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Exploring David Goodhart's ‘Head, Hand, Heart'

Exploring Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century by David Goodhart

Thursday 17 December 2020

Academy of Ideas Education Forum

Whilst an online Zoom call is not quite the same as a live discussion (followed by a pint) the Education Forum (of the Academy of Ideas) hosts another interesting debate, this time with a literary focus. David Goodhart’s ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ is introduced succinctly by Gareth Sturdy before a lively discussion about its implications and merits. In discussing Goodhart’s book, there is more than a little uneasiness. Whilst it is a book that touches heavily upon education, as Gareth Sturdy points out, ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ lies at the ‘intersection’ between economics and education. The dual preoccupations of educational experience and economic status inevitably tend to run deep with people, even at the best of times. However, during a period of educational and economic uncertainty, ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ offers a narrative on inequality in Britain’s economy which at times is more than a little discomforting.

Goodhart’s title is really a specific reference to skillset categories. People who work with their ‘Head’, spend their working lives analysing, managing or manipulating data, regardless, as it turns out, of whether they understand much about it. Significantly, the ‘Head’ occupations are an ever-expanding army of abstract thinkers who enjoy dominance in terms of population, status and typically earnings. Those who work in ‘Hand’ occupations are practical: they manufacture, build and fix things, comprising people like mechanics, builders, plumbers, carpenters and caterers. Then those who work in the ‘Heart’ occupations fulfil roles which require caring for others whether it be the young, elderly or sick. In this occupation working for little or no pay is perhaps more common, in comparison with the ‘Head’ or ‘Hand’ workers.

In somewhat prescient fashion, Goodhart’s publication coincides with the emerging Covid-19 pandemic which has started already to exacerbate inequalities in terms of health as much as wealth. It is the caring Heart employees and practical Hand workers who have continued to function ‘on location’ as opposed to the ‘work from home’ practices of the computer-based Head occupations. As the issue of public health starts to stir sensitive class divisions, Goodhart investigates the imbalance of status and rewards imbued upon the ‘cognitive class’, namely Head workers. However, whilst stressing their privilege, Goodhart is suspicious of the cognitive class whose ever-growing membership does not necessarily correspond with greater competence.

In Gareth Sturdy’s fluent precise he sums up the four parts of Goodhart’s book by using the four part structure (which informs much of the next three paragraphs here). In Part One, we hear how Goodhart describes the problem that underpins his thesis: a mass elite of smart people, who tend to frequent the same universities, are now overwhelmingly controlling the ‘knowledge’ economy by dominating graduate occupations. This cognitive class, in Goodhart’s view, have become too powerful. In the fallout of this takeover, necessary and skilled jobs are undermined in relative terms to the undeserved prestige enjoyed by the academically educated. In any case, cognitive or abstract thinking, whilst being in demand in a knowledge economy, is notoriously difficult to measure. Perhaps the inevitable outcome of an expanding army of abstract thinkers is that imposters will find their way into the front ranks and slowly weaken the value placed on Head skills.

In Part Two, Goodhart confronts the ‘signalling arms race’ in which school leavers with higher grades are sorted into post-16 courses and apprenticeships, with the assumption that those with higher grades should attain the prestigious occupations. What the graduate truly understands about Kant is neither here nor there if they have experienced the ‘intellectual brain gym’ of being introduced to Western philosophy. What is valued by the Russell Group universities rather sets the standard for the entire education system. Perhaps more worryingly, the political classes are disproportionately graduates of the education system's academic stream, which means of course that most of the population is less likely to be represented democratically.

In Part Three, Goodhart laments the demise of Hand skills in education, such as metalwork, woodwork and cooking. One of the problems with this demise is that much declarative knowledge can be learned by ‘doing’: knowing that comes from knowing how. Ultimately, there are too many people seeking to join the cognitive class, to the extent where the supply of graduates far outweighs employer demand. The supply chain effect is intensified when Russell Group graduates marry and confer the same genetic and socio-cultural advantages onto their offspring. The mass elite effectively weakens social mobility chances by training their children for similar positions in the elite professions. Finally, in acknowledging that Head, Hand and Heart are often interlinked Goodhart suggests that a harmonious marriage of the three would grant younger generations the benefit of wisdom.

After Gareth Sturdy’s opening summary, audience members have their say. It would have been nothing short of a miracle if Tony Blair’s New Labour government did not shoulder some of the blame. He was the Prime Minister who famously advocated fifty per cent of school leavers going to university, which has presumably contributed to the issues that concern Goodhart. The expansion of higher education arguably creates a toxic blend of rising debt and low value degrees for increasing numbers of young people. The first speaker points this out immediately, whilst asking the question, how long would it take to unpick a problem with such a long history?

Perhaps what Goodhart calls a cognitive advance is more like a collapse. The idea that universities are the arbiters of a knowledge economy might seem ironic to some who suggest that further education is failing to impart knowledge or enhance vocational opportunities. Where is the liberal education that universities promised? Still, not everyone would recognise Goodhart’s categories of Head, Hand and Heart. There is after all a danger that Goodhart is taking the concept of academic ability at face value. His final point, that the three skillsets should be encouraged in all young people, might have been better off as the starting premise.

Goodhart then, in the final analysis, might be making far too many assumptions about education. It is easy to repeat the lexicon of the education system, with words like ‘academic’, without coming to much of a conclusion. The very values of education are questionable when schools tend to resemble exam-focused, ‘sausage’ factories. If Goodhart is suggesting that the prestige given to the cognitive classes is unequal, there are others who doubt that the system works for anyone at all. Significantly, the rise of the cognitive classes has correlated with an interest in learning practical skills and employees who take advantage of flexible childcare options. In other words, even the ‘lucky’ Head workers are seeking opportunities to balance out their experience of work. In that regard, the answer to the Head, Hand and Heart question is not sufficiently answered by what goes on in the classroom.

In terms of the teaching profession, newly qualified teachers are likely to be nonplussed at just how much data handling is involved. What are predicted grades other than (often) poorly concocted numbers masquerading as objective data? Then again, schools have adopted the ‘caring’ ethos of the Heart occupations, something that an outsider to the education system like Goodhart might not realise. The ‘caring’ school though is perhaps something of a euphemism for yet more data processing, turning the young person into an entrant on an Excel spreadsheet rather than a thinking, independent student. Meanwhile the crafting skills of woodwork, metalwork and art are undoubtedly in decline in education, and Goodhart is right, I suggest, to see practical learning as a segue to wisdom.

Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century by David Goodhart is published by Allen Lane.

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