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Blue Collar Brilliance Summary Essay Samples

UCLA professor Mike Rose of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS)  has attained stature as an expert on the cognitive, linguistic, and socio-historical factors that affect engagement with written language, reading and writing by underserved student populations, and the educational histories of non-traditional college students and the barriers and opportunities they encounter.

Recently named a member of the National Academy of Education, Rose was the son of a Los Angeles waitress and the nephew of railroad and auto workers in the Rust Belt of the northeastern United States. He skillfully mined these humble beginnings for his 2004 treatise on the intellectual accomplishments of the American worker, “The Mind at Work,” recently published in a 10th anniversary edition (New York: Penguin Books. 2nd Edition, 2014). The book was lauded by no less than the late Studs Terkel as an “eloquent tribute to our working men and women.” Howard Gardner, author of “Changing Minds,” noted that, “thanks to Mike Rose’s impressive eye, the accomplishments of these workers are now visible.”

Rose discussed the influences that shaped this seminal work in an interview published in GSE&IS news magazine Ampersand.

In a nutshell, what is “The Mind at Work” about?
I want to demonstrate the considerable cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well. Because of cultural and class biases, the dynamics of occupational status, and our current (understandable) enchantment with high technology, we as a society tend to underestimate and undervalue the smarts involved in such work. This undervaluing contributes to some big problems, I think, in education, in the way work is organized, in job training, and in our civic life as social class divides are exacerbated by our attitudes about work and intelligence.

How did your family’s experience inspire and inform the book?
My mother was a waitress all her working life. My uncles worked in classic Rust Belt industries, rail and auto. I grew up watching and hearing stories about blue-collar work, and that was the work that kept food on our table. So I developed a deep respect for that work, and got to see up close the thought and skills it took to do it well.

As I went through college and then graduate school, I encountered a lot of discussions of intelligence, some of which was pretty demeaning in terms of social class or physical work. I found myself comparing or testing what I heard with what I knew to be true from my experience. “The Mind at Work” is a kind of culmination, I suppose, of that reflection, an attempt to use all the methodological tools I have learned over the years to document the significant cognitive content of blue-collar and service work, and from that documentation to further explore broader issues like intelligence, the nature of work, and education and social class.

What led to a 10th anniversary edition?
Well, for starters, given the tumultuous state of book publishing, a lot of good fortune was involved. I was lucky that my editor believes that the book is as relevant today — maybe moreso — than when it was published in 2004. The topics in the book are certainly in the news today – the nature of work in our time, the skills workers possess, vocational education, and definitions of intelligence. And the whole question of social class is in the news, as we seem to have rediscovered economic inequality.

Though the book is about the cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work, it also addresses broader educational and social issues such as the nature of intelligence itself. What is your concern about the way we define intelligence?
As a country, we seem to be obsessed with intelligence, with measuring it, with boosting our kids’ intelligence via products like Baby Einstein, with getting “smarter” workers into the new “smart” workplace. But the odd thing is that we tend to rely on a fairly narrow way of determining intelligence: we identify it with a score on a standard intelligence test (an I.Q. score) and with the traditional school-based task.

If one does well on an intelligence test, or in school, that clearly indicates some kind of cognitive competence. But if one doesn’t do well — and, historically, poor performers would include low-income, working people — then the meaning of the score is much less clear. To do well tells us something about intelligence — and, usually, schooling — but not to do well provides much less information about intellectual capacity, although that poor performance may speak volumes about educational opportunity.

What struck me as I did the research for “The Mind at Work” was the number of instances of reasoning, of problem-solving and of learning that fell outside of what gets assessed in an intelligence test or the traditional school curriculum. There is the waitress at rush hour prioritizing on the fly a number of demands from customers, the kitchen and the manager. And the plumber diagnosing a problem by feeling with his hands the pipes he can’t see behind an old wall. And the hair stylist figuring out the cut a customer wants through talk and gesture. These kinds of smarts surround us, yet might not be considered when we talk about intelligence.

Rose's mother, Rose Meraglio Rose, worked as a waitress at Coffee Dan's in L.A. in the 1950s.

Some of the scenes in your book are from high school or community college vocational courses, and the work the students are doing is pretty impressive. How did vocational education get such a bad reputation?
This is a complicated question, for, in some ways, that bad reputation is deserved. The problem starts with the creation of the large, comprehensive high school at the beginning of the 20th century. The curriculum was divided into tracks: a track for the college-bound, a general track, and a vocational track.

Sadly, the vocational track became the place where many working-class and immigrant children were placed. The philosopher John Dewey referred to the practice as “social predestination.” The vocational track was intended to prepare students for the world of work, but overall didn’t do that very well either. One reason for the poor record was that a number of programs emphasized basic job training and didn’t address the intellectual content of occupations, the kind of content I try to reveal.

A lot has happened with vocational education, which is now called Career and Technical Education, over the past 30 or so years. There has been considerable effort to upgrade the academic content of vocational courses, and the last 10 years or so has seen some real advances, especially with attempts to fuse computer technology into design, mechanics, and manufacturing courses. Health care is another promising area. And in the more traditional trade courses I studied — carpentry, welding, that sort of thing — the instructors emphasized the thinking behind the techniques students were learning.

But I think the huge challenge that faces us is how to undo the vocational-academic divide itself. The divide institutionalized what in some cases is a pretty arbitrary separation of kinds of knowledge and skill. To develop into a good cabinetmaker, for example, you need to know about mathematics, have a historical and aesthetic sensibility about tools and cabinetry and understand things about economics and markets. The ideal occupational program would realize and build on these “academic” subjects within the context of the occupation itself. Dewey called for such an approach a century ago, and some contemporary programs are attempting it now, but such work is difficult, for so many institutional barriers and cultural biases constrain our educational imagination.

Is there any similarity between the skills you document in “The Mind at Work” and the skills it took to write the book itself?
This is a tricky question to answer, for it involves self-analysis that is hard to do and also the application of skills from one domain to a very difficult domain — a thorny issue in educational psychology. But with all those warnings, here goes.

Let me start close to home. I think I picked up from my folks a dogged determination. My mother was indomitable, worked hard as hell. Writing a book, or writing a dissertation, takes persistence, sometimes in the face of big-time ambiguity and uncertainty. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said that the hardest part of writing is putting the seat of your pants onto the seat of the chair.

If I may, let me talk a little bit more about my forebears. My folks had little formal education, but they were terrific storytellers; I grew up hearing tales about the old days and the old country, full of vivid characters, and gestures and sound effects — all that. I think my exposure to those stories influenced my writing. Finally, I was immersed in the lives of immigrant, working-class people, so I absorbed a kind of knowledge — not book-based and not theoretical, but experiential — that I know affects the way I see the world and write about it.

Some of the types of work I observed — carpentry, for example — requires planning, thinking things through, and anticipating problems. A lot of the work — from hair styling to plumbing — also requires an attention to detail and being methodical. Waitressing or working in a shop or factory requires managing the flow of work — hugely important if you want to keep from being overwhelmed and exhausting yourself.

Now let me be clear, these skills develop in particular occupations and are rooted in the knowledge and experience one gains in those occupations. But in a general sense researching and writing a book also requires planning, attending to detail and being methodical, and managing the flow of work.

Let me close by flipping the script and suggesting that some of the skills and qualities we tend to identify only within activities like writing a book are also found — again in a general sense — in the occupations I explore in “The Mind at Work.” The work I observed is laden with mathematics, written language and other symbols. Welding, for example, involves mathematical calculations, symbols for types of welds, instructions, labels, work orders, standards and codes. Words and numbers are embedded in its practice.

And welding, like so many other kinds of work, is also an aesthetic activity. An expert can tell things about the functional quality of a weld by how it looks, but also, to the expert, the look of a weld matters on its own terms as well. In a community college program I observed, students would praise a weld as “pretty” or “beautiful.” “It’s like calligraphy…or signatures,” the instructor told me. “I can show you how to do it, but you develop a style of your own.” So it is with writing a book.

Essays - Summer 2009

Blue-Collar Brilliance


Questioning assumptions about intelligence, work, and social class

Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Photo by Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)

By Mike Rose

June 1, 2009



My mother, Rose Meraglio Rose (Rosie), shaped her adult identity as a waitress in coffee shops and family restaurants. When I was growing up in Los Angeles during the 1950s, my father and I would occasionally hang out at the restaurant until her shift ended, and then we’d ride the bus home with her. Sometimes she worked the register and the counter, and we sat there; when she waited booths and tables, we found a booth in the back where the waitresses took their breaks.

There wasn’t much for a child to do at the restaurants, and so as the hours stretched out, I watched the cooks and waitresses and listened to what they said. At mealtimes, the pace of the kitchen staff and the din from customers picked up. Weaving in and out around the room, waitresses warned behind you in impassive but urgent voices. Standing at the service window facing the kitchen, they called out abbreviated orders. Fry four on two, my mother would say as she clipped a check onto the metal wheel. Her tables were deuces, four-tops, or six-tops according to their size; seating areas also were nicknamed. The racetrack, for instance, was the fast-turnover front section. Lingo conferred authority and signaled know-how.

Rosie took customers’ orders, pencil poised over pad, while fielding questions about the food. She walked full tilt through the room with plates stretching up her left arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her right hand. She stood at a table or booth and removed a plate for this person, another for that person, then another, remembering who had the hamburger, who had the fried shrimp, almost always getting it right. She would haggle with the cook about a returned order and rush by us, saying, He gave me lip, but I got him. She’d take a minute to flop down in the booth next to my father. I’m all in, she’d say, and whisper something about a customer. Gripping the outer edge of the table with one hand, she’d watch the room and note, in the flow of our conversation, who needed a refill, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should, who was finishing up.

I couldn’t have put it in words when I was growing up, but what I observed in my mother’s restaurant defined the world of adults, a place where competence was synonymous with physical work. I’ve since studied the working habits of blue-collar workers and have come to understand how much my mother’s kind of work demands of both body and brain. A waitress acquires knowledge and intuition about the ways and the rhythms of the restaurant business. Waiting on seven to nine tables, each with two to six customers, Rosie devised memory strategies so that she could remember who ordered what. And because she knew the average time it took to prepare different dishes, she could monitor an order that was taking too long at the service station.

Like anyone who is effective at physical work, my mother learned to work smart, as she put it, to make every move count. She’d sequence and group tasks: What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? What tasks could be clustered? She did everything on the fly, and when problems arose—technical or human—she solved them within the flow of work, while taking into account the emotional state of her co-workers. Was the manager in a good mood? Did the cook wake up on the wrong side of the bed? If so, how could she make an extra request or effectively return an order?

And then, of course, there were the customers who entered the restaurant with all sorts of needs, from physiological ones, including the emotions that accompany hunger, to a sometimes complicated desire for human contact. Her tip depended on how well she responded to these needs, and so she became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own. No wonder, then, that Rosie was intrigued by psychology. The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular customers and refining her ability to deal with people in a difficult world. She took pride in being among the public, she’d say. There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant that you don’t learn something.

My mother quit school in the seventh grade to help raise her brothers and sisters. Some of those siblings made it through high school, and some dropped out to find work in railroad yards, factories, or restaurants. My father finished a grade or two in primary school in Italy and never darkened the schoolhouse door again. I didn’t do well in school either. By high school I had accumulated a spotty academic record and many hours of hazy disaffection. I spent a few years on the vocational track, but in my senior year I was inspired by my English teacher and managed to squeak into a small college on probation.

My freshman year was academically bumpy, but gradually I began to see formal education as a means of fulfillment and as a road toward making a living. I studied the humanities and later the social and psychological sciences and taught for 10 years in a range of situations—elementary school, adult education courses, tutoring centers, a program for Vietnam veterans who wanted to go to college. Those students had socioeconomic and educational backgrounds similar to mine. Then I went back to graduate school to study education and cognitive psychology and eventually became a faculty member in a school of education.

Intelligence is closely associated with formal education—the type of schooling a person has, how much and how long—and most people seem to move comfortably from that notion to a belief that work requiring less schooling requires less intelligence. These assumptions run through our cultural history, from the post–Revolutionary War period, when mechanics were characterized by political rivals as illiterate and therefore incapable of participating in government, until today. More than once I’ve heard a manager label his workers as “a bunch of dummies.” Generalizations about intelligence, work, and social class deeply affect our assumptions about ourselves and each other, guiding the ways we use our minds to learn, build knowledge, solve problems, and make our way through the world.

Although writers and scholars have often looked at the working class, they have generally focused on the values such workers exhibit rather than on the thought their work requires—a subtle but pervasive omission. Our cultural iconography promotes the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no brightness behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.

One of my mother’s brothers, Joe Meraglio, left school in the ninth grade to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. From there he joined the Navy, returned to the railroad, which was already in decline, and eventually joined his older brother at General Motors where, over a 33-year career, he moved from working on the assembly line to supervising the paint-and-body department. When I was a young man, Joe took me on a tour of the factory. The floor was loud—in some places deafening—and when I turned a corner or opened a door, the smell of chemicals knocked my head back. The work was repetitive and taxing, and the pace was inhumane.

Still, for Joe the shop floor provided what school did not; it was like schooling, he said, a place where you’re constantly learning. Joe learned the most efficient way to use his body by acquiring a set of routines that were quick and preserved energy. Otherwise he would never have survived on the line.

As a foreman, Joe constantly faced new problems and became a consummate multi-tasker, evaluating a flurry of demands quickly, parceling out physical and mental resources, keeping a number of ongoing events in his mind, returning to whatever task had been interrupted, and maintaining a cool head under the pressure of grueling production schedules. In the midst of all this, Joe learned more and more about the auto industry, the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor, the machinery and production processes, and the basics of paint chemistry and of plating and baking. With further promotions, he not only solved problems but also began to find problems to solve: Joe initiated the redesign of the nozzle on a paint sprayer, thereby eliminating costly and unhealthy overspray. And he found a way to reduce energy costs on the baking ovens without affecting the quality of the paint. He lacked formal knowledge of how the machines under his supervision worked, but he had direct experience with them, hands-on knowledge, and was savvy about their quirks and operational capabilities. He could experiment with them.

In addition, Joe learned about budgets and management. Coming off the line as he did, he had a perspective of workers’ needs and management’s demands, and this led him to think of ways to improve efficiency on the line while relieving some of the stress on the assemblers. He had each worker in a unit learn his or her co-workers’ jobs so they could rotate across stations to relieve some of the monotony. He believed that rotation would allow assemblers to get longer and more frequent breaks. It was an easy sell to the people on the line. The union, however, had to approve any modification in job duties, and the managers were wary of the change. Joe had to argue his case on a number of fronts, providing him a kind of rhetorical education.

Eight years ago I began a study of the thought processes involved in work like that of my mother and uncle. I catalogued the cognitive demands of a range of blue-collar and service jobs, from waitressing and hair styling to plumbing and welding. To gain a sense of how knowledge and skill develop, I observed experts as well as novices. From the details of this close examination, I tried to fashion what I called “cognitive biographies” of blue-collar workers. Biographical accounts of the lives of scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals are rich with detail about the intellectual dimension of their work. But the life stories of working-class people are few and are typically accounts of hardship and courage or the achievements wrought by hard work.

Our culture—in Cartesian fashion—separates the body from the mind, so that, for example, we assume that the use of a tool does not involve abstraction. We reinforce this notion by defining intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests. And we employ social biases pertaining to a person’s place on the occupational ladder. The distinctions among blue, pink, and white collars carry with them attributions of character, motivation, and intelligence. Although we rightly acknowledge and amply compensate the play of mind in white-collar and professional work, we diminish or erase it in considerations about other endeavors—physical and service work particularly. We also often ignore the experience of everyday work in administrative deliberations and policymaking.

But here’s what we find when we get in close. The plumber seeking leverage in order to work in tight quarters and the hair stylist adroitly handling scissors and comb manage their bodies strategically. Though work-related actions be­come routine with experience, they were learned at some point through observation, trial and error, and, often, physical or verbal assistance from a co-worker or trainer. I’ve frequently observed novices talking to themselves as they take on a task, or shaking their head or hand as if to erase an attempt before trying again. In fact, our traditional notions of routine performance could keep us from appreciating the many instances within routine where quick decisions and adjustments are made. I’m struck by the thinking-in-motion that some work requires, by all the mental activity that can be involved in simply getting from one place to another: the waitress rushing back through her station to the kitchen or the foreman walking the line.

The use of tools requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills. But manipulating tools is intimately tied to knowledge of what a particular instrument can do in a particular situation and do better than other similar tools. A worker must also know the characteristics of the material one is engaging—how it reacts to various cutting or compressing devices, to degrees of heat, or to lines of force. Some of these things demand judgment, the weighing of options, the consideration of multiple variables, and, occasionally, the creative use of a tool in an unexpected way.

In manipulating material, the worker becomes attuned to aspects of the environment, a training or disciplining of perception that both enhances knowledge and informs perception. Carpenters have an eye for length, line, and angle; mechanics troubleshoot by listening; hair stylists are attuned to shape, texture, and motion. Sensory data merge with concept, as when an auto mechanic relies on sound, vibration, and even smell to understand what cannot be observed.

Planning and problem solving have been studied since the earliest days of modern cognitive psychology and are considered core elements in Western definitions of intelligence. To work is to solve problems. The big difference between the psychologist’s laboratory and the workplace is that in the former the problems are isolated and in the latter they are embedded in the real-time flow of work with all its messiness and social complexity.

Much of physical work is social and interactive. Movers determining how to get an electric range down a flight of stairs require coordination, negotiation, planning, and the establishing of incremental goals. Words, gestures, and sometimes a quick pencil sketch are involved, if only to get the rhythm right. How important it is, then, to consider the social and communicative dimension of physical work, for it provides the medium for so much of work’s intelligence.

Given the ridicule heaped on blue-collar speech, it might seem odd to value its cognitive content. Yet, the flow of talk at work provides the channel for organizing and distributing tasks, for troubleshooting and problem solving, for learning new information and revising old. A significant amount of teaching, often informal and indirect, takes place at work. Joe Meraglio saw that much of his job as a supervisor involved instruction. In some service occupations, language and communication are central: observing and interpreting behavior and expression, inferring mood and motive, taking on the perspective of others, responding appropriately to social cues, and knowing when you’re understood. A good hair stylist, for instance, has the ability to convert vague requests (I want something light and summery) into an appropriate cut through questions, pictures, and hand gestures.

Verbal and mathematical skills drive measures of intelligence in the Western Hemisphere, and many of the kinds of work I studied are thought to require relatively little proficiency in either. Compared to certain kinds of white-collar occupations, that’s true. But written symbols flow through physical work.

Numbers are rife in most workplaces: on tools and gauges, as measurements, as indicators of pressure or concentration or temperature, as guides to sequence, on ingredient labels, on lists and spreadsheets, as markers of quantity and price. Certain jobs require workers to make, check, and verify calculations, and to collect and interpret data. Basic math can be involved, and some workers develop a good sense of numbers and patterns. Consider, as well, what might be called material mathematics: mathematical functions embodied in materials and actions, as when a carpenter builds a cabinet or a flight of stairs. A simple mathematical act can extend quickly beyond itself. Measuring, for example, can involve more than recording the dimensions of an object. As I watched a cabinetmaker measure a long strip of wood, he read a number off the tape out loud, looked back over his shoulder to the kitchen wall, turned back to his task, took another measurement, and paused for a moment in thought. He was solving a problem involving the molding, and the measurement was important to his deliberation about structure and appearance.

In the blue-collar workplace, directions, plans, and reference books rely on illustrations, some representational and others, like blueprints, that require training to interpret. Esoteric symbols—visual jargon—depict switches and receptacles, pipe fittings, or types of welds. Workers themselves often make sketches on the job. I frequently observed them grab a pencil to sketch something on a scrap of paper or on a piece of the material they were installing.

Though many kinds of physical work don’t require a high literacy level, more reading occurs in the blue-collar workplace than is generally thought, from manuals and catalogues to work orders and invoices, to lists, labels, and forms. With routine tasks, for example, reading is integral to understanding production quotas, learning how to use an instrument, or applying a product. Written notes can initiate action, as in restaurant orders or reports of machine malfunction, or they can serve as memory aids.

True, many uses of writing are abbreviated, routine, and repetitive, and they infrequently require interpretation or analysis. But analytic moments can be part of routine activities, and seemingly basic reading and writing can be cognitively rich. Because workplace language is used in the flow of other activities, we can overlook the remarkable coordination of words, numbers, and drawings required to initiate and direct action.

If we believe everyday work to be mindless, then that will affect the work we create in the future. When we devalue the full range of everyday cognition, we offer limited educational opportunities and fail to make fresh and meaningful instructional connections among disparate kinds of skill and knowledge. If we think that whole categories of people—identified by class or occupation—are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across cultural divides.

Affirmation of diverse intelligence is not a retreat to a softhearted definition of the mind. To acknowledge a broader range of intellectual capacity is to take seriously the concept of cognitive variability, to appreciate in all the Rosies and Joes the thought that drives their accomplishments and defines who they are. This is a model of the mind that is worthy of a democratic society.

Mike Rose is a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. He is the author of 12 books, most recently a 10th-anniversary edition of The Mind at Work.

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