the kind of work, share these qualities as well: from the master cabinetmaker to the seasoned mediator.

It is this last strategy that leads me to a provisional conclusion for this long entry...a conclusion and an opening up.

I have been concerned for a long time – and it intensified while writing The Mind at Work–with the narrow way we define intelligence and then judge each other by those definitions. And about the ways we use knowledge as a cultural weapon, as a way to shut down rather than open up another person’s intellectual development.

Think of what it could mean for our civic life if we held a broader–and more accurate–understanding of intelligence, of the wide range of ways people gain and apply knowledge, solve problems, think their way through their daily lives.

Education begins with finding common cognitive ground. Could some dimension of politics do the same?

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.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Politics as Teaching: The Case of Palin, Obama, and Community Organizing

Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin had great fun – and made political hay – last week by ridiculing Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer. They did so by ridiculing community organizing itself. Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Obama noted that such work matters to the people whose lives are affected by it. Governor Palin continued the ridicule as she hit the campaign trail.

I want to use this example of political rhetoric to raise an issue that’s been much on my mind these days (and that comes up in my entry a few weeks back, “Work, Intelligence, and the Blue-Collar Vote”): The need to think about political speech as an occasion to educate. Bill Clinton is masterful at doing this, and it characterizes some of our country’s best political oratory.

It is common wisdom among political commentators that campaigns are run and won on emotion and symbolism much more so than on reason, logic, and policy analysis.

True enough. We see it big time in both parties.

But in accepting this unfortunate fact, we also sustain it. Our politicians miss untold opportunities to teach as well as to move and inspire – and as I write this I catch myself at an implied separation, for good instruction can also inspire. And facts can stir emotion, for example a statistic on the number of children in the United States who live in poverty.

So let’s return to that jab at community organizing. Giuliani and Palin gave rise to an opportunity for the Obama camp (although I don’t think they did this) to point out quickly, plainly that a number of rights and benefits that protect working people have come from organizing efforts; that Christians of many stripes have been integral to them; that organizing is as American as apple pie; that, as my friend Fred Erickson pointed out in a letter he wrote to Governor Palin, the Governor’s very civic life and political career would have been impossible without the organizing efforts of feminists three or four generations ago. A statement like this would counter as well as instruct, creating a public teachable moment.

So much of our political discourse is so awful that it’s hard to find room in it for civic pedagogy. But, and I know this smacks of innocence, I do believe in a variation of “if you build it, they will come.” Americans respond powerfully to red-meat politics, but it is also true that once the balloons drop and the pulse returns to normal, people want a few facts, want to be spoken to as though they have brains in their heads, want to cut the bullshit.

The writers of the federal No Child Left Behind Act decry what they call “the soft bigotry of low expectations” about the intellectual capacity of poor children. Wouldn’t it be something if our political speechmakers began raising their expectations for the rest of us?

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion

Labor Day is almost here, so I’d like to stick with the theme of work a while longer. I’m reprinting below a tribute I wrote for my mother who worked in restaurants all her adult life.

This originally appeared several years ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


The restaurant was my mother’s laboratory of human relations and the place where she put her quick and inquisitive mind to work. I would visit her with my father, who was disabled, and sit at the back booth, where the waitresses took their break. There wasn’t a lot to do at home. Our neighborhood was poor, a mix of old houses and small stores, lots of retirees, few kids. The hours stretched out. So my father and I would take the bus downtown to pass the time with Rosie.

I remember her walking full-tilt with an armload of plates along one arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her other hand. Or her taking orders, pencil poised over pad. Or her flopping down in the booth, the whoosh of the cushion. “I’m all in” she’d say, and whisper something quickly to us about a regular customer: about his kids or why she thinks he’s having problems at work. She would stand before a table, her arm stacked with plates, picking one order off for this person, then another, then another – always seeming to get it right, knowing who got the hamburger, who got the fried shrimp. I remember her sitting sideways in the back booth, talking to us, her one hand gripping the outer edge of the table, watching the floor, and noting, in the flow of our conversation, who needed something, who was finishing up, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should.

My mother immigrated to the United States with her parents from Southern Italy and grew up during the Great Depression. Her family was very poor, and Rosie was taken out of school in the seventh grade to care for her younger brothers and sisters. She started waiting on tables as a young woman and worked her entire adult life in coffee shops and chain restaurants. These places are fast-paced, and the work is hard and punishing, especially over the long haul. But given her limited formal education, my mother knew that she could always make a living in a restaurant. As she put it to me simply but powerfully much later in her life: “Dad was ill, and you were little…I had to get work.”

Most tributes to working-class parents stop here. We celebrate their work ethic, or their courage, or their love for us and the tenacity of their labor. My mother certainly deserves such testimony. But I think that she – and blue-collar and service workers like her – deserve another tribute as well: a tribute to the intelligence that it took to handle the many demands of her work.

As someone who comes from a blue-collar background and who now, as a professor of education, studies issues like learning and intelligence, I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work. Listen to the language we use. The work of the “new economy” is “neck-up” while old-style industrial and service work is “neck-down”. In the body only. Mindless.

But what I saw growing up was anything but mindless. My uncles—who were machinists, welders, and factory workers—would show me how to do things with tools or explain how something worked. And my mother was so competent in the restaurant, so in command of what seemed to me to be chaos. All this has affected how I understand intelligence, learning outside of school, and the immense knowledge and skill of the everyday work that makes life possible.

So about seven years ago, I set out to study the cognition of physical work, that is, the knowledge involved, the way information is used, the kinds of decisions made and problems solved. I brought my current intellectual tools, so to speak, to bear on the intelligence of the work that surrounded me as I was growing up: to the restaurant, the railroad, the factory floor. The project became both a fascinating study in its own right as well as a tribute to my family.

To do the work she did, my mother had to develop strategies to aid memory. As she stood before a table, taking orders, repeating them back while writing them out, making small talk, she would “make a picture in my mind” of the person giving her the order, what that person ordered, and where around the table he or she was located. She would do this for seven to nine tables, with two to six people each. She relied on physical appearance, dress, location at the table, and conformity to or deviation from social expectations – for example, the man who orders a chef salad while his wife orders a steak.

My mother had to keep all this in mind while rushing through a busy restaurant, watching over things, organizing and sequencing tasks, and solving problems on the fly. She describes a typical scenario where an obnoxious regular is tapping the side of his coffee cup with a spoon while she is taking an order. The cook rings her bell indicating another order is ready, and a few seconds later the manager seats two new parties at two of her tables that have just cleared. And, oh, as she is dashing back to the kitchen, one customer asks to change an order, another signals for more coffee, and a third requests a new fork to replace one dropped on the floor. “Your mind is going so fast,” she says, “thinking what to do first, where to go first…which is the best thing to do…which is the quickest.” How did my mother do it?

One thing the waitress does is try to see the big picture and stay vigilant. My mother talks about both standing back and surveying her station and “taking little glances” at her tables as she is moving through it. This mindfulness can reveal problems. “You’re keeping an eye on who is not served yet,” she says, “If it’s been too long, you go check on the kitchen yourself.”

The waitress gets very good at “working smart”. My mother would sequence and group tasks. What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? Or what could be clustered together at the coffee counter or when she’s going to the kitchen? This economy of movement called for a continual attentiveness to a dynamic, quickly changing environment. If my mother didn’t “make every move count,” as she put it, she would “run myself ragged.”

All of this fast thinking is taking place in an emotional field. Is the manager in a good mood? Did the cook wake up on the wrong side of the bed? If so how can you make an extra request or return an order diplomatically? And, then, of course, there are the customers. Customers enter a restaurant with all sorts of needs, from the physiological – and the emotions that accompany hunger – to a desire for public intimacy. The waitress’s tip is dependent on how well she responds to these needs – not always an easy, or uncomplicated, task. So she gets good at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own. This self-regulation of feeling is sufficiently demanding that some sociologists refer to it as “emotional labor”. But what also strikes me too is the interpersonal smarts it takes to pull it off.

My mother was fascinated by psychology and was a keen observer of it. She understood the motivations of neighborhood kids better than some of our teachers, and she had a shrewd take on the politics of the restaurants she worked in. The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzled over the problems of her regular customers, refined her ability to deal with people in a difficult world. She took pride in “being among the public.” The main floor became her informal classroom. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” she was fond of saying, “that you don’t learn something.”

Much of the thinking and learning in the restaurant is hidden from us. When dining out goes well, we experience “good service”, which typically means that our food got to us in a timely fashion, it was prepared well, and the interaction with the server was pleasant. But there is a mind at work in creating that service, the play of memory, attention, decision-making, social sensibility.

This is what engaged Rosie Rose, and getting it down in print as Labor Day approaches gives me a way to remember and honor her.

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

One More Round on Non-Traditional College Students: Teaching Matters

Sparked by the article in the June Atlantic Monthly, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” my last three entries on this blog have dealt with teaching non-traditional college students and, more specifically, with teaching literature and remedial writing. Readers responded with close to 35 comments, many of them long, all of them thoughtful. Collectively, they contained assignments and techniques, anecdotes drawn from personal and professional experience, educational philosophies and thoughts about the social order. In sum, they contained a great deal of the wisdom of the classroom.

I want to dwell on that on-the-ground wisdom, for we don’t get much of it in policy deliberations about remediation in college or about education in general. And, as I wrote in a previous entry, we tend to get a pretty dreary and dispiriting rendering of non-traditional students and remediation in the media. Witness the Atlantic Monthly article.

So let’s go to the readers’ comments.

They display a commitment to teaching (some from people new to the game, others in it for more than thirty years) and an affinity for writing, books, literacy. Together, the writers of these comments offer a wealth of suggestions on authors to use and how to use them, on assignments and the sequencing of assignments, on ways to play back and forth between speech and written text and among and across books and stories from very different times and places. Reading these suggestions – some of which are embedded in descriptions of teaching – you get a feel for the intellectual sizzle of these teachers’ classrooms.

Related to the above is a refreshing discussion of culture, teaching, and learning that emerges in the collective comments. The writers sometimes disagree with each other, but in the aggregate you read people thinking hard about how to understand and honor the complex cultural backgrounds of their students while not reductively defining them by those backgrounds alone.

So, too, there is a rich discussion of social class and education. There is mention of economics and who gets what kind of education, both before and during college, the funding, the resources available. And there is a good deal of discussion about the toll some students’ class backgrounds have taken on their current levels of skill. But this poor academic preparation is not a cognitive prison house, and the writers offer powerful testimony to the achievements of underprepared students, given the right conditions. (This general issue of social class and achievement is an especially important one to me, and I plan to devote a future entry to it.)

It was interesting how many writers speculate about the likely education of the author of the Atlantic article. Professor X’s discontent might well originate in his own graduate study in English, study that typically includes little serious training in teaching, particularly teaching literature to a wide sweep of humanity. Such narrow graduate education will affect the kinds of intellectual relationships a teacher is able to foster.

And I was struck by – and savored – the feel for teaching you get reading these thirty-plus comments. The detail ranges from the specific technique and strategy (reading a paragraph from “Araby” in multiple voices), to long-haul reflection on the purpose of education, to the pleasures of the work itself. “I love to pull my teaching cart out into the dark, smelling the trees and flowers that are now only shadows,” writes a community college instructor, “knowing that I and my students are tired from doing something worthwhile.”

Some of the students in the courses taught by these teachers will struggle and not do well – though I’d bet those students will be treated with dignity and with an eye toward their future development. And some students will do just fine, and from the comments we get a sense of their resilience and ability. We also get a sense of teaching as a subtle and humane art.

All of this takes us back inside the basement of the Ivory Tower and enables us to rethink what might go on in that basement and, for that fact, how the basement might be closer – might be made closer – to the rest of the tower itself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Teaching Remedial Writing

The discussion of underprepared college students over the last few posts leads me to one more entry. This is on teaching remedial writing. I suggested last month that there were a lot of other ways Professor X in that Atlantic Monthly article could have achieved his educational goals. Here is one approach – and I’ll begin it with a student profile different in kind from the ones Professor X presents.

Kevin had a story similar to a lot of young men from my old neighborhood in South-Central L.A. He was a good student in poor schools, schools with old textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, high teacher turnover. And like more than a few young men from such neighborhoods, he was seduced by street life, got into trouble, and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special admissions program.

I had helped develop the writing component for that program, and I taught in it. Kevin’s first piece of college writing – the placement exam – was peppered with grammatical errors, and the writing was disorganized and vague. This is the kind of writing we see in media accounts of remedial students, and it is the kind of writing that academics and politicians alike cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised. And such writing is troubling. If Kevin’s writing remained like this, he would probably not make it through college.

The traditional remedial writing course would begin with simple writing assignments and include a fair amount of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage. The readings used for such a course would also be fairly basic, both in style and content. Though they might not be articulated, there are powerful – and limiting – assumptions about language, learning, and cognition that drive such a curriculum: that students like Kevin need to go back to linguistic square one, building skill slowly through the elements of grammar; that simpler reading and writing assignments won’t overly tax Kevin’s limited ability and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic error; that complex, demanding work and big ideas – college work – should be put on hold until Kevin displays mastery of the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

The program we developed for students like Kevin held to a different set of assumptions, assumptions we had developed from reading current research on language and cognition and from our own experience in the classroom. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing on all levels, grammar to organization to style. But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly, slowly build his skill. And in Kevin’s case, we were right. By the end of the twenty-week program, Kevin was writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Let me explain a bit more about the remedial writing curriculum we fashioned, and then use it to make a broader point about the possibilities of remediation.

My co-workers and I began by surveying a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of reading and writing assignments faced by students like Kevin in that critical first year. We then found readings from a variety of disciplines that were similar to those in our survey and created writing assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and also so that they were cumulative: what a student learned to do in the first week fed into an assignment on the fifth. So, for example, several early assignments Kevin faced required him to read a passage on the history of Eugenics and write a definition of it and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the U.S. and summarize it. This practice in defining and summarizing would later come into play when Kevin had to systematically compare the descriptions of becoming literate in the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography.

To assist students with assignments like these, we organized instruction so that there was lots of discussion of the readings and a good deal of in-class writing where students could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed.

And because many of our students, like Kevin, did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error – in class, in conference, on comments on their papers – but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. Those who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn’t belong. He proved them wrong. And those holding to a traditional remedial model would be fearful that the tasks we assigned would be too difficult, would discourage Kevin. He proved them wrong as well.

Since we mounted those programs, some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we took. Successful remedial programs set high standards; are focused on inquiry and problem solving in a substantial curriculum; utilize a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive; draw on a variety of techniques and approaches; and are in-line with student goals and provide credit for coursework.

Educational researchers Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, Kris Gutierrez, and others have a nice way of talking about successful remediation. They refer to re-mediation – that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught the material they had not mastered before. A complaint often leveled at remediation by legislators is that they are “paying twice” for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation, re-mediation, is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some students this makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, June 23, 2008

More on Teaching "Non-Traditional" (Or Any) Students, With a Focus on James Joyce's "Araby"

There was a lot of thought-provoking response to my last entry (“On Portraying the ‘Non-Traditional’ College Student”), and so I would like to continue the discussion this week.

A number of people who posted, and some who contacted me outside of the blog, wrote letters to Atlantic Monthly about the article (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” by Professor X). I wrote one too. Editors will typically select a small number of the letters they receive – looking for representative ones, brief ones, ones that can be readily edited for the space available. So let me open this blog to those who want to post their letters here, published or not, once the July (but probably August) issue of the Atlantic Monthly comes out.

Now to this week’s entry. I am also going to try to tie in some of the response to my “The Personal is Cognitive: The Human Side of Learning” from the week before last.

What I would like to do this week is to think on paper about teaching – the art and strategy of it – and to do so by focusing on a single short story, James Joyce’s “Araby,” one mentioned by Professor X in his “Basement…” article.

“Araby,” the third story in Joyce’s Dubliners, has become part of the Western literary canon, a familiar entry in a zillion anthologies and syllabi. It was on the Humanities 1-B syllabus I was given to teach 30 years ago. Though a classic, it is arguably too much of its time, place, and language for many to connect with. Professor X writes that his students “fidget…yawn…and grimace” upon first encounter. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering why Professor X didn’t select or substitute other stories.

So let’s think about teaching, using “Araby” as an object to turn and turn in our hands and heads, considering through it the teaching of literature – or any subject, for that matter – from a number of perspectives.

First, a refresher. “Araby” is set in Joyce’s dreary Early-Twentieth Century Dublin and is narrated in the first person by an adolescent boy who is thoroughly infatuated with the older sister of one of his pals. The boy’s language is rich, fervid, and his description of his friend’s sister is flat-out rapturous. Though he watches her from afar and only directly encounters her once in the story, “…my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” You get the idea.

The defining moment in the story begins to develop when the girl, in that single encounter, expresses regret that she can’t go to Araby, the bazaar that’s in town, and our narrator, emboldened, says he will go and bring her something. After an agony of waiting for his drunken uncle to come home with a few shillings, the boy rushes to Araby, arriving at closing time. It is as dreary a place as the city surrounding it. He finds an open booth, eyes vases and tea sets, feels the few coins in his pocket, and realizes suddenly, painfully, the foolhardiness of his desire and quest. “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” the story ends, “and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

So let’s say, I, you, or Professor X might want to teach “Araby.” There are a lot of questions to consider in selecting any piece of literature for a syllabus. Certainly, one’s own pleasure with the text matters – it enlivens the teaching – but there needs to be further justification, since teaching literature means reading a story or poem with others to some pedagogical end, a social intellectual activity.

Here in three overlapping parts, three cycles or lines of sight, are some of the things I might think about as I consider assigning “Araby.”


I’d ask myself what it is I want to achieve through teaching the story: what about literature and the appreciation of it, or about the structure of the short story, or about Joyce and his Dublin, or about symbolism and imagery, or about the cadence of a sentence, or about imagination and longing, or about conceptions of romance and gender, or….And I’d ask these questions if I were teaching “Araby” to a group of high schoolers or to a graduate seminar in English – though, of course, the specifics of what I did in each classroom would be different.

I’d intersect such questions with what I know about the students before me, high schoolers to advanced graduate students. Some of what I know comes from their location in the system: Were there prerequisite courses? What have they already been reading for me? And some of what I know is provided by their performance, by discussion in class, by tests or papers, by comments made in conference. And some of what I know emerges via relation, through what I try to make a respectful engagement with them as people with histories, interests and curiosities, hopes for the future.


That last point about considering the histories of the people in the class brings into focus another set of, not unrelated, questions, questions about the politics and sociology of what gets selected into literary canons, of what authors get read. So I’d be asking myself: Does my syllabus reflect in some way, to some degree the cultural histories and practices of the students before me, particularly if those histories and practices have typically been absent from the curriculum? There can be great pedagogical power here, and all of us who have taught literature have seen it: Students lighting up when they read stories with familiar languages, geographies, family scenes, cultural practices that they haven’t read before in a classroom. This point was made nicely in several posts. Given this perspective, and depending on who was in my class, I might take a pass on “Araby.” I know that when I first read the story as a college freshman, it seemed as flat and distant as could be.

But culture is a complex business, as is teaching, and a cautionary note was raised in last week’s posts. While being responsive to our students’ cultural histories and practices, we have to be mindful of how easily “culture” can be narrowed and reduced as we try to define it. Given the tendency in our society (discussed at other times in this blog) toward either/or thinking and one-dimensional answers to complex educational questions, the point is worth emphasizing. As expressed in one post, there is “no monolithic us,” no blanket African-American, or working-class, or Puerto Rican culture, and thus no ready match-up to writers from these backgrounds. Black kids won’t automatically respond to Alice Walker. How a story of hers is taught becomes a key variable. This seems obvious, I know, but it can slip away from us.

So maybe “Araby” shouldn’t be ruled out of court….


Which leads me to the third line of sight I’d take when considering “Araby.” And that is my own experience with the story: as an underprepared college freshman from a working-class background, as someone who later taught “Araby,” and as a middle-aged man reading it once again, just before composing this entry.

As I noted a moment ago, I didn’t like or get “Araby” the first time I read it. Though I had a terrific senior high school English teacher – a guy who turned my life around – and some wonderful teachers later in college, my college Freshman English instructor was awful. As I subsequently learned more about literary technique in general, and Joyce in particular, and especially as I had to eventually teach “Araby” myself, I came to appreciate it. And reading the story a few days ago – thinking back to my own adolescence – it touched me deeply.

I take a few lessons from this brief survey of my own time with “Araby.”

The first lesson has to do with how I missed completely in my freshman year the overlay of the story with my own experience. Like the narrator, I too lived in a sad and taxing place and sought release in my imagination. And, like him, I had a desperate and unrequited crush – in my case on a waitress in the Mexican restaurant down the street. My heart too picked up speed just walking past the front window, hoping that she was at the counter. The important point here, I think, is that we sometimes don’t see connection or relevance automatically, readily. This could be a place where artful teaching comes in.

Teaching also comes in, of course, in understanding literary technique, the way “Araby” works as a story: the structure of the thing, the boy’s hyperbolic language, the small touches that mean so much. I remember not getting the ending at all: how did we go so quickly from looking at vases and jingling a few coins in the pocket to the crashing “my eyes burned with anguish and anger”? But a little guided reflection on that ending would have revealed a powerful truth, surely known to me at 19, and, for that fact, to all the folks in Professor X’s literature class: that our hopes are sometimes dashed through the smallest thing – an overheard remark, a glance away, an opportunity missed by a minute or two.

If I did elect to teach “Araby,” I would probably be considering in hindsight what didn’t happen with me upon first encounter – which provides another way to think about how to open the story up to others.

I invite the readers of this blog to pipe in, to continue thinking with me about teaching – teaching a story like “Araby”… or any of the other issues about teaching raised in my last few entries.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

On Portraying the “Non-Traditional” College Student

Since I began this blog a few months back, we have been discussing the purpose of schooling, particularly, but not solely, public education, K-12. This week, I would like to shift the focus to a different population, though the issue of the purpose of education is still involved.

Several people forwarded to me an article that appeared in the June Atlantic Monthly entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” It offers a disheartening portrait of the “non-traditional” (or “remedial” or just run-of-the-mill) college student, a portrait common in mass media, and in high-brow media particularly.

The author, who is identified as “Professor X”, teaches Freshman Composition and Introduction to Literature at a community college and a small private college. His courses are required, and his students, by his description, are people “who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.”

The purpose of the piece is to challenge the notion that everyone should have access to post-secondary education, and the professor supports his claim with a narrative of student incompetence. His students can’t write about Joyce’s “Araby” or Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”. They can’t write a research paper “elucidat[ing] the positions of scholars on two sides of a historical controversy. Why did Truman remove MacArthur? Did the United States covertly support the construction of the Berlin Wall?” They haven’t read a book in common. And so it goes.

The professor doesn’t come across as a bad guy, and he frets over the grades he must dole out. But what is so frustrating to people like me, certainly to those who told me about the article, is that the professor seems clueless about alternative ways to engage his students in the humanities and help them become more effective critical readers and writers. Nor does he seem to grant them much experience or intelligence that could be brought to bear on core topics in the humanities.

What troubles me more than Professor X’s particular narrative of failure is how frequently this type of story appears in magazines like Atlantic Monthly. We’ve discussed mass media in this blog before – and I am certainly not in the business of bashing the media – but it’s telling that such portraits come from academics or visiting journalists whose educational experience is, I’ll bet, quite different from the students before them. Their stance is one of shock or dismay or cynicism rather than curiosity and engagement. And their portrayals help shape public opinion about an issue and a population much more complex than their weary depictions suggest.

It is certainly accurate that a number of people do enter higher education poorly prepared. And we do need to think hard about what the current push for “college for all” truly means, how it can be enacted in an effective way, and whether or not it offers the best remedy for past educational inequality. These are important questions. Articles like “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” don’t help us answer them.