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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Friday, May 29, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: An Account of a Common Laborer

For the sixth story about cognition in action, I want to go back into history and reflect on the infamous description of a man named Schmidt, a common laborer in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor’s portrayal of Schmidt reveals an undemocratic and contradictory American attitude toward physical work, one that carries with it strong biases about intelligence. For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the reflection on Schmidt, which is drawn from The Mind at Work.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us.


Following is one of the most reproduced depictions of a laborer in Western occupational literature, drawn from Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management. It captures American industry’s traditional separation of managerial intelligence from worker production.

Taylor was a fierce systematizer and a tireless promoter of time study and industrial efficiency. He uses an immigrant laborer named Schmidt to illustrate how even the most basic of tasks—in this case, the loading of pig iron—could be analytically broken down by the scientific manager into a series of maximally effective movements, with a resulting bonus in wages and a boom in productivity. Schmidt, Taylor claimed, jumped his rate from twelve-and-a-half tons of pig iron per day—each "pig" an oblong casting of iron weighing close to one-hundred pounds—to an astonishing tonnage of forty-seven.

Before he introduces Schmidt, Taylor sets the scene with a dispassionate analysis of the loading of pig iron at Bethlehem Steel, Schmidt's place of employment. Enter Schmidt, "a little Pennsylvania Dutchman," seemingly inexhaustible (he "trots" to and from work), frugal, in the process of building "a little house for himself." Then comes this interaction between Taylor and Schmidt:

'Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?'
Vell, I don't know vat you mean.'
'Oh, yes, you do. What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.'
'Vell, I don't know vat you mean.'
'Oh, come now, you answer my questions. What I want to find out is whether you are a high-priced man or one of these cheap fellows here.
What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all those cheap fellows are getting.'
'Did I vant $1.85 a day? Vas dot a high-priced man? Vell, yes, I vas a high-priced man.'
'Oh, you're aggravating me. Of course you want $1.85 a day—every one wants it!…For goodness' sake answer my questions, and don't waste any more of my time. Now come over here. You see that pile of pig iron?'…

Taylor badgers Schmidt for a little while longer—one wonders what Schmidt thinks of all this—and then introduces him to the supervisor who will direct his scientifically calibrated labor:

Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you to-morrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you pick it up and you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that right straight through the day. And what's more, no back talk. Now a high-priced man does just what he's told to do, and no back talk. Do you understand that? When this man tells you to walk, you walk; when he tells you to sit down, you sit down, and you don't talk back at him.

"This seems to be rather rough talk," Taylor admits, but "[w]ith a man of the mentally sluggish type of Schmidt it is appropriate and not unkind." Later, Taylor observes that Schmidt "happened to be a man of the type of an ox…a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do most kinds of laboring work, even."

There's much to say about this depiction, and a number of critics, beginning with Upton Sinclair, have collectively said it: the insidious mix of scientific pretension, class and ethnic bias, and paternalism; the antagonistic management stance, the kind of authoritarian control that would lead to industrial inflexibility; the absolute gulf between managerial brains and worker brawn; the ruthlessness of full-blown industrial capitalism. All true.

In addition, though, I keep thinking of Schmidt himself, rereading Taylor's rendering, trying to imagine him beyond the borders of Taylor's page. Let us follow him through the plant, out into his world, down the road home. Though Taylor claims that a man like Schmidt "is so stupid that the word 'percentage' has no meaning to him," Taylor also tells us that Schmidt is building a house from his meager earnings. So, Schmidt had to calculate and budget, and even if he could not do formal arithmetic—we don’t know if he could or couldn't—he would have to be competent in the mathematics necessary for carpentry. And for him to plan and execute even a simple structure, use hand tools effectively, solicit and coordinate aid—all this requires way more intelligence than Taylor grants him.

Taylor does not tell us if Schmidt is literate, but does note that many of the laborers "were foreigners and unable to read and write." If Schmidt were illiterate, did he develop informal literate networks to take care of personal and civic needs? We know that ethnic communities were rich in fraternal organizations that served as places of entertainment, but also as sites of political discussion and the exchange of news about the old country. Literate members would write letters, read newspapers aloud, both in their native language and English, and act as linguistic and culture brokers with mainstream institutions. The parish church or synagogue was another source of exposure to literate practices and social exchange, and, for some, a place of reflection.

Though Bethlehem Steel was not yet a site of significant union activity, labor unrest had already erupted in some sectors of steel, and discussions about safety, work conditions, and the length of the work day were in the air. Schmidt might well have heard the early rumblings about these issues and might have talked about them to others in the yard, the saloon, the neighborhood.

The point is that one cannot assume—as so many have—that the men looking back at us impassively from those photographs of the open ditch or the pouring of fiery steel, faded, blurring to silver, had no mental life, were sluggish, dull, like oxen.


  1. Nice piece Mike. Do you think that those behind the ideas of performance pay for teachers and mass replication of charter schools might have studied Taylor's approach?

  2. Ventured this way on referral from The Frustrated Teacher.

    I like this post a lot... it has to do with a recent train of thought I've had... although framed in a different way.

    Check it out of you like. I'll be back :-)


  3. This is a wonderful post. It completely validates my recent "academic euthanasia."

  4. We have a tabloid here in New York, The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdock, which daily spews invective over the destructively expensive activities of unions, along with unveiled contempt for the do-nothing orkers “protected “ by those unions. Day after day, as I ride the subway, I notice this paper in the hands of hard-hatted, steel-toe booted union men. As I try to figure out why the workers themselves will buy a paper that supports the dumb-as-dirt-worker mythology, I have wondered if it has something to do with another powerful American mythology—the rugged individual.

    Is it thinking that goes something like this, “I work hard, in fact I carry this operation on my back while the other stupid and lazy workers, protected by the union, get away with murder.”?

    I’m well acquainted with such thinking. Year after year, in a summer camp where I work, I encounter counselors who express dismay that I haven’t fired the “do-nothing counselor” who is making the work miserable—not knowing that the “do-nothing counselor” has just finished telling me the same thing about them.

    In general, the teachers of my acquaintance who support merit-pay schemes express this same idea, “I deserve more pay because I do more work.” (For now let’s leave aside their unsupported notion that “merit” the way they define it would naturally allow them to get the extra pay.) This seems to spring from a belief that they have achieved their expertise and success solely through their own efforts, and, in fact, despite the interference of other workers.

    It is not just the intelligence and industry of “workers” that is regularly denied in this country, it is the intelligence and industry of “others.”

  5. Your speculation on Schmidt's life outside of work reminds me of Sudhir Venkatesh's (Gang Leader for a Day) description of the social network within the slums he wrote about.

    The tenants were much more socially networked and resourceful than I have ever given credit for.

  6. I'm a manager at a fast food restaurant, and I've from time to time claimed that a person is "too dumb to work at" said restaurant. I always regret it afterward, knowing that someone can be bad at cooking french fries and still be an intelligent person.