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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
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Valuing Intellectual Depth and Its Relationship to Work and Life in All Its Forms

by Krista Tippett, host


I was hooked by the opening lines of Mike Rose’s lovely book, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker:

"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. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world … I’ve been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who’s smart and who isn’t, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do."

Mike Rose grew up in an immigrant family in the center of Los Angeles; I grew up in a small town in the melting pot of Oklahoma. I did not grow up around much physical work, but I did attend a school where advanced classes in languages, math, and science were axed to sustain a strong football team. His story of his late discovery of the strength of his own mind, and, even later, grasping the forms of intelligence he had known without appreciating, sparked all kinds of longing and recognition in me. Our stories taken together are disparate but kindred facets of a schizophrenia in the American story that thrives, largely unexamined, in our public life. Despite our national history of exceptional intellectual achievement, we also harbor what the historian Richard Hofstadter classically observed as a “national distaste for intellect.”

This takes the form of a defiant bias against “book learning” where I grew up. Joe Six-Pack is, after all, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s “common man.” Sarah Palin strums these guitar chords powerfully, as Mike Rose points out — a phenomenon that learned commentators deride but fail to understand. For the other side of our schizophrenia is a learned dismissal of the cognitive accomplishments of “average” people, working people, summed up in a phrase like manual labor.

Mike Rose can demonstrate the error of such dismissiveness with hard research. But his concern goes deeper than that and is relevant to us all. Failing to see and nurture the intellectual and civic substance of all kinds of work, he worries, is profoundly undemocratic. It limits our collective vision and range of action from school reform to social planning. We shape educational policies with economic competitiveness in mind; we don’t ask what kind of education befits a democracy. Mike Rose asks this question through his life story and in his scholarship, and speaking with him leaves me at once nourished and challenged.

My conversation with Mike Rose is more about intelligence and its relationship to work and life than it is about schooling per se, though he also offers very fresh and provocative observations on standardized testing and on what we might collectively learn from the controversial experience of No Child Left Behind.

Working on this show strummed some guitar chords already resonating in me and my colleagues after our show last fall titled "Learning, Doing, Being" with neuroscientist Adele Diamond. Many of you responded passionately to that show, and Mike Rose helps explain that response, I think. He calls forth — in a way we rarely do in our society, even in discussions about educational policy — the life-changing memories so many of us can summon of school or of teachers or of moments of reading or learning when our minds came alive; and how such moments formed who we wanted to be, who we are. We’ve gathered those insights on our website and would love to add yours.

What moments in your life shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility?

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Collecting Sound in a Dining Car

Chris Heagle, producer/technical director

As we listened to the rough version of this week’s show with Mike Rose, the idea came up to drop one of the readings, which describes working in a restaurant from the server’s point of view and what it takes to be a good waitress. Sure, the reading was evocative, but we realized that since Mike spoke with such detail in our interview about his mother’s waitressing career, we might have the makings for a little sound montage. What would happen if we cut his descriptions up a bit and added some found sound of a working diner to layer in?

Fortunately for us, our studios are located two blocks from a classic American diner: Mickey’s Dining Car. A last-minute lunch was arranged and we were off to get chocolate malts and collect sounds.

When I am out looking for ambient sound for a piece, I try to think in layers, much in the same way a composer would approach a blank sheet of staff paper, and I get as many elements as possible. I know I’m going to need a foundation, something to provide continuity and serve as a base on which to add accents.

In this case, it was simply burgers frying and the din of (hopefully) unintelligible conversations. Short sections of this audio were looped to establish a steady, continuous sense of the location. With that layer in place, I added our interview clips and searched for accents from the location recording that could help support his points — things our waitress said, plates clattering, or the the ringing of the old-time cash register.

All of this seemed to work fairly well, but we also needed a bridge to take us in and out of that location. The solution came from my music choice for the original reading — the fifth movement from Bach’s Partita No. 5. Weaving in this music helped create the sense of a dance and melded well with Mike Rose’s descriptions, which, to me, really illustrated the marriage of precision and creativity that is present in those who excel at restaurant service.

+ LISTEN (here is a bit of the raw audio I recorded at Mickey’s Diner)
+ LISTEN (and here is the finished piece from the show).

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Who Are We When We Are At Work? Kate Moos, managing producer
Damon Drake, above, was one of the people taking part in an informal conversation about the role of faith and belief in the workplace one evening last week, which I happened to enjoy. Drake told about his personal mishaps as a fervent new convert to Islam 13 years ago, when he discovered that his practice of declining handshakes from women colleagues alienated them.
Now Drake says he makes accommodations in some of his religious practices if, in actuality, they subvert their original aim. On another occasion, however, he chose to leave a position when too many required business meetings were conducted in settings with alcohol. Such are the tensions of bringing our faith lives to our workplaces.
The discussion I joined was organized by Seeing Things Whole, a group that explores the value of personal spirituality and faith in organizations, theorizing that the bottom line in most organizations is best if assessed by measures in addition to profit: balance, contentment, a sense of shared purpose. The idea that the hygienic modern workplace should be uncontaminated by personal belief is appearing more and more outdated, as our lives become more global and as companies embrace diversity and pluralism as necessities. And, the idea that organizations themselves may take part in embracing a theological view is finding more ground, both in corporations and in academic settings.
In the interests of full disclosure, my invitation to take part in the discussion came from Bob Wahlstedt, a board member of Seeing Things Whole, who is, coincidentally, a benefactor of Speaking of Faith.
Michael Naughton, from the University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, explained the role of purpose in organizational life that, along with identity, mission, and stewardship, creates balance and success. “Purpose,” he pointed out, “aims us toward the deepest and most transcendent reason for why we work, which offers a spirituality of communion.”

In small groups we talked about our own challenges bringing our values or faith to work. Marty Kotke, a sales rep at Reel Precision Manufacturing, shared his appreciation for being able to be a Christian with Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District Court judge, and Kyle Smith, the president of RPM, whose lunchroom provided the setting for our gathering.
Another speaker, John Wheeler, was the general manager of the Mall of America for 18 years. A Buddhist, he learned to practice the principles of his spiritual life in what is arguably a sort of cultural icon of consumerism. “I loved my job,” Wheeler joked, “except for its true essence.” Wheeler said his grounding as a Buddhist helped him address concerns about problems with unsupervised youth at the so-called mega-mall with respect for all parties.
Who are you at work, relative to your spirituality, values, or faith? Have you experienced difficulty with your religious beliefs or practice in the work place? How do you think organizations might benefit from a “theology of organizations?”
Who Are We When We Are At Work? Kate Moos, managing producer
Damon Drake, above, was one of the people taking part in an informal conversation about the role of faith and belief in the workplace one evening last week, which I happened to enjoy. Drake told about his personal mishaps as a fervent new convert to Islam 13 years ago, when he discovered that his practice of declining handshakes from women colleagues alienated them.
Now Drake says he makes accommodations in some of his religious practices if, in actuality, they subvert their original aim. On another occasion, however, he chose to leave a position when too many required business meetings were conducted in settings with alcohol. Such are the tensions of bringing our faith lives to our workplaces.
The discussion I joined was organized by Seeing Things Whole, a group that explores the value of personal spirituality and faith in organizations, theorizing that the bottom line in most organizations is best if assessed by measures in addition to profit: balance, contentment, a sense of shared purpose. The idea that the hygienic modern workplace should be uncontaminated by personal belief is appearing more and more outdated, as our lives become more global and as companies embrace diversity and pluralism as necessities. And, the idea that organizations themselves may take part in embracing a theological view is finding more ground, both in corporations and in academic settings.
In the interests of full disclosure, my invitation to take part in the discussion came from Bob Wahlstedt, a board member of Seeing Things Whole, who is, coincidentally, a benefactor of Speaking of Faith.
Michael Naughton, from the University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, explained the role of purpose in organizational life that, along with identity, mission, and stewardship, creates balance and success. “Purpose,” he pointed out, “aims us toward the deepest and most transcendent reason for why we work, which offers a spirituality of communion.”

In small groups we talked about our own challenges bringing our values or faith to work. Marty Kotke, a sales rep at Reel Precision Manufacturing, shared his appreciation for being able to be a Christian with Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District Court judge, and Kyle Smith, the president of RPM, whose lunchroom provided the setting for our gathering.
Another speaker, John Wheeler, was the general manager of the Mall of America for 18 years. A Buddhist, he learned to practice the principles of his spiritual life in what is arguably a sort of cultural icon of consumerism. “I loved my job,” Wheeler joked, “except for its true essence.” Wheeler said his grounding as a Buddhist helped him address concerns about problems with unsupervised youth at the so-called mega-mall with respect for all parties.
Who are you at work, relative to your spirituality, values, or faith? Have you experienced difficulty with your religious beliefs or practice in the work place? How do you think organizations might benefit from a “theology of organizations?”

Who Are We When We Are At Work?
Kate Moos, managing producer

Damon Drake, above, was one of the people taking part in an informal conversation about the role of faith and belief in the workplace one evening last week, which I happened to enjoy. Drake told about his personal mishaps as a fervent new convert to Islam 13 years ago, when he discovered that his practice of declining handshakes from women colleagues alienated them.

Now Drake says he makes accommodations in some of his religious practices if, in actuality, they subvert their original aim. On another occasion, however, he chose to leave a position when too many required business meetings were conducted in settings with alcohol. Such are the tensions of bringing our faith lives to our workplaces.

The discussion I joined was organized by Seeing Things Whole, a group that explores the value of personal spirituality and faith in organizations, theorizing that the bottom line in most organizations is best if assessed by measures in addition to profit: balance, contentment, a sense of shared purpose. The idea that the hygienic modern workplace should be uncontaminated by personal belief is appearing more and more outdated, as our lives become more global and as companies embrace diversity and pluralism as necessities. And, the idea that organizations themselves may take part in embracing a theological view is finding more ground, both in corporations and in academic settings.

In the interests of full disclosure, my invitation to take part in the discussion came from Bob Wahlstedt, a board member of Seeing Things Whole, who is, coincidentally, a benefactor of Speaking of Faith.

Michael Naughton, from the University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, explained the role of purpose in organizational life that, along with identity, mission, and stewardship, creates balance and success. “Purpose,” he pointed out, “aims us toward the deepest and most transcendent reason for why we work, which offers a spirituality of communion.”

Marty Kotke, Bruce Peterson, and Kyle Smith

In small groups we talked about our own challenges bringing our values or faith to work. Marty Kotke, a sales rep at Reel Precision Manufacturing, shared his appreciation for being able to be a Christian with Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District Court judge, and Kyle Smith, the president of RPM, whose lunchroom provided the setting for our gathering.

Another speaker, John Wheeler, was the general manager of the Mall of America for 18 years. A Buddhist, he learned to practice the principles of his spiritual life in what is arguably a sort of cultural icon of consumerism. “I loved my job,” Wheeler joked, “except for its true essence.” Wheeler said his grounding as a Buddhist helped him address concerns about problems with unsupervised youth at the so-called mega-mall with respect for all parties.

Who are you at work, relative to your spirituality, values, or faith? Have you experienced difficulty with your religious beliefs or practice in the work place? How do you think organizations might benefit from a “theology of organizations?”

Comments

Expressing Our Inner Gifts
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Yesterday I gave a final listen to this week’s show featuring the late Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue. I was struck in particular by his comments about work:

"I mean, we spend over one-third of our lives actually in the workplace, and one of the loneliest things you can find is somebody who is in the wrong kind of work, who shouldn’t be doing what they are doing but should be doing something else and haven’t the courage to get up and leave it and make a new possibility for themselves. But it’s lovely when you find someone at work who’s doing exactly what they dreamed they should be doing and whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and in bringing it out they actually provide an incredible service to us all."

I started to think about people who embody what O’Donohue describes — people who are living their right livelihoods. Tap artist Savion Glover quickly came to mind. I saw him perform last year in Minneapolis and was captivated. He is so precise, fluid, and joyful in his dance, as you can see in the video above.

Thinking some more, I wondered about people who live out their gifts but aren’t so famous. Then I remembered a traffic cop I used to admire when I lived in Brooklyn who exemplified grace, playfulness, and good humor as chaos and impatience swirled around him.

Who comes to mind for you: famous or not famous? How do you express your inner gifts through your work?

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Valuing the Mindful Intelligence of Work in All Its Forms
Trent Gilliss, online editor

I loosely pitched Matthew Crawford, a political philospher who traded in his credentials to run a motorcycle repair shop, as a possible guest for SOF several weeks ago after reading "The Case for Working with Your Hands" in The New York Times:

…mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

This active concern for the motorcycle is reinforced by the social aspects of the job. As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s motorcycle or charge more than a fair price. You often hear people complain about mechanics and other tradespeople whom they take to be dishonest or incompetent. I am sure this is sometimes justified. But it is also true that the mechanic deals with a large element of chance.

(“Sumo Zamboni” by Jean-François Chénier/Flickr)

Admittedly, I have a great admiration for women and men who work with their hands and their feet — barbers and electricians, waitresses and bricklayers, potters and linemen. My uncles just knew how to fix farm machinery and build chicken coops and grain silos without a set of drawings. The skill of engine repair I’ve never quite acquired, but I discovered a love of building and remodeling homes — a latent penchant I never allowed myself to explore until 15 years ago. Thinking back to boyhood, the desire was always there, manifesting itself in constructing wood and log mud dams as the heavy Plains rains flowed down the rounded L-shaped gutters. I thought of it as frivolous play; now I recognize it as new sense of play, and purpose (although I suppose Stuart Brown might take issue with my definition).

(“Fixing the tractor” by Nirava Rasila/Flickr)

There’s a value and a spirit in learning from people who don’t sit in a cubicle all day, who don’t migrate from one meeting room to the next, and live only in words and ideas — much of what I do now and love. I’m not trying to romanticize these professions. Much hard, physically demanding work is involved. But, blue-collar jobs require different approaches to problem-solving, to collaborating, to communicating, to organizing, to tolerating; you do think differently. My many years waiting tables, repairing asphalt cracks with diamond blades and boiling tar, driving a Zamboni machine, cleaning campgrounds, etc. taught me this.

(“Lunch at Ella’s Diner” by Chuck Patch/Flickr)

I also know there’s a different persuasion of intelligence and honor involved in these pursuits. The character traits these many professionals know and practice are common truths that might help us understand ourselves and the values we hold dear with better insight. Shared ideas of loyalty and honesty, camaraderie and community may lead us to be better workers and spouses, friends and neighbors — for the many truths in this world teach and touch all of us, if we let them. We become a greater society as a result.

Hearing others like Matthew Crawford and Mike Rose (author of The Intelligence of Work) and Barbara Ehrenreich and the late Studs Terkel articulate these many perspectives is worth pursuing. And the first step is evaluating voices, which is where Stephen Colbert’s interview comes in. Admittedly, Colbert’s interviews are great fun, but sometimes his quick wit and comic interjections aren’t the most helpful in deciding if a voice for a long-form public radio show. What do you think? Are there other voices for this type of show you might recommend?

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