The MWS Podcast 93: Mike Rose on the Mind at Work

We are joined today by Mike Rose who is a research professor in the department of education of UCLA, California. He’s the author of several books including Why School, Back to School and Possible Lives. We’re going to be talking about education and some of the themes explored in these books but we’ll be focusing in particular on his book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker which challenges the long-held notion that people who work with their hands make up a less intelligent class.

MWS Podcast 93: Mike Rose as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

4 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 93: Mike Rose on the Mind at Work

  1. A fascinating discussion, with Mike Rose reminiscing with great warmth and appreciation of his mother’s skill and social intelligence in her work as a waitress in a series of restaurants. I’m not sure that I accept his premise that such skills are undervalued or unacknowledged, although it’s perhaps the case that they may not attract the monetary rewards they deserve, and may not be reflected in the social status attributed to service or manual workers.

    It’s my experience that skilled ‘blue-collar’ artisans are generally highly regarded, so that people who cut great suits or restore ancient furniture may enjoy high status, as do actors, musicians or sportswomen whose intelligence lies elsewhere than in the intellectual domains. Skill, be it socio-emotional, embodied or physical, equates with intelligence in contemporary society. Indeed, it might be argued that intellectuals tend to get a bashing these days, and many are rather poorly rewarded for their efforts.

    For about ten years at the end of my teaching career I involved myself in facilitating vocational training via the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), and this was an eye-opener for me. The NVQ framework (substantially on-the-job training of service workers and artisans) is based on a detailed knowledge/skills/values analysis of ‘blue-collar’ work, and supports a supervised/mentored and progressive apprenticeship towards an nationally recognised and ‘academically valid’ qualification. Like Mike, I have seen people really blossom with this approach, with a significant improvement in their productivity, as well as their quality of ‘output’, and their sense of fulfilment too.

  2. I don’t know whether or not it’s the case that skilled artisanal ‘blue collar’ work is undervalued, but many of the jobs Mike discussed were not ones that are normally considered ‘skilled’ – such as being a waitress – and these are generally both undervalued and underpaid. Mike is right to point out how much ‘skill’ they involve.

    I was more inclined to relate Mike’s points to overspecialisation – an issue that has often concerned me. There are a great many jobs that simply require the exercise of an embodied human intelligence, and where specialisation is helpful only up to a point. Overspecialised people tend to think only in the framework of certain cognitive models that are dominant in the kind of education or training they have received, but very often the capacity to move beyond those models is also very important both for the adaptability of those individuals and the impact of their thinking on wider society. Its our general embodied intelligence, supported by a broad liberal education, that allows us to do that, not our specialised training.

    The biggest culprits here often seem to be the products of too narrow an education or training in science, technology, or mathematics. These skills are valuable to society, but they also put a huge premium on cognitive coherence at the expense of a capacity to switch models, appreciate or develop a wider sense of meaning, or develop any wider integration. The result can be an infuriating narrow-mindedness and over-confidence in a particular model. There are a variety of ways to reach a wider embodied awareness, but these are generally achieved by resisting specialising pressure, which always tends towards the merely technical and heavily left-brained.

  3. Robert, you make points that are very pertinent (to me) and revealing (of my own conditioning). I notice with some small satisfaction however that, to the extent that your comments point up to me personally how unbalanced my judgments tend to be, I don’t have such an extremely anxious and defensive reaction as I’ve had in the past when my patterns are pointed out.

    It’s certainly the case that, although I got a lot of satisfaction out of the parsing of values, skills and knowledge supplied by the NVQ framework, some learners found it very hard to understand and talk about their work in the terms it supplied. But because it provided some possibilities for discussion of their work, work with seriously disturbed mentally ill people which called in fact for unusual depths of intelligence in several domains, we found it worthwhile and rewarding, in perhaps the same way as Mike did with his own co-learners.

    Thanks for broadening my view (again).

  4. Hi Peter, I didn’t intend to point out any unbalanced judgements on your part, and I’m not sure what you might be referring to.

    I’ve also come across the educational formalisation of skills, not in NVQ but in a number of other educational contexts. Personally I found that kind of bureaucratisation purgatorial, and the students (even relatively ‘academic’ ones) have great difficulty relating to it. It’s one thing to develop practical skills, and quite another to identify and formalise which ones you’re supposed to have developed in the abstract. A lot of the time you’re making the evidence fit the criteria, so it’s not even accurate. It’s an example of the unbalanced heavily left-brain culture of modern bureaucratic government, and probably an indication of the kinds of attitudes Mike Rose is talking about, where disembodied intellectualisations are automatically judged more reliable than our own imprecise and spontaneous accounts of the embodied exercise of human intelligence – when the reverse is the case. I suspect that ridiculous levels of bureaucratisation may be one of the reasons for the poor development of vocational education in the UK compared to, say, Germany.

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