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.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

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?