Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker by Mike Rose


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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UCLA Professor Mike Rose, in his book The Mind At Work, makes a strong case that blue collar workers have been undervalued. His research shows how workers use cognitive ability in everyday jobs, employing their minds to work successfully. Any reader who has thought that some work is “mindless” will think again after reading The Mind At Work. Rose goes easy on the academics behind this book, and uses stories, including that of his mother, a former waitress, to prove his theory.


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Reflective Technique: Electrical Wiring and Construction,” pp. 100-108:


For a very long time in the West, there has been a tendency among intellectual elites to distinguish between physical work and techni­cal skill—labor, the mechanical arts, crafts and trades—and delib­erative and philosophical activity, which emerges from leisure, or, at least, from a degree of distance from the world of work and com­merce. This distinction is related to another: between pursuits that are ends in themselves and pursuits that are means to other ends, “pure” activity and knowledge versus the instrumental, applied, and practical, which possess less merit. These distinctions find early articulation in Classical Greece where they were part of a comprehensive philosophical system that celebrated the capacity of the human mind but that developed in a society reliant on slavery and servile labor. One consequence was that entire social and occu­pational groups were narrowly, and harshly, defined. In The Repub­lic, Plato mocks the craftsman who would pursue philosophy, for his soul is “warped and maimed” by his work; such men are “inca­pable of culture.” And Aristotle in Politics notes that “there is no element of virtue in any of the occupations in which the multitude of artisans and market-people and the wage-earning class take part.” Because such occupations are “ignoble and inimical to good­ness,” Aristotle further proposes that their practitioners be denied citizenship. To be sure, the craftsperson—from cobbler to shipwright to potter—was essential to Greek civilization, and his skill was praised, but, wrote Plutarch, “It does not necessarily follow that if a work is delightful because of its gracefulness, the man who made it is worthy of our serious regard.” Work of body and hand, then, has limiting, even harmful, consequences for civic sta­tus and engagement, for the ability to deliberate and interpret, for virtue.

I am reading again what the Greeks and others in the Classical tradition had to say about physical work as I visit these classrooms and job sites where young people are learning a trade. The distinc­tions between pure and applied, theoretical and practical are deeply familiar to me, resonant from undergraduate courses in philosophy and literature, from graduate study in education and psychology, and from years of professional life in a research uni­versity, where a range of institutional decisions and certifications— from course credit to disciplinary definition—are made on the pivot of the pure-applied differential. A lot of our schooling reinforces this way of thinking about human activity. Though there certainly are dissenting voices in Western intellectual history, from Saint Augustine to William Morris, it is striking how pervasive this per­spective on human behavior is. It underlies many canonical trea­tises on art and on education. So when Felipe expresses pleasure over the utility of his cabinet, he would raise, for some, a set of judg­ments that lessens the merit of the object of his craft and the virtue of his activity.

Yet, when you get in dose to that activity, watch it unfold over time and get a sense of the thought and motive that directs it, you gain continual evidence of many of the qualities that the classical philosophical distinctions tend to diminish. The work itself when seriously engaged—the traditions and values one acquires and the complex knowledge and skills developed—gives rise to a virtue of practice, an ethics and aesthetics, and a reflectiveness intermixed with technique. Furthermore, as we’ve been seeing, all this be­comes part of the construction of one’s sense of self.

There are many reasons why physical work is perceived as it is in our time, reasons stemming from our economic and social structure. But an element of our perception—particularly in some intellectual communities and institutions—is related to these long­standing distinctions, absorbed into new historical contexts. I want to consider the way these distinctions restrict, even categorically rule out, the possibility of the full expression of mind for whole groups of people, contributing to a stereotypic opinion of blue-collar workers. To help us arrive at a more philosophically generous view of mind and work, let me bring together a series of further vi­gnettes, some from settings we’ve visited—Jon Guthier’s plumbers and Jerry Devries’s woodshop—but most from other sites, particu­larly two involving electrical wiring and construction.

One early event that got me to thinking about these issues oc­curred at a Habitat for Humanity construction site. As we were traveling to the site, I listened to a boy named Skip hold forth. Teen-magazine good looks, cocky, a mouth full of trouble, he was needling another boy about his acne and declaring that he was go­ing to take care of someone else “for talking some shit about me.” By the end of the ride, I found myself imagining the hell Skip cre­ates for some of his teachers and surely for his vulnerable class­mates. He was quickly becoming my least favorite kid.

Then we pulled into the job site. A cluster of house frames, stacks of lumber, young folks and old securing joists, nailing ply­wood to rafters, installing windows. The teacher, a skilled carpen­ter named Scott Butler, picked Skip and two other boys to spend the day with him and learn how to install windows. I went with them. And witnessed a remarkable transformation in Skip, almost from the moment he put on his tool belt.

His agitated arrogance and the nasty streak disappeared. In­stead, Skip was focused on the work, thoughtful about it and con­siderate of those working with him—his language inflected now with “yes sir” and “excuse me.” He attended to Mr. Butler as the teacher guided the young crew through a range of activities: from tricks for working in tight quarters, to modifying routines in order to solve emerging problems, to thinking about the consequences of a particular repair for subsequent construction. Skip’s one mo­ment of disgruntlement—an emotional peep when compared to the braying on the bus—came in response to a poorly cut window frame left by a previous crew. “Oh man,” he said, shaking his head, “measuring is one of the first things we learn how to do.”

Skip’s transformation and the connection to craft he displays call to mind a passage in Pedal to the Metal, Lawrence Ouellet’s soiological study of long-haul truck drivers. Himself a veteran trucker, Ouellet reflects on his and his buddies’ high school disre­spectful rebelliousness versus the ethic and “sense of honor” he encountered as he entered the truck-driver’s community, the way the work of the road, while allowing a countercultural bearing, brought with it certain codes of conduct and standards of perfor­mance. To be sure, the codes of physical work can incorporate cul­tural biases about race and gender, and about poverty itself. And there can be a certain rigidity to some craft values, a one-right-way absolutism that can blend with social intolerance. We, of course, don’t know how Skip will turn out. But, for now, getting the win­dows right makes its demands on his mind and manner. Some­thing in the techniques he’s learning and the traditions they embody, or the occasion to display competence, or the relation the work affords with Mr. Butler—who knows exactly what—creates for this boy at this juncture in his development the opportunity to act with deliberation and civility, experiment with alternative ways of being in the world.



I was writing this book during a time of anguished national con­versation about young people—about their popular culture, their goals and values, and, with the shock of schoolyard murders, their internal torments and disconnection from the social fabric. Against this backdrop, I was reading about virtue, right action, and finding illustration of it in unexpected places, unexpected given our intel­lectual traditions and common biases. Now, I certainly witnessed peer insult, distorted masculinity, virtual and real violence. We just got a dose of it all from Skip. 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 whole categories of ac­tivities that are principled and contribute to the social good.

During my visits I heard continual expression of—and saw ma­terial evidence to support—a desire to do a job correctly, not to rush it, to make something work well. Take, as illustration, Nancy, who, with another student in her automotive technology class, is replacing the brake pads on her sister’s car. She works through the class period and into lunch. As she is finishing up, tightening wheel nuts with a pneumatic wrench, she talks about the impor­tance of good brakes, how she is “really picky about brakes,” how they can make the crucial difference in protecting both life and property.

Or watch Peter repairing the sinks in a women’s shelter. He works with Joe, a retired plumber volunteering his time. Peter works hard and fast, says he enjoys getting this experience with a seasoned plumber, and is curious about the function of things. He’ll ask Joe to repeat a task or manipulate a device so he can see how something works. At this moment, they’re replacing the fau­cets on a bathroom sink, and are about to fit the sink back into its cabinet. Peter takes a quick look at the drainpipe and p-trap, run­ning his finger inside the trap. “Oh, look at this!” he says to Joe. The trap is corroded, and if you squat down, you can see the build­up of rust and debris. “We’ve gotta change this,” he says, “we can’t put it back together like this.” The schedule for the day specifies faucets only, so Peter goes in search of his instructor, wanting to get approval for a new p-trap that he will then have to find in the crew’s supplies. Peter’s curiosity and his desire to do good work combine here toward action that both satisfies his sense of work­manship and yields benefit to others.

Nancy and Peter are meticulous about the work they do, aware of its consequences, exhibiting both pride in and commitment to doing a good job. There are social and ethical ramifications here. And as we’ve been seeing throughout this book, these craft values emerge from and contribute to a sense of who one is, principled action and identity intertwined, which, it seems to me, provides a good foundation for virtue. Consider Rudolfo and Charles.

Rudolfo is sanding a bookcase, showing me a small flaw along the base. Under a strip of oak that both decorates and reinforces the base—in a place that no one will be able to see once the bookcase is upright—Rudolfo points to a tiny gap in the otherwise flawless seam where strip and base join together. The gap is between one-sixteenth and one thirty-second of an inch wide. Wood inevitably warps, and, as Rudolfo explains, he placed his finishing nails “too high on the strip,” thus not correcting for a small irregularity in the oak. Next time, he notes, he’ll place the nails lower, checking the seam more carefully. Now, though, he’s going to fill the gap with putty and sand it. “No one can see it,” he explains, “but I want it to be right.”

Charles is volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity site and is assembling the frames for the walls of one of the bedrooms. These frames consist of two long, horizontal two-by-four boards with six shorter two-by-fours, called studs, nailed vertically in place sixteen inches apart. Charles begins by measuring and marking the sixteen-inch increments on the horizontal boards, and then lays out the vertical studs accordingly. He measures again. Then he begins nailing the studs in place, driving one nail, then an­other, stopping occasionally to check with his eye or a framing square the trueness of the frame. I ask Charles about this preci­sion. He says that when the frame is finished, “I know it’s going to be straight and well done.” He pauses and adds: “That’s the way I am.” Charles’s values motivate and guide his action: measuring twice, positioning his body, eyeballing the frame. The emerging frame, in turn, embodies those values, manifests them back to Charles, confirming his sense of himself.



“Hey, Justin, that’s pretty!” Jim Padilla yells to the boy on the lad­der, under the eaves, affixing the last fastening strap around a long stretch of electrical conduit. Mr. Padilla pulls two other boys over, pointing up. The sun is behind us, warm and bright on the stucco of the new house. “Look,” Mr. Padilla says in his earnest, rolling voice, “you can barely see the conduit. Nice, huh? You always want to preserve the beauty of the home.”

Jim Padilla, a stocky man with thick black hair and a full mus­tache, is the teacher of this crew of fledgling electricians, fifteen or so boys, high school juniors and seniors out of the classroom on their first job site, a modest tract house in need of outdoor lights and receptacles. Mr. Padilla moves on, his arms angling out from his chest as he walks, and stops at another ladder to talk to another boy fastening conduit under the eaves. “Hey, Mundo,” he hollers up, “come down here a minute, por favor. I wanna show you some­thing.” Mundo makes his way down, rung after rung, setting foot alongside Mr. Padilla. The teacher points up to one of the straps on the underside of the roof. It is off-center. “Look, Mundo,” says Mr. Padilla, “see, all the other straps are in the middle. That’s good. Fix this one, OK? If the strap’s in the middle it’s stronger, and it looks better.” Mundo nods and starts back up the ladder. Mr. Padilla places his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He’s not done yet. “We try hard not to show our straps, Mundo. We want to show as little evi­dence of the electrician’s being here as possible.”

The snug attachment of a conduit, the neat bend in it as it con­nects to a receptacle, the exact placement of a fastening strap where few will see-there is functional purpose to all this, but an aesthetic motive, too. (“What looks well works well,” says one of the carpenters in Tracy Kidder’s House.) To Jim Padilla’s eye, such work is pleasant to behold, is “pretty,” and he tries to train the eye of his students to see it as pretty, too. Being on a job site with Jim Padilla is like being in an artisan’s studio, surrounded with evalua­tive craft-talk. Over time, the students acquire it, and the acquisi­tion re-creates tradition in this time and place. A boy next to me stands back from his work, looks at it quietly, then turns to me and says, “That’s nice, isn’t it?” The look of the work becomes a mark of one’s identity as an electrician. Showing a group of students the wiring in the electrical panel alongside the house, Mt Padilla tells them: “Here’s the thing, guys. Make it as neat as possible. Your signature is on this.”

But it is an unusual signature, and an unusual aesthetic, given the aesthetic of display that so permeates both our popular and highbrow culture. Part of the appeal here is the care put into em­bedding one’s work in the context of the house, out of view, even hidden. An experienced electrician I visited had removed a section of drywall and was commenting on a cluster of wires running along the frame. The braid was perfect, he said approvingly. That makes it easier, he explained, to single out a particular wire—the functional value-but also, it just looks good. The previous electri­cian’s signature is woven into the braid, but anonymously so, and completely out of sight, seen, if at all, by another electrician, car­penter, or plumber over the life of the house.

If there is an aspect of Western intellectual history that dimin­ishes the thought and virtue in physical work, there is, as well, a tendency to limit the meaning and occasion of aesthetic response. I am reminded of something one of Jerry Devries’s students said in an English class. The teacher was introducing a list of vocabu­lary words, drawn from an essay they were reading. Aesthetic was one of them. After a few minutes of discussion, this boy, one of Jerry’s more able students, raised his hand and respectfully sug­gested to his teacher that the word “doesn’t have anything to do with us.” His comment reveals the power of some traditional, and widespread, approaches to aesthetics, that it is a particular kind of response to “high art.” Such definition is unfortunate here, for it compromises the student’s understanding of his own activity.

Of course, there is a range of opinion in Western aesthetics about the nature and function of art, but what strikes me as I read in that literature is the immense intellectual effort put into differ­entiating that which is marked as art from other forms of human artifice. Tolstoy put it nicely: “[A] certain class of works which for some reason please a certain class of people is accepted as being art, and a definition of art is then devised to cover all these produc­tions.” And these definitions are often wrought comparatively: art is contrasted with other activity (for example, craft) and judged to be of a different, and superior, order. I am not suggesting that Fe­lipe’s cabinet or Justin’s neat conduit is the cognitive or imagina­tive equivalent of The Starry Night or “Mood Indigo.” What is worth considering, though, is the way the process of defining art tends to diminish other realms of artful behavior.


Mike Rose attacks cultural stereotyping and makes a case for respecting the way the minds of workers are engaged in the workplace, no matter what some observers and bosses may think. The Mind At Work may encourage some managers to change the way they interact with workers.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004



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