In Honor of Manual Labor

On the way into work today, I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker and Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared.

Rose was describing the intelligence required to weld, wait on tables, and do carpentry and plumbing, and how that kind of intelligence is undervalued in American society. To paraphrase, the “good” students take the academic track and go to college. The “bad” students go into vocational and technical schools and become manual laborers.

This dichotomy always seemed wrong to me, and perhaps shows like This Old House and Iron Chef America are demonstrating how much intelligence manual labor actually requires.

“Long Hours, Dirty Work, No Pay”

But the interview also reminded me of my days 15 years ago as a Ship Wavertree volunteer at South Street Seaport Museum. When you joined the crew, no one gave you an orientation—you were sized up and then sent to chip paint, polish brass, carry large heavy pieces of wood up gangplanks, etc., until you proved you could do more skilled work. We had many master carpenters, metalworkers, and sailors (and the Seaport ships still do), all pretty much peer- and self-taught.

But it wasn’t until we started an activist organization, Volunteers in Support of South Street Seaport Museum (VISOSSSM), that anyone asked what Wavertree volunteers did Monday to Friday. Here’s a partial list from an imperfect memory: software programmer; insurance executive; graphic designer; telephone system installer; office administrator; NYCT bureaucrat; lawyer; silk-screen operator; Wall Street analyst; doctor; rocket scientist;  neurologist; artist; land surveyor; choreographer; advertising traffic person; videographer; engineer.

If any situation can prove that individuals have multiple intelligences, that should be it. Our experience also proved that manual skills can be held in high regard—our heroes were the carpenters like Kenny Fatton, riggers like Lars Hansen, and metalworkers like Chuck Watson (land surveyor and artist). And finally, it also proved a craving for real, hard, manual work by all these intellectuals and middle managers.

Those of us who run historic houses and ships often channel that craving into our volunteer programs. But maybe we could be more systematic about it: Let’s help more people fulfill their need to get tired and really, really dirty.

On a different tack

For a description of work as interpersonal intelligence, see Cognition in the Wild. Here’s one of my favorite quotes (although it doesn’t make the same point as much of the rest of the book, that our artifacts and modes of communication contain intelligence that we take advantage of without necessarily recognizing it) :

“My initial assumption about work in military settings was that behaviors are explicitly described and that people act more or less as automatons. It should be apparent by now that this is far from the case. I also naively assumed that most communication on the job would be part of the job and nothing more. As I worked with the data, something that Roy D’Andrade once said kept coming back to me. A student was making a point about what people do at work, saying that in an auto factory people mostly make cars. Roy said something like: ‘How do you know what they are doing? Maybe what they are making is social relationships and the cars are a side effect.’” From Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, p. 225.

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