Comparing Mike Rose’s Blue-collar Brilliance and David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Speech
The stereotypical idea of a “blue-collar” job is said to be anything but attractive. One often considers blue-collar employees to lack an education. On the other hand, “white-collar” occupations are seen as prestigious. David Foster Wallace’s “Kenyon Commencement Speech” and Mike Rose’s “Blue-Collar Brilliance”, debate these conflicting ideas of white-collar versus blue-collar. Rose advocates for the importance of blue-collar workers, while Wallace credits a secondary education with providing the skills necessary for “the real world”. Although each essay argues for their respective viewpoint, a span of common ground is found amongst the two arguments. Both agree on the idea that cognitive thinking is essential for daily life, and that every person should use cognitive thinking as part of a daily routine. To further examine this common conclusion, one must place oneself in a blue-collar environment through Mike Rose’s essay, experience the life of a “white-collar” worker through David Foster Wallace’s essay, and finally draw a comparison of collars, leading to a conclusion on cognitive skills. The reoccurring idea in David Foster Wallace’s “Kenyon Commencement Speech” and Mike Rose’s “Blue-Collar Brilliance” is that cognitive thinking is essential to daily life.
Mike Rose’s essay “Blue-Collar Brilliance” illustrates the life of a blue-collar employee vividly through first hand experiences with his mother, Rosie, as a waitress in a diner. Rose was able to draw the conclusion that blue-collar jobs teach cognitive skills by watching his mother develop cognitive skills, without a college education. He recalls “the restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular customers and refining her ability deal with people in a difficult world” (Rose 246). Rosie’s ability to take into consideration the moods and thoughts of others helped her gain cognitive skills, without attaining a college degree. Rosie’s ability to use cognitive skills strongly supports Rose’s idea that every person has a different perspective, and that college cannot teach the ability to consider these different perspectives and integrate them with one’s own thoughts.
Blue-collar jobs, according to Rose, teach people to think cognitively. Another example from Rose’s essay relating to the development of cognitive skills through blue-collar work is that of his uncle, Joe. Like Rosie, Joe was a blue-collar worker. He bounced between working on the railroad, fighting in the military, and working in a factory on the shop floor. “Still, for Joe the shop floor provided what school did not…a place where you’re constantly learning” (Rose 248). Rose explains that the repetitiveness of these jobs led Joe to think cognitively, because he had to mentally process the constantly changing environment around him and react in a timely and appropriate manner. Gaining these cognitive skills through blue-collar jobs made Joe successful, even though he had minimal schooling. While Rose credits the development of cognitive abilities to blue-collar work environments, David Foster Wallace believes the credit is due elsewhere.
David Foster Wallace’s “Kenyon Commencement Speech” explains that college teaches students cognitive skills, but the students do not know how to apply these skills in the real world. Wallace believes that obtaining a college degree is an essential part to one’s life. Secondary schooling teaches you how to think in a cognitive manner, but whether the student applies these to everyday life is questionable. “…The really significant education in thinking…isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about” (Wallace 199). Wallace wants society to see the world as a whole, instead of a world that revolves solely around ones own life. Being able to “see the world as a whole” means to have the ability to think from different perspectives, along with using critical and positive thinking. According to Wallace, a college education teaches the ability to think outside one’s own world. By doing this, one is thinking cognitively. Wallace discusses the mundaneness of adult life, and how easy it is for one to be sucked into this boredom, and funneled into the mindset of being the certain of the universe. For people that are stuck in this automatic mindset, there is no meeting of the minds between peers, thus no cognitive thinking. He says that one must remove oneself from a automatic mindset, and the only way to do so is by using the cognitive skills that come with one’s degree. To better illustrate the idea of the need for cognitive skills, Wallace gives the anecdote of the Christian and the Atheist. In short, the Atheist was caught in a deadly snowstorm, so he prayed to God to be saved. Shortly after, a team of Eskimos found the Atheist and directed him back to camp. The Christian was shocked that the Atheist did not think that the Eskimos were God sent, but instead believed they were a lucky coincidence. Although both the Christian and the Atheist presented their beliefs, there was no meeting of the minds. Neither was willing to accept the other’s beliefs as true. Wallace believes that if one is more aware of others thoughts, then a meeting of the minds can occur, thus developing cognitive skills.
Mike Rose argues that cognitive thinking arises from blue-collar work and does not require a college education, and David Foster Wallace argues that secondary schooling teaches cognitive skills, and the only way to acquire these skills is to attend college. While these arguments present many conflicting ideas, the importance of cognitive thinking is the common ground of these two viewpoints. Being able to take into account the thoughts, situations, and beliefs of others in the environment is an acquired skill, whether it is learned through secondary schooling, or blue-collar work. According to both authors, proper cognitive thinking is necessary for everyday life. Wallace mentions a “meeting of the minds”, which is exactly what Rose describes and advocates for. Rose’s mother’s mind must “meet” with the costumers’ and employees’ minds in order for the diner to run smoothly. Wallace argues the idea of taking other thoughts into consideration, and to stop immediate self-absorption. While these two essays have many conflicting points, the main idea stays the same; cognitive thinking is a necessity for life.
Wallace and Rose both are strong advocates for developing cognitive skills. Whether one develops these skills through a college education or through a blue-collar job, the outcome is the same. Any one person can learn to think cognitively, but one must be up for the task. In both authors’ experiences, learning cognitive skills requires time, and takes a great deal of patience. After examining both essays, one can conclude the importance of cognitive skills in daily life. One must learn cognitive skills, but the ability to think cognitively is a necessary life-long skill.
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