Valuing the Mindful Intelligence of Work in All Its Forms

Sunday, June 28, 2009 - 9:13 am

Valuing the Mindful Intelligence of Work in All Its Forms

I loosely pitched Matthew Crawford, a political philospher who traded in his credentials to run a motorcycle repair shop, as a possible guest for our program several weeks ago after reading “The Case for Working with Your Hands” in The New York Times:

“…mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

This active concern for the motorcycle is reinforced by the social aspects of the job. As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s motorcycle or charge more than a fair price. You often hear people complain about mechanics and other tradespeople whom they take to be dishonest or incompetent. I am sure this is sometimes justified. But it is also true that the mechanic deals with a large element of chance.”

“Sumo Zamboni” by Jean-François Chénier / Flickr
Admittedly, I have a great admiration for women and men who work with their hands and their feet — barbers and electricians, waitresses and bricklayers, potters and linemen. My uncles just knew how to fix farm machinery and build chicken coops and grain silos without a set of drawings. The skill of engine repair I’ve never quite acquired, but I discovered a love of building and remodeling homes — a latent penchant I never allowed myself to explore until 15 years ago. Thinking back to boyhood, the desire was always there, manifesting itself in constructing wood and log mud dams as the heavy Plains rains flowed down the rounded L-shaped gutters. I thought of it as frivolous play; now I recognize it as new sense of play, and purpose (although I suppose Stuart Brown might take issue with my definition).
“Fixing the tractor” by Nirava Rasila / Flickr
There’s a value and a spirit in learning from people who don’t sit in a cubicle all day, who don’t migrate from one meeting room to the next, and live only in words and ideas — much of what I do now and love. I’m not trying to romanticize these professions. Much hard, physically demanding work is involved. But, blue-collar jobs require different approaches to problem-solving, to collaborating, to communicating, to organizing, to tolerating; you do think differently. My many years waiting tables, repairing asphalt cracks with diamond blades and boiling tar, driving a Zamboni machine, cleaning campgrounds, etc. taught me this.
“Lunch at Ella”‘s Diner” by Chuck Patch/Flickr
I also know there’s a different persuasion of intelligence and honor involved in these pursuits. The character traits these many professionals know and practice are common truths that might help us understand ourselves and the values we hold dear with better insight. Shared ideas of loyalty and honesty, camaraderie and community may lead us to be better workers and spouses, friends and neighbors — for the many truths in this world teach and touch all of us, if we let them. We become a greater society as a result.
Hearing others like Matthew Crawford and Mike Rose (author of The Intelligence of Work) and Barbara Ehrenreich and the late Studs Terkel articulate these many perspectives is worth pursuing. And the first step is evaluating voices, which is where Stephen Colbert’s interview comes in. Admittedly, Colbert’s interviews are great fun, but sometimes his quick wit and comic interjections aren’t the most helpful in deciding if a voice for a long-form public radio show. What do you think? Are there other voices for this type of show you might recommend?

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