The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker

Mike Rose

Book cover

I picked up this book after Elise read it, which followed us listening to an interview with Rose on the “On Being” radio show. Rose is a professor of education at UCLA, and is two degrees of separation from Elise in academic terms (he was her advisor’s mentor). His work focuses on vocational education, and this book is on that topic.

The general idea of this book is something like the following. Blue-collar jobs require a variety of meaningful cognitive skills, which are generally not recognized, either in our culture at large or in vocational education programs specifically. The failure to recognize these skills means that these positions, and by extension these people, are undervalued by our society, and that the vocational programs that we create do not serve them very well in the sense of helping them to find meaning and value in work.

I will not go into too much depth summarizing the types of cognitive skills he is talking about here, but to give some of the flavor, one of my favorite examples was from the chapter on hairdressers. Very often, as we all know, an interaction between a client and a hairdresser will start with the client showing the hairdresser a picture of a hairstyle and saying that he/she wants something “like that.” As one of Rose’s interviewees points out, it would generally end poorly if the stylist simply took this at face value and tried to replicate the image. Instead, she says, the client is usually implicitly after some feeling that is evoked by the image more so than the specific appearance, and it is the job of the hairstylist both to identify what this core sense is, and determine how to translate it into the specific case at hand. This is a complex task involving both emotional intelligence (for the first step, how to “read” the client) and cognitive intelligence (for the second step, how to implement an abstract form in a concrete instance). She also links this objective to the stereotypical “chit-chat” that goes on between hairdresser and client, indicating that this is an important part of how the hairdresser develops an ability to interpret the client’s expressed desires. I had never thought of this possibility before, but it made a lot of sense when I read it.

The book has a strong family relation to Studs Terkel’s “Working,” which communicates similar ideas in a much more implicit way. I thought Rose’s book was convincing and powerful, and shared the obvious humanism of Terkel’s book. Significantly, I think Rose avoids some of the common pitfalls of upper-class authors writing about a subject like this. He doesn’t make the book a paean to the lost values of craft, and doesn’t soft-pedal the fact that a lifetime of blue-collar work can take a brutal toll on a person. He avoids the alt-elitism of a book like “The World Beyond Your Head,” which argues for valuing manual labor by focusing on rare ultra-master craftsmen and ignoring all of the people who install toilets. Not to bring everything back to Bernie Sanders, but I think it is often lost in our political discourse today that over half of working-age Americans don’t have a college degree. It is important that we remember this (people in the elite classes may not know anyone without a college degree), and think about the value of their work to our society, and how we can best recognize that.

Related to this, I also found it refreshing that Rose gives fairly equal attention to the traditionally female blue-collar jobs of hairdresser and waitress–as books like TWBYH tend to focus on macho work like motorcycle repair, I would guess because these already benefit from some positive valence in our culture due to patriarchy.

Rose is obviously very intelligent and a good writer, but I think his book is further enhanced by the way he brings his own personal history into it. The chapter on waitresses focuses primarily on Rose’s own mother, who was a lifelong waitress, and there is also a fair amount of discussion of Rose’s uncle, who worked as an industrial laborer in railyards. Rose makes it clear that he got interested in this topic in part from reflecting on his own mother’s life, and I think the book is stronger for the fact that he doesn’t assume some false pose of impartiality. I can see how this would be difficult for an academic writer to do, and I only wish more would do it!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars