Books

Head Hand Heart

Santa has brought us some unexpected history of education content this Christmas, hidden between the covers of David Goodhart’s latest book.

Goodhart is a journalist, commentator and former director of the think tank Demos. His previous book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (2017), introduced the categories ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’ to the political lexicon and helped many, including myself, make sense of the events of the last five years.

Now he’s back, bringing us another memorable distinction, this time between ‘Head, Hand and Heart’. Goodhart argues that, over the past two or three decades, the education system in the UK has focused increasingly on the Head – cognitive activity, thinking – at the expense of the Hand – doing – and the Heart – caring. This has encouraged more and more young people down a narrow academic path which culminates, at least in theory, in a university degree and an office-based Head job. It’s a vision of society resembling a white collar version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where everyone spends their days working at a desk…

The cover of Richard Scarry's book, What Do People Do All Day, which shows the animals of Busytown workers as grocers, butchers, bakers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, post office managers, and so on.
What Do People Do All Day (1968) by Richard Scarry

This vision has also had an impact on non-desk professions such as nursing, policing, banking, and prison, which were traditionally open to school leavers, but now require a degree to enter. In principle this helps raise the status of these professions, but in practice it’s an additional hurdle which unnecessarily excludes many talented people who for whatever reason don’t have the right academic aptitude.

Goodhart argues that the recent push to get over 50% of the population into higher education is having diminishing returns. Degrees have been devalued and are now little more than a ticket for entry into the better-paying sections of the job market, and the more people have this ticket, the more they need additional qualifications such as MA and PhDs to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

A modern university qualification still carries inherited prestige from the days when only a tiny proportion of the population went into higher education, but in practice, Goodhart claims, does not provide the vocational skills that employers are looking for, nor does it give students a deeper and richer understanding of the world. Yet as the only route now available to a decently paid job, it has led many who have no interest in further education to spend three or four expensive years in university – ‘an epidemic of square pegs in round holes’.

At the same time, this cultural shift has devalued Hand and Heart professions, in terms of pay and status. In essence the system is producing lots of overeducated, underused and frustrated people, with profound consequences for job satisfaction, mental health and political engagement.

A Handy history

Now we get to the reason for this post. Goodhart grounds his arguments in a fascinating three-chapter historical survey of the rise of the Head since the 19th century, when the failures of the Crimean War (1854) and Indian Rebellion (1857) discredited the idea of the gentleman amateur running society, in favour of the meritocratic notion of the well-trained civil servant.

A similar process happened in the professions and by 1880s an exam had to be passed to become a barrister, solicitor, doctor, surgeon, clergyman, pharmacist, merchant navy officer, mining engineer, architect or chartered accountant.

Exams also took off in schools, cascading down from the new university degree examinations to Oxbridge entrance tests, and eventually to IQ test-style SATs, A Levels, GCSEs and the 11+. Goodhart argues that this established the basis of the unhelpful hierarchy we live with today.

Yet he also challenges the notion that universities are the source of knowledge and progress, pointing out that for much of the 18th and 19th centuries Oxbridge was intellectually moribund, and the innovations of the Enlightenment were generated instead from within the Royal Society and other learned organisations. He goes further and questions the idea that education is as important for society as people believe:

‘…between 1800-1950 Britain gave birth to an industrial revolution, governed a far-flung empire, saw vast increases in per capita income, introduced democracy and a welfare state and mobilised successfully to fight and win two titanic military conflicts… all with only the most rudimentary education for the vast majority of the population. The most common selection system was life itself and how people performed in their allotted roles.‘

At the same time, Goodhart does not reject the academic altogether. He is critical of the progressive educators who have argued that critical thinking skills and creativity are more important than knowledge in in the modern workplace, echoing a point I made in my post on 21st Century Skills. In reality, only a small percentage of employees have ‘permission to think’, and Goodhart believes, rather pessimistically, that this is only likely to decrease with the rollout of AI.

What’s the solution?

It’s a brilliantly evidenced and argued book. But I found its general thesis challenging, as someone who argues for a broad liberal education for all and the importance of knowledge for its own sake, and I have some specific reservations.

The phrase ‘overeducated’, which crops up unquestioned a few times in the book, has always bothered me. It implies that it is possible to have just the right amount of education, which in turn presumes we know in advance what type of education is needed. Yet, as history has shown, society progresses through people having more education than they need.

It’s also notable that Goodhart avoids much discussion of how the content of education has changed during the period he is interested in. There is lots of evidence that education has been systematically instrumentalised in recent decades, meaning that what is taught in a degree today may bear little resemblance to what was taught forty years ago, in content or depth. This can be seen most prominently in the increasing prevalence of vocational degrees. Many people have pointed out that, paradoxically, the more vocational degrees become, the less likely they are to get you a job.

Finally, while his diagnosis of the problem is compelling, his proposed solutions are less so. He believes we need to value Hand and Heart occupations more, and that may be true. He does provide some concrete suggestions for what that might mean in practice, such as requiring everyone in school to have learned at least one manual/technical skill to a basic level, and a ‘rotation model’ of education in which work and education are rotated over the course of a career.

But beyond those somewhat uninspiring suggestions, it’s not clear how he thinks the warm feeling of ‘valuing’ the Hand and Heart more will translate to meaningful material change, and specifically increased wages. That said, he does inadvertently touch upon a possible solution when he mentions, in passing, the historical role of unions in securing professional prestige and higher wages. The unions of today, which often seem more like extensions of HR departments, are probably ill-fitted to picking up that role, but the important point we can take away may be that, politically, meaningful ‘value’ is not conferred from outside, but fought for, from within.

There’s far more in the book than I can do justice to do in this short review. If its themes have caught your imagination, you may enjoy this recent discussion of the book, which I chaired with my Academy of Ideas Education Forum hat on and which features a helpful review of the book’s main claims by teacher Gareth Sturdy.

Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (Allen Lane, September 2020) is available from Amazon.

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