Have you ever looked down on a waitress, hair stylist, plumber, carpenter, electrician, or welder? The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (2004) by Mike Rose addresses the smarts it takes to work in any one of these vocations, and he makes a compelling case for recognizing and appreciating the varied skills and talents of any worker. This book may change your mind about holding onto snooty and hierarchical stereotypes and instead valuing the contributions that everybody makes to society, big or small, rich or poor. He examines “the tension between practical life, experience, and common sense versus schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits” (p. 164).
Rose focuses on each of the vocations I mentioned above. But most poignant to me was his chapter on being a waitress, for his mother worked as one. He’s an education scholar who has focused on literacy, and he benefited from his mother’s work ethic and her skill. And although he’s written journal articles and theory-rich books, this book is accessible and meant to be read by everyone. He wrote, “One of the truest things I know about my mother and her work in the restaurant is how central that work was to her sense of self and engagement with the world. What I also know from our shared experience is that her choice of work and the meaning she ascribed to it was shaped by the course of her own life history and the web of social and economic forces surrounding it” (p. 3). I love that his overview of his mother’s work and waitressing in general gives credence to the skill and intelligence it takes to multi-task all day long and to work efficiently and effectively with intelligence and dedication.
Of the hair stylists Rose met and studied, he noted their ability to convert “personal interest into professional code and bearing” (p. 48). They may have started as young girls with an interest in aesthetics and beauty, but they become, through working in their field, professionals with real skill and talent necessary to success. Also interesting, was the context of the beauty industry. Rose quoted one woman who said, “Women don’t even know what they look like anymore” (p. 51). He sees how the stylists “aesthetic values and technical repertoire are shaped to some degree within this industry” (p. 51).
We learn how inviting carpentry can be. “For a young person with an interest in woodworking, the shop must feel like a powerful invitation to competence, a pathway to achievement” (p. 80). I see this as relevant to all of the vocations Rose studied for this book. Although not respected in the same way that doctors or lawyers are, these vocations give people jobs and allow them the same fulfillment and ability to earn and achieve in a field they can excel in.
Rose connected this to some of the problems we may identify among young people today. He wrote, “But young people’s lives have many dimensions to them, and, thus, I also witnessed behaviors that are dearly sought in our national assays of adolescent experience. It is as if our collective anxiety is leading us to look in the wrong places, to seek pathology, and, as a result, to miss the whole categories of activities that are principled and contribute to the social good” (p. 104). He wrote this in relation to his time spent with plumbers, noting one particular apprentice who was difficult and seemed to be a troubled youth. Rose saw value in such a young man learning a trade and finding respect therein, for it “satisfies his sense of workmanship and yields benefit to others” (p. 105). Such work allows young people to enter a community and find their value within larger society.
One of the main ideas in the book is learning by doing. This is a concept I heard from a professor in my Ph.D. program when I interviewed him about teaching undergraduate technical communication courses. He was adamant that his students had to have hands-on experiences and that they must be able to do what they talked about in theory. That stuck with me, and I was delighted to find it in Rose’s book. When watching a young man named Marcus learning to become an electrician, Rose learned, “It is in application that Marcus’s knowledge gains its power, and this effective use becomes a test of the depth of his understanding” (p. 113). Later, Rose reminds us, “We learn powerful things about the world not only by reflecting on it but also by acting on it” (p. 115).
In the section on welders, we find Lisa Legohn, a woman who faces “Men verbally challenging her—What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at home?—or threatening her physically” (p. 117). Occupational exclusion is a theme in many of these chapters, and we learn how much gender plays a role in work and workplaces today. There’s also bias. “[A]s we move to other kinds of contemporary work, consider how these beliefs—inflected with biases about immigration, class, the grime or cleanliness of a task—play out in the way, say, busboys or gardeners, cannery workers or domestics are perceived. As one of the maids in Nickel and Dimed succinctly puts it, ‘They think we’re stupid’” (p. 147).
And a major point of Rose’s book is that nobody is stupid.
I appreciated his final chapters, which give a rich history of education in the United States and examine just how we got where we are when it comes to education versus experience and college versus a vocation. He highlighted “gender stereotyping and racial segregation” in schools, noting that “Girls were channeled into clerical courses” and that there was “systematic bias at play in the way students get placed in various curricular tracks” (p. 175). We don’t necessarily place students in tracks anymore, but this can be influenced by “parental power and teachers’ and counselors’ beliefs about race and about social class” (p. 175). Of current issues in education, he wrote, “But what is so disturbing on a societal level—taking the school as a miniature society—is that young people at a key developmental juncture have to form their sense of self and their conception of their intelligence within the tensions and restrictions of the academic-vocational divide” (p. 190). Although much has changed in the history of education, Rose is adamant that although “some of these biases about intelligence have been challenged and curtailed, they, altered, mutated, are still with us” (p. 214).
His overall point is this: “If we think that whole categories of people—identified by class, by occupation—are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across our current cultural divides” (p. 216).
I am reminded of Dr. Nel Noddings’ beautiful words about the importance of work and how we should respect those who work, no matter what they do. She focuses on caring and the ethic of care in her academic work; she is also the mother of ten children. She said, in a speech here, that we don’t all need to be uniform and standard. We should respect all jobs, and take our children around town with a clipboard and let them write down what they see people doing. We need to respect what all people do in society and teach them to respect the work and influences of others. She says the idea that you can “go to college or be nothing” is awful.
Her work connects nicely to Rose’s, and both scholars helped change my view of education and skilled work. What are your thoughts?