bookreview, education

Some Personal History and The Mind at Work

So this post is going to be about fixing my house, my dad, and a great great book I’ve read recently. As is my inclination, I’ll find parallels between things and other things.

This summer my dad and I (mostly my dad) renovated our front porch and replaced our front door. For a lot of my upbringing, my dad made a living as a contractor, plumbing, electrical work, kitchens, bathrooms, etc. But he came home and read New York Review of Books, took us to free Shakespeare at the Carter Barron amphitheater, shared his favorite Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, or Stephen Dobyns poems. When I asked him a question about history, literature or politics (even when I didn’t think I was), he would look at me, thrilled to be sharing the world of knowledge with his kids, and ask “Do you want the 5 minute, the 10 minute, the half an hour or the hour answer?” Of course, being 12 (or 14 or 16) I would generally choose the five minute, which inevitably turned into ten. Later, when I wasn’t expecting, he’d slip in the rest of the hour, or quietly place a carefully clipped, stapled NYRB or New Yorker article on the topic.

I thought of my dad a lot as I read Mike Rose’s wonderful book “The Mind at Work” about working class jobs and the thought they entailed. It is a hard book to describe, but I think I would label it as a “cognitive ethnography.” Rose is a wonderful storyteller, taking the personal stories of waitresses, welders, carpenters, hairdressers and weaving through them a closely observed description of the depth and complexity of thought that goes into their jobs. Rose weaves research in cognitive psychology and sociology with how these working class people find meaning in their work. Reading Rose, I’d often think of my own summers spent with my dad, confronting a problematic corner in tiling a bathroom, or trying to find a pipe under a foot of concrete in someone’s basement. I didn’t have to think back too far, since replacing my front door (original from the house, built in 1881) proved to be massively complex, replacing rotten wood, and finding creative solutions for the fact that everything that was supposed to be a rectangle was a trapezoid.

Rose is also clearly a teacher, and shows how the master teachers of these professions instruct their students. I was struck again and again how the students, whether they be apprentice carpenters, welders, or hairdressers, find meaning in the knowledge, and find joy in the improvement of their craft. There is also a common note of pride in craftsmanship that no one else will notice: an artful piece of wood on the back of a cabinet, an expertly welded joint, a carefully twisted wire. I feel this sometimes myself after a particularly effective class, as a student asked a great question, and I gave a good enough answer that satisfied some curiosity but encouraged more.

The most food for thought in Rose’s book for me in my own profession, and my own thinking about higher education, came towards the end, as Rose urged us to relinquish the artificial distinction between hand and brain, between vocational and academic, even between education and training. I hadn’t seen it put in quite that way before, but I found myself nodding. As I knew from working with my dad, plumbing need not be an anti-intellectual exercise. The math and physics needed for home improvement seem rudimentary, but are rarely in practice. Even more, knowing the history of one’s craft can make one better at it. Rose makes this point as he bemoans how vocational programs have become the opposite of academic, when this need not be the case. Trigonometry for carpenters is still trigonometry, just trigonometry with meaning. It means that door will open smoothly, and that cabinet will look just right. I found myself wishing we could do more of that in the liberal arts college, or in psychology, giving our students tastes of knowledge in action, giving them a feel of getting better at something, giving them the satisfaction of seeing a job well done. Writing a paper rarely does this, neither does taking a test or even designing an experiment. But there should be no shame in helping our students see that psychological knowledge can bring joy just as electrical knowledge can turn on the lights. It is a challenge, but I think one we should give a lot more thought to. We academics should be more vocational, and we should welcome our vocational colleagues to be more academic. I think we’d all learn something in the process.