I was hooked by the opening lines of Mike Rose's lovely book, The Mind at Work:
"I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world … I've been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who's smart and who isn't, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do."
Mike Rose grew up in an immigrant family in the center of Los Angeles; I grew up in a small town in the melting pot of Oklahoma. I did not grow up around much physical work, but I did attend a school where advanced classes in languages, math, and science were axed to sustain a strong football team. His story of his late discovery of the strength of his own mind, and, even later, grasping the forms of intelligence he had known without appreciating, sparked all kinds of longing and recognition in me.
Our stories taken together are disparate but kindred facets of a disconnect in the American story that thrives, largely unexamined, in our public life. Despite our national history of exceptional intellectual achievement, we harbor what the historian Richard Hofstadter classically observed as a "national distaste for intellect." At the same time, we harbor a learned dismissal of the cognitive accomplishments of "average" people, working people, and “manual” labor.
Mike Rose can demonstrate the error of such dismissiveness with hard research. But his concern goes deeper than that and is relevant to us all. Failing to see and nurture the intellectual and civic substance of all kinds of work, he worries, is profoundly undemocratic. It limits our collective vision and range of action from school reform to social planning. We shape educational policies with economic competitiveness in mind, Mike Rose says; but we need also to ask what kind of education befits a democracy? Here is part of his answer to that question, in our conversation:
So what kind of a language should we use in a democratic society? Certainly a language that includes the economic motive. Absolutely. Of course. But that braids that motive in with all the other reasons that actually historically in our country we've talked about as well. The civic motive. We send kids to school to become civic beings. We sent kids to school to learn how to solve problems with each other. Children go to school because their parents want to help them develop into better people. They want them to find passions. They want them to learn how to learn.
And what about in a democracy learning how to speak up when you think something is not right? Or learning to take a risk. You know, in this kind of test-based world that students grow up in, you're penalized if you take a risk but yet just about any intellectual breakthrough of any kind that you'll study has seen that it's been a path of breakthrough and failure. So where in all of this are children encouraged to take intellectual risks? What kinds of classrooms are created that allow that?
What you see when you travel through all these communities and you talk to parents and you watch these teachers who work so hard and you spend time with these kids, is you get a sense of this immense rich thing that a classroom can be, a place of both learning subject matter but of learning how to exist in a public space and how to have this feeling, this sense, that you matter and that your mind matters and that this is a place that's safe and respectful and where I can take chances and I can learn something. And that can have an effect on who I'm going to be.