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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Thursday, September 2, 2010

More Than a Paycheck

This commentary appeared in the August 6 issue of Inside Higher Ed, and I reprint it here.

* * *

In just about every speech that President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan give on the subject, the primary purpose they cite for education, and for education reform, is an economic one. The same is true from statehouses to local school boards. We send our kids to school to enhance their position in the economic order and to secure the nation’s economic future. This appeal is especially true when the president and his education secretary are making a pitch for college, and a fair amount of that effort is aimed at the community college, a site for skilled occupational training or a course of study leading to transfer to a four-year school.

“[T]he power of these institutions [is] to prepare students for 21st-century jobs,” the President said last year at a community college in Troy, New York, “and to prepare America for a 21st-century global economy.”

I am sitting in on an orientation to a vocational program at an urban community college that draws on one of the poorest populations in the city. The students in this program have had pretty sketchy educations, and they read, write and calculate at a ninth grade level or below. The program will both help them improve those skills as well as provide occupational training. If ever there was a population suited for the economic appeal, it is this one. They desperately need a leg up.

The director of the program stands at a desk and lectern at the front of a large classroom. The walls are bare, no windows, institutional cream, clean and spare. Behind her is an expansive white board; in front are 25 or so students sitting quietly in no particular order in plastic chairs at eight long tables. The students are black and Latino, a few more women than men, most appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s, with one man, who looks like he’s had a hard time of it, in his mid-40s.

“Welcome to college, “ the director is saying, “I congratulate you.” She then asks them, one by one, to talk about what motivates them and why they’re here. There is some scraping of chairs, shifting of bodies, and the still life animates.

The economic motive does loom large. One guy laughs, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.” A woman in the back announces that she wants to get her GED “to get some money to take care of myself.” What is interesting, though -- and I wish the president and his secretary could hear it -- are all the other reasons people give for being here: to “learn more,” to be a “role model for my kids,” to get “a career to support my daughter,” to “have a better life.” The director gets to the older man. “I’m illiterate,” he says in a halting voice, “and I want to learn to read and write.”

The semester before, students also wrote out their reasons for attending the program -- as this current cohort will soon have to do -- and their range of responses was even wider. Again, the economic motive was key, but consider these comments, some written in neat cursive, some in scratchy uneven (and sometimes error-ridden) print: “learning new things I never thought about before”; “I want my kids too know that I can write and read”; “Hope Fully with this program I could turn my life around”; “to develope better social skills and better speech”; “I want to be somebody in this world”; “I like to do test and essay like it is part of my life.”

Over the past eight years I’ve been studying the cognitive demands of physical work. That includes comparatively high-end jobs such as surgery and physical therapy, but mostly blue-collar and service occupations, such as plumbing and hair styling — the kind of occupations the people we just heard from hope to enter. Our society tends to make sharp and weighty distinctions between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work, “neck up and neck down” jobs, as one current aphorism has it.

But what I’ve found as I’ve closely examined physical work is its significant intellectual content. This content is no surprise if we consider the surgeon, but the carpenter and the hair stylist and the welder, too, are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don’t hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

While doing this research, I’ve spent a lot of time in high school and college vocational programs watching people gain expertise. These observations have given me a valuable perspective on current economic and education policy aimed at getting young and no-so-young people back to school, particularly those who are academically underprepared and typically come from a lower-middle class to working-class backgrounds.

People, affluent as well as poor, go back to school for all kinds of reasons, but our current policy incentives and the rhetoric that frames them don’t capture this rich web of motives.

One consequence of this narrow understanding is the missed opportunity to create a more robust appeal for returning to school. As we just witnessed, people sign up for educational programs for economic reasons but also because further education pulls at their minds, hearts, and sense of who they are and who they want to become. The prospect of a good job is hugely motivating, but it can seem far off, especially during the first difficult months of returning to school.

People need other, complementary motivators: engagement with the work in front of you, the recognition that you’re learning new things, becoming competent, using your mind, doing something good for yourself and your family. It’s common in occupational programs — from welding to nursing to culinary and cosmetology — to hear participants express with some emotion their involvement with and commitment to what they’re learning. In the high-testosterone world of the welding shop, for example, I hear one guy after another talk about the “beauty” of a weld and how much they “love” welding. There’s more than a financial calculus involved here.

The second and more troubling problem with the narrow economic focus of the educational policy we’re considering is the way it plays into a longstanding undemocratic tendency in American education policy, and that is a narrow understanding of the lives and work of working class-people. The approach to schooling for them has often been a functional one heavy on job training and thin on the broader intellectual, aesthetic, and civic dimensions of education. And since policy influences the content and philosophy of programs -- new programs particularly -- this narrow understanding can be reproduced for new generations of students.

The most striking and consequential example of this tendency was the split in the curriculum between the academic and vocational course of study as the comprehensive high school was developed in the early 20th century. This split has led to all sorts of problems with the education of the children of the working class, an education that often failed to address a wide range of human learning.

But, of course, working life provides the thought and action sold short in the typical school curriculum. The electrician forms a hypothesis about a faulty circuit and systemically tests the variables. Through a hole in the wall of an old house, a plumber feels the structures he can’t see, visualizing them from touch in order to figure out where a blockage might be. A hairstylist plans a cut as she talks to a client and examines her hair, “and at the end,” as one stylist told me, “you’ve got to come up with a thought: 'O.K. it’s gotta be this length, it’s gotta be layered here, it’s got to be textured there, it can’t have a fringe.' ” Another stylist tries to fix a botched dye job by speculating about what the previous stylist was trying to achieve. A woodworker looks at old desks on a computer to get some ideas as to how to repair a customer’s antique.

And, as we saw with the welders, aesthetic concerns arise frequently and in surprising settings. An electrician rebraids the wires of a perfectly functional assembly because they’re “ugly.” A contractor admires the “pretty” shaping of conduit under the eaves of a roof. A plumber one more time runs his finger over the caulking of a newly installed toilet to “make it look nice.”

These aesthetic concerns are related to a commitment to craft and to what I’d call an ethics of practice. Consider this young carpenter showing me a small flaw along the base of a bookcase; it’s in a place no one will see once the bookcase is upright. But he’s fixing the problem -- a tiny gap where a strip of wood warped -- because “I want it to be right.” Such behavior reflects and reinforces one’s sense of who one is.

Cognition, aesthetics, craft, ethics and values, identity. And this is only within the realm of physical work itself. We haven’t even begun to consider the stuff of a traditional academic curriculum -- art, science, literature, history -- and the ways it could be integrated into, or, for that matter, emerge from work of the hand. We need to work harder than we have yet to create a vocationally oriented education that at its core involves the intellectual, civic, and social goals too often found only in liberal studies. There’s no reason why the tests and essays that earlier student longed to master shouldn’t be imagined as being part of all these students’ lives.


  1. I've taught learning disabled kids for 30 years. More and more I've come to value their intelligence and use their expertise. We had a kid in the 7th grade who just blubbered and cried any time we tried to get him to do schoolwork. His dad was a mechanic and apparently taught him some valuable skills. We had a snow storm on day. I had this Chevy van that required chains to move on ice. He went out to help me and it was like having an adult male.

    I had a sixth grade kid another year who did nothing the whole year. He was a nice guy but hyperactive and unconcerned with school. The last week of school we moved my classroom to the opposite end of the school. He acted as a very competent supervisor of every one on the crew, including me.

    A couple of years ago our school bought some nice chairs for the teachers, again at the end of the year. My fifth and sixth grade boys wanted to assemble ours. Why not, I thought. We asked if they needed directions. They said, "no." Before we knew it, they'd put about 25 of them together. The janitorial staff was so grateful.

    Eric Hoffer once said- "the lower classes are lumpy with talent." I see that every day.

  2. Just illustrating an article for Ed Week by Jim Haas, in which he objects to the idea of measuring the education primarily by what it contributes to future earnings (I imagine that you probably know him). It just seems that humans are so curious, it should ideally be for exploration and learning for the joy of it- especially as people age, really age, when they only want to know the things they have always known (I have an aged parent).

  3. Mike, this is so perfectly articulated. (I was away and just came back to it.) It so reflects what I have seen also with the adolescents I collaborate with: They use their minds all the time when their hands are doing the things they choose to practice.

    May I cross-post this on FiresInTheMind.org?

  4. Dear Dr. Rose
    I used to think that: everyone goes to college for money only (this one includes me) and white collar occupation is always better than blue collar occupations. My mind is changed after I read this blog and interview some my classmate.
    The reason I went to college is money. I thought that: when I graduated, I will have a good job, so I will have a lot of money. But after I interview my classmates, almost they have the same reason with me, but some of them have another reason such as want to improve English skill or want to have knowledge…. I changed my mind about reason people goes to college, but there is sentence in the blog made me changed my mind about reason of me: “to be a role model for my kids,” to get “a career to support my daughter”. I imagined some thing will happen if I would not have knowledge such as when my kids don’t know how to do math exercise, or English grammar… I will not be able to help them…Now, the reason I go to college is supporting my children in future.
    I used to think that white collar occupation is always difficult than blue collar occupations. If you want to do the white collar occupations you have to learn for along times and these jobs are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. After I read this blog, I paid attention about the blue collar occupations such as stylist job. If you want to learn about it, you just need learn in 6 months, but it is not easy to you to become a good stylist, because you have to have skills such as you have to style and make decision right away after you see and heard customer’s suggestion…..If you make wrong one, the customer never come back again. Now I understand that even white collar or blue collar jobs, both need to be respected.
    I really want say thank for your blogs, because It makes me have the right thinks and have the targets in my life.

  5. Dear Dr. Rose,

    I am “nontraditional” collage student. Student like you mentioned on your blog. I have to share time between school, work and family. I read 3 your blogs: Professor X, Teaching Remedial Writing and More Than a Paycheck. In the class ESOL 32, we have big discussion about each one. I also wrote journal about each one. I am glad that our professor chose those topics. I think reading those blogs had the impact on me and all my classmates. I think my favorite blog with the biggest impact on me was “More than paycheck”. This blog shows that people want to be more than the paycheck. The young people want back to school and take the effort to jungle between school, work, family although they are academically underprepared and typically come from a lower-middle class to working-class backgrounds. „More than paycheck” shows that people have the ambitions, to learn something new, get better society position. Every one want to reach the „American dream” and most of us already know that, we cannot reach this without education and knowledge. I learned from this blog that everyone needs get some motivation to go to college. The students also should know what they want from their college degree. I think learning is best investment for all the people. Everyone has different motivation for learning. No matter what motivate people to get back to school, all reasons are good to learn new things and get college degree.

  6. Dear Dr. Rose,
    It is a hot topic because we are still debating about it nowadays. I have just heard about it on KPBS radio (05/05/2013). That is the subject we should pay more attention on especially developing country like us Viet Nam. Almost the Vietnamese go to college because of a paycheck because they are poor they need money for their life. They think that white collar job is good job, and a job that will help you have a better life. On the other hand, blue collar job is very bad job that is only for people who are lack of education, the people that graduated high school with very bad grade, or the people that are not able to graduated high school. That will be shame for the parents whose children have to study vocational program. For that reason, almost parents force their children to study hard so that they can get in popular university such as medical and Pharmacy University. As a result, low level education as workforce is small and the quality is low because they feel shame for what they are doing. The things are not important in social, and quality of high level education is low too because they have to learn what they do not really want to. Moreover, there are bad things happen to such a student. Since they feel bored with their class, they take off the class, live a street life, and addict to drug, or some kind of bad things. There are some real cases happen in Viet Name each year. In conclusion, we have to find out solutions to solve above problem, to change thinking of people, to help them to perceive white collar or blue collar jobs both are not different and both are important.

  7. Dear Dr.Rose,
    The blog that I will respond to will be on More Than a Paycheck. I am choosing this blog because I believe that education is more important then having a job that pays you minimum or high paying job. This is important to me because before I came to America I did not take education serious. In my hometown back in Viet Nam I would fool around and not care about education at all. When I got to America it open my mind and eyes to see how great life can be if I have an education. That is why I finish high school and got into college because I want to learn and improve on a lot of things, but first is my English speaking and writing skills. I take education serious because I am the oldest son in the family and sometimes when I get paper work, or having to go to a meeting I need to be able to understand what I am reading about or what the person is talking about. I did write a journal about this blog. Yes there is a sentence I want to use in my respond for Mike Rose, “I actually want to learn improve my skills, improve on my knowledge then doing this for a paycheck. I believe I am more then a paycheck because of all the hard work I have put in for school and time outside of school”. The reason I pick this sentence from my journal is to prove that people aren’t just getting education to get a higher salary. People are continuing or going back to schooling because they need help to improve on some skills, and for me those skills are English speaking and writing.

  8. Dear DR.ROSE

    In my reading class, we read three blogs that I like ‘MORE THAN A PAYCHECK’ more than the others. When I read your blog about people’s motivations for attending in the college, your wide opinion was interesting for me. First of all, I admire you because of your attitude about non-traditional students. I also like your opinion that consider both white-color occupations and blue-color occupations are same important. I am wondering how many people they do agree with this idea, and when we do not judge people because of their occupation. I also wrote a journal about this blog. I mentioned as a non-traditional student, I like to learn more about my around, however, economic issue is important to me too like many people in your researches. In conclusion, I appreciate about writing these blogs and making clear many ideas of other people.

    Saghi Atefyekta

  9. Tonahadasgari@yahoo.com Hi Professor Mike Rose

    I am ESOL student and we were reading your blog. It really helped us and we learned a lot from that blog. We were reading and then we wrote paragraphs of every part that we read. It was really helpful for our vocabulary too. I learned a lot of new vocabulary from your blog. It’s really nice to see people doing work for nontraditional students. Most of the people I know, they don’t really care about nontraditional students and they all think that nontraditional students are not intelligent which is not true. As example professor X never believed that nontraditional students are intelligent and smart. He thought they never can become a good person because they were never good. I am really thankful for what you said to him. You are the person who makes us think that we are important as traditional students are. I would really like to meet you in person and talk to you for a bit. At the end I just want to say thank you and I want to let you know that your blog helps a lot of nontraditional and it makes them to do the best they can.