Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM
Taking his studies to the factory floor, the restaurant and the classroom, this award-winning author, proud son of a working-class family, alumnus (M.A. '70, Ph.D. '81) and celebrated professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies challenges conventional definitions of intelligence
Q. You give voice to people whose voices have been muted or ignored.
A. I would feel more comfortable saying that what I've been lucky enough to be able to do is to create the occasion, through books, articles and opinion pieces, to enable these people to speak their piece. To render what the factory floor looks like, or the carpentry shop or the busy restaurant. And then provide the commentary that they've given to me.
Q. So let's get right down to it: What is smart?
A. In The Mind at Work, I raise the question, what does it mean to be smart in this setting? When the mother knows something isn’t going right with her child and figures out what needs to be done. An electrician in an old house troubleshooting a faulty circuit. These folks are using knowledge that they’ve acquired to solve a problem, think something through. Intelligence can also be quite social in nature - interacting with other people and responding accordingly. Understanding danger on the street. It could be living in harmony with others. Passing on a set of skills from one person to another. When you start to think about it that way, suddenly you see intelligence all around you.
Q. What happens when we don't honor everyday intelligence?
A. Oh, that neglect has all sorts of social consequences. Here's one that I see in high schools: the way intelligence gets defined solely in terms of traditional academics. So those youngsters who are more vocationally oriented reject, sometimes with hostility, entire pursuits - reading or mathematics, for example - that get identified with college prep. As I say in The Mind at Work, the great tragedy is we create this school structure, at least in the old days of tracking, where kids were either vocational education kids or college prep kids. The result is that vocational types view mathematics, say, with suspicion, and think that studying mathematics is, well, bullshit. And the college prep kids develop a terribly narrow sense of intelligence.
Q. What is "neck up work" and "neck down work?"
A. That's a phrase that is part of the popular culture, and I've heard it for 10 years now. It's a really disturbing phrase to me because it's usually used in reference to work of the so-called New Economy. High-tech, electronic media, "symbolic" analysis, all of that is brain work; it's neck-up work. Service work, manufacturing work, blue-collar work, and any work that involves the body in some kind of way is neck-down. Brutish. Mechanical. Stupid. Having no cerebral content whatsoever.
Q. And "disciplined perception?"
A. Now, that's not my phrase but I love it. It's where someone develops a kind of acute perception, hearing or a sense of smell, taste or feel, based on the knowledge that they've acquired within the work they do. And we are used to talking about such acuity with a chef or wine expert. Ah, the refined palate! But everywhere I looked I saw that same kind of discriminating acuity. Like the wood shop teacher who ran across a room because he heard a power tool that sounded like a kid was not using it right. The sense of touch where plumbers can reach inside a wall where they can't see and make judgments based on what they’re feeling.
Q. A hairstylist in The Mind at Work said "I think with my fingers."
A. Yes. And of course, the eye. I'm struck by the trained touch and eye of expert stylists. It doesn't mean their hearing or sight is more acute. It doesn't mean their senses in general are more acute. But within the domain that they work in, there's that sophisticated, refined use of a sense connected to a body of knowledge.
Q. In the classroom, you say we should rethink how we evaluate standardized aptitude tests or bad performances on essays.
A. We have to be careful to not assume that those performances reveal something fundamental about a person’s cognitive potential. What we’re seeing could have multiple explanations, from poor previous education, to unfamiliarity with this new task, to disengagement. Of course, we should intervene - try to help the student write a traditional academic essay well. In fact, in many ways I’m a pretty traditional teacher ... [but,] there is a real obligation to help them master the tasks they don’t do well. The creativity comes in thinking of how to teach them in ways that have not already failed. If you assume cognitive deficiency, that will shrivel your curricular imagination. Assume intelligence.
Q. Your work is as much narrative nonfiction as it is academic exploration.
A. My goal is to create this hybrid, this fused way of writing that retains the systematic inquiry that comes from the academic disciplines, but to render it with details of people's lives, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. What devices from fiction and literary nonfiction can I use to make these ideas come alive? Like in Possible Lives - how can I bring a reader into the classroom? Well, through the journey itself.
Q. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?
A. Yeah, I do, but I'm an odd duck of a storyteller. When people ask me what I consider these books to be, I call them arguments. Growing up, the stories I heard all had morals: Watch out, be careful, don't do this that way. That's what I do. I'm telling a story to make a point.
Q. What should we do with the lessons learned from all of this?
A. I'm not one of those kinds of thinkers, to tell you the truth. I don’t like to lay down the "five steps to achieving x." I tend to think in more particular ways. So when you ask that question, I think of letters I've gotten or e-mails from people who say something like, "I'm reading your book while I'm sitting in this busy diner in Manhattan and I'm reading the chapter on waitresses and I'm watching this waitress. And I'm understanding something about her work that I don't think I understood before." That's the goal of all the stuff I write. To help us see things a little differently. To alter, tweak and unsettle the cultural commonplaces that we operate by when it comes to certain kinds of kids, or schools, or work.