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We Need To Do Things Differently

One of the best books I have read recently is called ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ by David Goodhart.  If ever there was a timely analysis of what has gone wrong in this country in the last seventy years and why we find ourselves in such a mess, this book delivers.  Whether anything will be done as a result of Goodhart’s cogent arguments is doubtful, particularly with a governing party that appointed five different Secretaries of State for Education in 2022, but the hope has to be that someone, somewhere, with a brain and access to power, might actually read this book and do something to implement its key ideas. 

Goodhart is one of those journalists and commentators who would probably fall into the group described by Liz Truss as travelling from their north London townhouses in taxis to the BBC to defend the status quo, even though he is obviously arguing for change – albeit not the sort of change she was looking for – and he would probably say that his ideas will promote the growth everyone seems to be yearning for.  Or perhaps he is part of Suella Braverman’s ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’ – a phrase which surely tells us more about her than it does the sort of people she is trying to denigrate.

It will take a few weeks to cover all of Goodhart’s ideas that I found so interesting, but I agreed with so much of what he wrote that I hope you will indulge me once again as I try to explain why I think this is so important.  The key premise throughout is that in recent decades – allegedly in the interests of efficiency, fairness and progress – many western democracies have established systems of competition in which the most able succeed and too many of the rest feel like failures.  Without anyone really noticing it, something fundamental has got out of kilter, with Goodhart arguing throughout that we need a better balance between aptitudes based on what he labels Head, Hand and Heart to reduce the income disparity between the sectors and drive up the relative value we place on each.

He cites the children’s author and illustrator David Lucas, who has persuasively argued that society needs the cognitive skills of the knowledge economy, but it also needs the craft skills of artisans, technicians and the skilled trades, the imagination of artists and the emotional intelligence of those in caring jobs.  He observes that the chronic undervaluing of Hand and Heart skills has unbalanced our societies and alienated millions of people.  It also lurks beneath the surface of many contemporary crises, from mental health to recruitment problems in nursing and adult care.

Those who are judged the most able nowadays are those with higher levels of cognitive ability, or at least those certified as such by the education system, meaning that cognitive analytical ability, which is only one form of human aptitude, and which is the talent that helps people to pass exams and then handle information efficiently in their professional lives, has become the gold standard of human esteem.  Goodhart argues that those with a generous helping of this aptitude have formed a new kind of expanded cognitive class, a ‘mass elite’ as he calls it, who now shape society, and do so broadly in their own interests.  As he says, ‘To put it more bluntly: smart people have become too powerful.’

He goes on to say that in the language of political cliché, the ‘brightest and the best’ today trump the ‘decent and hard-working’.  Qualities such as character, integrity, experience, common sense, courage and willingness to toil – exactly the sort of qualities schools like Radnor House have long been seeking to extol and inculcate – are by no means irrelevant, but they are seen to command relatively less respect.  Goodhart explains that when such virtues count for less it can contribute to what social conservative critics call a ‘moral deregulation’ in which simply being a good person is not valued, and it becomes harder to feel satisfaction and self-respect living an ordinary, decent life, especially in the bottom part of the income spectrum.

It is easy for us to assume that it was always like this, but Goodhart highlights that for most of human history cognitive-analytical ability was scattered more or less randomly through society, with only a tiny minority attending university, religious seminaries or similar elite academies.  However, in recent decades a huge sorting process has taken place in rich countries, in which most of the young exam-passers are swept up and sent in unprecedented numbers into higher education, which has in turn triggered a significant decline in the status of much non-graduate employment and also made promotion from below much harder for those without the passport of a university degree.

While many of us may decry such an approach, we are also guilty of perpetuating it.  If, for example, I were to write to parents to say that I am so convinced that character is more important than grades that the school is going to introduce vocational qualifications to replace academic ones and we are going to focus only on service, charity and the rigours of outdoor education, I can say with confidence that I would quickly find myself in a difficult situation.  But someone, somewhere, needs to make a stand to try to break the current mould.

As we saw during the pandemic, and as we are seeing now during this period of workplace unrest, a significant proportion of jobs that require quite high levels of academic qualification are demonstrably less useful and productive than many low-qualification jobs.  As Goodhart asks, can we really argue that the work of a junior account manager in a city PR firm is more useful than that of a bus driver or an adult care worker? Moreover, many jobs in law, finance and other highly remunerated professions are often zero-sum: one individual or corporation wins and another loses. It is hard to disagree with his conclusion that public welfare has not been enhanced.

I will bring my introduction to this theme to a close with Goodhart’s argument that a successful society that wants to avoid a powerful undercurrent of resentment must sufficiently value and reward a broad range of achievement, embracing both cognitive and non-cognitive aptitudes, and must provide meaning and respect for people who cannot – or do not want to – achieve in the examination room and professional career market.  After all, half the population must always by definition be in the bottom half of the cognitive ability spectrum, or indeed any spectrum you care to choose.  

It looks to be a damning indictment of the systems we have created, both deliberately and inadvertently, that we have failed to get the balance right between different areas of society, to the point where it may actually be the case that the industrial societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for all their failings, were better at distributing status and self-respect, especially for men, than the post-industrial societies we have become.  In such circumstances, can it really be so radical to say that something surely has to change and that we need to do things differently in the years ahead?

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