About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Thinking About the Thinking in "Car Talk"

            The reruns of “Car Talk” have run their course—one of the two hosts died several years ago—and with the archiving of the radio show, we will lose a valuable cultural resource: a depiction of the rich thinking involved in common blue-collar work. This matters in a country so fractured by class and cultural divides, one of which involve beliefs about work and intelligence.
            “Car Talk” was a popular decades-old show on National Public Radio featuring two Boston-area garage owners, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who took calls about car repair, and along with self-deprecating wisecracks and commentary on all things automotive, thought their way through the problems callers described: Tom and Ray asked questions, zeroed in on the detail of sound, touch, and smell, isolated variables, eliminated less likely causes. Both brothers had science backgrounds from MIT but were down-to-earth, smart without being showy. They would occasionally draw on their coursework in physics or chemistry to answer a problem, but most of what listeners got was the diagnostic reasoning displayed by generations of skilled automechanics and taught in good training programs.
            The advice-giving show with call-ins is an old format in radio; there are shows on home repair, health, personal finance, cooking, and relationships, and some of these shows involve the host reasoning through a problem. But the popularity and longevity of “Car Talk” is remarkable. The show was well-produced and comical, but the center of it was the Magliozzi brothers’ diagnostic skills. I’m not an expert on broadcast media, but except for “Ask This Old House” and, to an extent, “Dirty Jobs,” I don’t know of another show with this reach that brought the intelligence involved in blue-collar work to an audience that included so many non-blue-collar listeners.
            Why is this diversity of audience important?
            For all our social advances, we still live with formidable barriers that keep us from knowing each other. Many areas of the country are resegregating by race. Growing economic disparity also leads to segregation by social class. The explosion of media outlets and new media platforms enables us to live in informational and ideological silos. A divide I’ve been writing about for a while involves work: the kind of work people do, the class-infused biases we have about the intellectual demands of different kinds of work, and the attributions about intelligence we make about each other based on the work we do. In school, in business and industry, in our social networks and organizations, in popular culture there are subtle and not-so-subtle messages about brainpower and the way people make a living. I explore this web of issues in The Mind at Work, but for now let’s consider, as one example, the widely made claim by writers on business and the economy that work in the “new economy” requires fundamentally different intellectual skills from work in traditional industries and services. “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone,” write the authors of Leveraging the New Human Capital, “in the Information Age intellect and passion—mind and heart—are also essential.” Some writers on the economy reduce this claim to an even simpler formulation, distinguishing between the “neck-up” work of the new economy versus the “neck-down” work that preceded it.
It’s legitimate and accurate to claim that certain kinds of emerging jobs require specialized skills or that alternative organizational structures bring with them different ways to manage work. How revealing it is, though, that so many make these claims by erasing any intellectual content in the work of just a generation or two ago, work that still surrounds and sustains us. This erasure may well be done for rhetorical effect, but it also displays class bias and ignorance about the actual performance of traditional blue-collar work.
            Enter Tom and Ray Magliozzi thinking out loud about a commonplace century-old technology. “Car Talk” was but one radio show, a very small thing in our cultural landscape. But it represented a kind of cognitive border-crossing that is rare today. Work is laden with assumptions about virtue, intelligence, and motivation, so it's not a bad place to begin consideration of all that separates us. "Car Talk" was free-of-charge, a public good available to us once a week to appreciate the occupational intelligence that sits on one side of our social class divides.  

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Half-Dozen Poems for Your Pleasure

            My posts have been anything but lighthearted lately, so I thought I’d give you a break with what I hope will provide a few minutes of enjoyment. Through the 1970s, and into the mid-1980s, I wrote a lot of poetry, much of it not very good. But you know how it is with writing: I kept at it and kept at it and managed to finally write some poetry that was half-way decent. I’ve been working on a project over the last year that led me to dig up those poems. Here are six. I’ll provide some context.

            I enjoyed writing small, comical vignettes, a fanciful riff on something I read or heard. “Cognitive Science” sprang from a New Yorker profile of Marvin Minsky, a major figure in the last generation’s research in artificial intelligence and robotics. I was taken by Minsky’s purchase of a big jukebox for his wife and wondered what the result would be if he turned that whimsical streak to his scientific work.


“…in the Minsky house…there [is] a huge jukebox—a present from Minsky to his wife.”*

So this wizard of robotics

builds a big, grinning neon ox—

a thinking machine that flubs checkers

but carries a tune.

The maid palms its blue dome

and taps the keys for “Hound Dog.”

Graduate students take pictures

with their arms around it.  

Minsky brings it to conferences.

It rocks and flashes

and breaks out a case of beer. 

The chess machines are envious.

They always roll home alone. 


*From Jeremy Bernstein’s New Yorker profile of MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky, December 14, 1981

            I was looking for a Valentine’s card in a Hallmark shop and, after being there for too long, began to imagine romantic life inside the world of those cards.


When we met,

I was temping at Condolences and

you were piercing arrows through lacy Hearts.

Your note came with the afternoon crates of Grief,

so, at the 5 o’clock whistle, I pushed through Bereavement

and hurried to find you drying tears

at the corner of 5th and Love You Dearly. 

I fumbled for a hanky.

Sorry For Your Loss, I said. 

Get Well Soon.

H-Happy Graduation! 

You turned away

and I felt Blank Inside. 

So I Passed On to my night job

at the Sympathies mill,

leaving you looking for Someone Dear. 

Later, I heard that Tender Regard

swept you away in his Heartfelt 88.

And now I’m staying till midnight in Sorrow,

rhyming the Gospel,

gaining overtime,

and Thinking of You. 

            Finally, there I was creeping up on forty and still seeing a dermatologist, so what else was I to do but write a poem about it?


“As you age, it will disappear,”

soothed Dr. Glop. 

But tiny buds defy gray beard

and Glop’s wisdom. 

The Medical Encyclopedia recommends

tetracycline, radiation, dermabrasion.   

The Psychiatric Handbook opines

“hormone imbalance well past the prime.” 

I say, rage little oils,

you’re my last stay against time. 

Women will say, “How his hair is growing thin.

But, look, the rosy eruption of his skin!”


            I also wrote poems—less goofy ones—about my forebears and my early life in Altoona, Pennsylvania. My mother and her parents settled in Altoona after immigrating from the region of Calabria in southern Italy. About one hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh, Altoona was a bustling railroad town that suffered gradual economic collapse as the railroad industry began its decline in the decade after World War II. I lived there until I was 7, and then we moved to Los Angeles. My mother and I visited Altoona regularly for family reunions until the late 1980s when the trip became too difficult for her.


Cut to Grandma vigorously stirring.

The daisies on her dress rise and fall.

She turns to the camera.  Smiles.

Scoops endive from a colander

and raises it to the lens.

This is a lesson on preparing greens.

Other lessons follow:

The shredding of cabbage.

The pounding of meat.

Grandma understood the limits of film.

She knew it would miss the spices,

the fine dicing. 


The ceiling bulb has tanned the shade

as has the dust of hapless moths.

The phlox and hydrangeas on the wall

are caught in the half-life of paper bloom.

Bedspreads and rugs lie monochromatically—

their Persian arabesques gone to beige

in this rented room in Altoona. 

A mother and her son play dominoes

on a table beneath the light. 

The rectangles shine against their fingers. 

A fly buzzes into a Pepsi bottle.

Silence.  One move.  Another. 

Then click click and the boy

hits his dots. 

The mother claps.

The boy laughs. 

Nothing fades. 


Cabot’s Differential Diagnosis,

Browne on Diseases of the Throat,

lace curtains, handwritten hours,

a soft voice explaining the inner ear.

Dr. DeSantis still sees patients.

A dumbwaiter locked into place

holds a cutaway of the vestibular canals. 

His voice carries my mother

through the curves and delicate bones. 


The dizziness of old age.

Fear of the open street. 

She stands on one foot.

DeSantis catches her.

Again.  His arm snaps up.

The curtains rustle.

The doctor explains the winds

beginning on the street.

How the bones are like sails.

How she can leave her fear

in his arms.

How the wind heals

with its own risky balance.  

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