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

The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker by Mike Rose (Penguin, 288 pages, $15.00)

In The Mind at Work, Mike Rose examines the connection between the body and the mind through careful study of professions involving physical labor. Rose’s observations provide educators with a view of the skills, attitudes and habits of mind people need to succeed in often undervalued jobs—undervalued, at least, from the perspective of intellectual richness.

Rose analyzes the cognitive dimensions of the physical work of food servers (waitresses, specifically, with intentional emphasis on that job being women’s work—the work of Rose’s mother, as it happens), hair stylists (again, often women), plumbers, carpenters, electricians, welders and an automobile factory foreman. These “labor biographies” help us understand the mind at work without paeans or platitudes. Rose identifies with and respect hard physical labor, but he doesn’t generalize. He gets inside, conveying the specific cognitive, emotional and physical capabilities of a great waitress. We better understand the satisfactions, problems and skills of an accomplished hairstylist. He honors the work by helping us understand it in terms that resonate for educators. After The Mind at Work you will view the work of food servers, hair stylists and other professions with an inevitably enhanced understanding that will likely help you make connections with your students, their families and, depending on your own work history, yourself.

Rose further serves teachers by writing about them, describing the work of a plumbing shop teacher, a carpentry skills teacher and an electrical wiring instructor. These teachers demonstrate how physical labor is taught and learned, and Rose’s portraits further illustrate the persistence, higher order thinking, temperament and skills that such professions require. These classrooms traffic in intelligence that’s often overlooked or misconstrued in more “academic” classrooms and that’s certainly elided by the sorts of high-stakes standardized testing to which students are subjected. “What testing vocabulary do we have,” Rose asks, “to discern the making of judgments from the feel of things, or the strategic use of tools, or the rhythmic spacing of tasks, or the coordination of effort and material toward the construction of a complex object?”

The Mind at Work will challenge your ideas about intelligence and make you reconsider the messages you send to your students about the connections between school and work. Rose helps us understand how schools have the potential to develop the capacities of all students by helping us understand more thoroughly the intellectual dimensions of physical labor.