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

Susan Notes: In an interview on Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, September 5, 2004, Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, (Viking 2004) talks about intelligence and labels in America's work force, how our narrow, cramped view of intelligence distorts how we look at--and value--work. This is research at its best. Rose is scholarly and he is eloquent, and what he writes about matters.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a day that grew out of the labor movement in the late 1800s to honor American working men and women. Today we tend to put labels on the kinds of work we do: `blue-collar,' `white-collar,' `skilled,'
`semi-skilled,' `unskilled,' `manual labor' and `the work of the mind.'

Those categorizations are often too simple and can easily denigrate the work being done as well as the thought that goes behind it. Mike Rose wants to change some of our long-held perceptions in a new book called "The Mind at
Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker." Mike Rose joins us from NPR West.
Welcome to the program.

Mr. MIKE ROSE (Author, The Mind at Work): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Why is there a perception that white-collar workers are more intelligent than blue-collar workers?

Mr. ROSE: Well, that's a good question, and it's a complicated answer. But what's interesting is it goes back fairly far in the culture. I mean, 18th century mechanics were referred to as being illiterate, and even in some editorials it was said that they were incapable of participating in government. So this is an old business that extends through the last 100 or 200 years of our culture. But what troubles me is its current manifestation.
I don't want to gloss over the very real distinctions between different kinds of work. I mean, very clearly there's a difference between blue-collar and white-collar work: a difference in salary, a difference in the kind of training you have to do it, a difference in the danger of the work. But what troubles me is the continuation of these beliefs that the work itself is relatively mindless and that, therefore, by implication, the people who do it are not that bright.

HANSEN: How do you define intelligence, as you use it in your book, with regard to the American worker?

Mr. ROSE: The way we think about it, generally, I think comes from two sources. One, of course, is the IQ test, which just about everybody's taken either in school or in the military. And the other source, I think, comes from formal schooling. And if you think about it, both of those domains, the IQ test as well as formal schooling, are built on a fairly narrow set of tasks that are primarily verbal and quantitative--verbal and mathematical.

What interests me, though, are all the other manifestations of mind that we see around us every day, all the time, that have to do with everything from making judgments on the fly in a busy restaurant to figuring out what might be wrong with plumbing by reaching up inside a wall where you can't see the pipes and you're feeling and trying to make some kind of judgment based on feel. These kinds of tasks just typically don't appear on an IQ test, obviously, or in school, and yet they too are manifestations of what it means to be intelligent.

HANSEN: You devote chapters to different jobs in your book: carpentry, plumbing. But the first is devoted to the waitress, and this is a profession that is pretty close to your heart because your mother was a waitress all of her life. Tell us about her. And what did you learn by watching her work?

Mr. ROSE: I should say that all my forebearers worked in blue-collar and service work. And, you're right, the first chapter on waitressing focuses on my mother. And, you know, this was like a coffee shop or one of these chain, quick-turnover kinds of restaurants. So, you know, at rush hour, at breakfast or lunch or dinner, boy, that is one fast-paced place. And what I saw was just this extraordinary number of skills displayed in quick motion on the fly, the mind of memory work that goes on, right? You know, who orders what? Where are they sitting? They're running through their station, and someone calls out for a refill and somebody else drops their fork and somebody else needs extra mayonnaise.

Well, in addition to that, in the back of their mind, they're keeping an eye on how long an order has taken to come up. Did that shrimp plate take too long? Should this--you know, table number six have had their order by now?
You know, you're processing information, you're making decisions very quickly, you're ordering or grouping tasks so that you don't run yourself into the ground. I think it's pretty interesting.

HANSEN: Give us another example of misperceptions of a blue-collar job or even--there's one you write about called--it's really--it's been called a pink-collar job, the beautician.

Mr. ROSE: Right. Well, you know, think about the stereotypes that abound in this society about the beautician or the hairstylist, I mean, both in popular culture and in high-brow literature. You know, the typical characterization is the kind of ditsy, not-too-bright, chatty person. Well, what struck me is, you know, not only the manual dexterity, which I think everybody would admit to, but the number of judgments that they have to make based on some real knowledge: knowledge about hair, knowledge about chemicals, knowledge about the biology of skin. They have a whole aesthetic knowledge that they bring to bear. Someone comes in, sits down and says, `I don't know. Give me something light and summery.' And the stylist, through questions or illustrations or gesture, tries to figure out, `Well, what might that mean that would be pleasing to this person?' So all of this stuff together seems to me to be a pretty interesting array of cognitive tasks.

HANSEN: Barbara Ehrenreich, in her landmark book Nickle and Dimed, referred to the feeling of invisibility that she had when she was working blue-collar jobs. What causes that? And then what does it do to someone's self-esteem or actually contribute to a lack of it?

Mr. ROSE: Yeah. You know, there's a powerful moment in that book where I believe it's one of the maids turns to Ehrenreich and says--of the owners of the house, she says, `They think we're stupid, don't they?' And that was a really moving moment. And you're right, working folks certainly pick up these perceptions. I mean, they pick them up in school, they pick them up on the job. I think they pick them up sometimes in the society at large. And it certainly it not healthy for them. I mean, a lot of folks that I've grown up with and talk to who do blue-collar work, you know, they'll often refer to themselves as dummies, and yet in their daily work they display all kinds of intelligence.

So, you're right, it certainly has an effect on the people themselves. But, also, I don't think it's healthy for us as a culture to have these broad categories, these broad biases, about the intelligence of different kinds of folks based on the work they do. I think it just contributes to our cultural divide.

HANSEN: Mike Rose is the author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. It's published by Viking. He joined us from NPR West.
Mike, thanks very much.

Mr. ROSE: Oh, thank you, Liane.

— Weekend Edition Sunday
National Public Radio


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