Monday, March 2, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): Mike Rose

People assume that plumbers are stupid. Also carpenters, drywallers, backhoe operators. It drives me nuts.

It drives Mike Rose nuts, too. Fortunately, he's written a very smart book, The Mind at Work. Here's what he says on the first page: "I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then, is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work."

Mike Rose's mother was a waitress. His uncle Frank was a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Mike is an educator with a special interest in so-called "vocational" education and "at-risk" students. He's battling against a deeply ingrained prejudice in our culture, a prejudice that has been around since Classical Greece: "Plato mocks the craftsman who would pursue philosophy, for his soul is 'warped and maimed' by his work; such men are 'incapable of culture.' And Aristotle notes that 'there is no element of virtue in any of the occupations in which the multitude of artisans and market-people and the wage-earning class take part.' "

Mike isn't calling all craftspeople geniuses, but he sure is calling for some respect, especially among the teachers who are supposed to be educating them and the public at large who benefit from their skills.

In the first two chapters he analyzes the complexity and creativity demanded from seemingly simple jobs, those of a waitress and a hair stylist. Then he moves on to plumbing, carpentry, electrical, and welding. In each chapter he analyzes and appreciates the values, skills, and aesthetics that must be learned and built.

Aesthetics. That's an important word, and not just for Art Appreciation 101. It's for the electrician admiring the orderly braid of wires hidden inside a wall. Mike explains why the aesthetic matters and how an electrician, even if he's never heard the word, evaluates the professionalism of another electrician's workmanship on an aesthetic scale: "An experienced electrician I visited had removed a section of drywall and was commenting on a cluster of wires running along the frame. The braid was perfect, he said approvingly. That makes it easier, he explained, to single out a particular wire - the functional value - but also, it just looks good. The previous electrician's signature is woven into the braid, but anonymously so, and completely out of sight, seen, if at all, by another electrician, carpenter, or plumber over the life of the house." And then there is the aesthetic of simply not being seen: "We try hard not to show our straps. We want to show as little evidence of the electrician's being here as possible."

The best craftspeople make it look easy. The proof, in fact, is often the fact that you don't even notice the craft at all. You don't notice the waitress, but your coffee is always full. You don't notice the carpenter, but that door closes snug and easy.

Here's what Studs Terkel had to say: "Mike Rose cites chapter and verse in revealing the skills and intelligence of those we tend to dismiss as 'blue collar.' It knocked me out. It makes mincemeat out of our traditional IQ tests."

I totally agree. No, this book isn't about woodworking or hardware or how to build anything. It's about one particular tool: the mind. The mind connected to the hand. The wisdom embedded in physical, hands-on work.

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