There was a wood table covered with slick plastic in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen. My Uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, would come in from work, soiled denim, his face smeared with soot, and wash at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up, angling his arms under the faucet. He’d settle in at the table where my grandmother had placed a large plate of steaming macaroni. A fork in one hand, a big chunk of bread in the other, Frank ate with a focus and capacity that I can still remember. As I always did, I’d ask him questions about the railroad. He’d pause, and in the learned, methodical way he had, he’d explain in detail how something worked. Then he’d tear off another piece of bread and lean back into his plate, a deep pleasure against the bitter cold and exhaustion of the roundhouse.
I grew up around physical work, my uncles in the railroad, then the auto industry, my mother putting in split shifts as a waitress to keep food on our table. This kind of work represented security and competence to me, and it shaped the rhythms of our lives, the stories told at dinner, the satisfaction of warm food, the tired relaxation after, then bedtime, and the cycle begins again. Through my mother’s iron-willed determination, a string of committed teachers, government aid, and unexpected opportunities, I do a very different kind of work today: I study teaching and learning and the many manifestations of intelligence in the schoolhouse and the workplace. In The Mind at Work, I tried to bring these two worlds of mine together, examining the sometimes hidden intelligence of the kind of work my forebears did with the analytic tools of social science—but also using my forebears’ work to test these analytic tools and revise some of our commonplace ideas about skill and intelligence. I wanted to change the way we see the everyday work that surrounds and sustains us.