The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker
Sunday night, late August. Homeward bound from Long Island. My wife suggests we make a quick stop at the supermarket on the far side of the GWB. I agree and stay in the car with the sleeping child. Searching the Sunday night radio ghetto for something, anything, to pay attention to. Music exhausted I turn to WNYC and find a show with a weird title for public radio in this market–Speaking of Faith.
Faith is one of those words that always catch my ear so I stuck around. And I was glad I did. What ensued was a nearly hour-long conversation* with Mike Rose, an academic at UCLA with whom I was unacquainted. Rose studies education but initially it was his back story that grabbed me. Mistaken for another kid with the same name (this really could happen in the packed-to-the-gills-schools of the postwar years), Rose was put in the Voc Ed track only to be removed and put in the Academic track in the middle of High School.
That gives Rose a unique perspective for looking at the schools. I have often complained that the scholars toiling in the Ed Schools need to be in dialog with the sociologists of education. In Rose, that gap is bridged by way of his own story. A vivid, compelling writer, Rose manages to illustrate his points with examples that are not mere data.
Here’s the premise in a nutshell: there’s a lot more going on cognitively in jobs labelled unskilled and the skilled trades than the holders of those jobs get credit for. Rose’s method is virtually ethnographic. He immerses himself in various milieus–coffee shops, hair salons, training programs for carpenters, electricians, welders and plumbers–and matches the tasks being learned to typical academic subject matter. A careful researcher, Rose supports his observations with citations from the psychological and educational literature. What read as stories are actually data and this is one of the best examples of the use of qualitative information to inform and support an argument that I have ever read.
Rose concludes that we are short-changing the people who take these jobs. And nowhere more so than in the schools. Two of Roses’ s cases focus on students learning building trades–carpentry and plumbing–within the school system and he demonstrates the linkages an instinctive teacher can make between book learnin’ and practical smarts.
Fans of the Howard Gardner multiple intelligences thesis will recognize this immediately. And from that perspective it makes perfect sense. Does anybody who has paid attention really think that a waiter doesn’t have a range of kinesthetic and interpersonal skills that might eclipse those of a person more formally educated in the verbal and mathematical spheres?
Here’s a real world example encountered every day in Manhattan: stand in line to order coffee or breakfast at a deli. It has to be a deli–Starbucks and other chains where the industrial engineers have done their work don’t count–and watch the counter people and the customers. The staff is often looking down the line, confirming regular orders, taking cash and orders and moving things along. And all too often someone with their face buried in a screen or making the deal of the century on their phone is suddenly surprised to discover they have to order or pay. It’s what Rose is talking about writ small.
Is there hope? Only if we walk away from idiotic notions such as making sure everyone gets a college education. Education is important–it may be society’s most important function. Preparing people for life after schooling is complete is vital. Abstract goals that are more about the goal-setters than the people being educated are essentially a complete waste of everyone’s time. I think Rose would agree with that statement. Or at least I hope he would.
* The podcast of the interview as broadcast is fascinating .For a more extended conversation you can listen to the unedited interview on the same page. Also note that the name of the show has changed to On Being. I guess faith and themindset of the NPR audience were found to be incompatible.