The Mind At Work

Mike Rose’s book, The Mind at Work (2004), is subtitled, Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.  Using examples of professional waitresses and carpenters and plumbers in training, Rose discusses the intellectual challenges of physical labor.  His discussion of the use of power tools helps illuminate Nye’s discussion of tools and technology.   Rose quotes carpenter Jeff Taylor, “The hammer changes the way you think.”  Power tools, which lead to one kind of de-skilling lead to a different kind of skill.   While it may seem a symptom of technological determinism to abandon more traditional tools for power tools, Rose suggests that history shows that “power tools were integrated into craft traditions and practices, significantly altering the performance of many operations but within the ethos and character of craft work” (p. 81).  Rose goes on to describe one student who is using dowels for his bookshelf.  He has chosen this more traditional method as a way of connecting with his grandfather.  So, the students are able to move back and forth between traditional and power tools, making choices.

Rose’s book also makes some important points about schooling.  According to Rose, when vocational education was first beginning, thinkers like John Dewey and Jane Addams had “a belief in the capacity of the common person and in the necessity of connecting education to an egalitarian vision of human and cultural development” (p. 193).  This view, however, has been lost over time.   The contemporary curriculum makes assumptions about intelligence and work.  It is the teachers who work with the vocational students who work against these assumptions and they are doing democratic work: “They challenge the culture’s assumptions about hand and brain, and the rigid system of educational theory and method that emerged from them, making the schoolhouse more truly democratic by honoring the fundamental intelligence of a broad range of human activity” (p. 194).

These assumptions about work limit our vision of human variability.  Rather than placing people along a continuum of intelligence, we should see our collective capacity as “a bountiful and layered field, where many processes and domains of knowledge interact…This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination” (p. 216).   Yet, in K-12 education now, the mantra is the every student should go to college.  Schools are eliminating vocational programs or funneling every student in college prep classes.

As a quick aside, another interesting point in Rose’s book is the connection with “flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s word to describe the state of being completely immersed in work.


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