Smart people have become too powerful to the detriment of the country in multiple ways. That is the argument at the heart of David Goodhart’s new book in which he argues that the rise of a dominant, university-educated “cognitive class” has made society more divided, left the rest of the population feeling under-appreciated, and promoted values that weaken institutions such as family, community and nation that provide identity and stability. Not only is this bad for our well-being, he argues, but it’s also leaving us with the wrong balance of skills for a future in which a growing elderly population and the destructive impact of artificial intelligence and technology on professional jobs force a rebalancing away from some “Head” occupations of today towards more “Heart” and “Hand” work in the decades ahead, particularly in care roles.
The root of the problem, he says, is that we’re sending too many people to university and giving precedence to academic education over technical and vocational training. Jobs that don’t need degree level ability to perform have become the preserve of graduates nonetheless as a result of their qualifications “signalling” theoretical talent, shutting out equally able school leavers who would previously have filled them. At the same time, the focus on generalist skills in many university courses has left us short of technically adept workers, while the status of many “Hand” and “Heart” jobs that don’t require a degree has been eroded.
But because politics has also been subject to a graduate takeover and become dominated by those with a university mindset that favours mobility, autonomy, freedom, there’s been a blindness to the consequences, compounded by an accompanying inability to understand the views of others with different values that has weakened social cohesion.
It’s a powerful charge sheet and Goodhart makes a call for change that he believes has been given added validity by the coronavirus pandemic and the recognition it’s produced of the critical importance of care home staff, bus drivers, delivery drivers, doctors and nurses among others. Indeed, he says that whereas when he began writing, before Covid-19 struck, he regarded his desire to shift away from graduate domination to a better balanced society as merely a “desirable ambition”, he now thinks that it’s not only necessary but probably inevitable.
One counter argument is that our existing model has given this country one of the world’s largest and most prosperous economies and helped, not least through “Head” jobs in the City, to generate the money to pay for schools, hospitals and much else. Goodhart contends in response that there’s a lot of “magical thinking” about the impact of higher education on growth, productivity and social mobility. He claims instead that economic growth is more stable and consistent if equal value is attached to work in care and skilled trades, although his evidence for this is unclear.
He concludes by admitting that his book is more a diagnosis than policy blueprint, although he offers numerous ideas for achieving change. Not all convince. Proposals for using the honours system and revising GDP calculations to better reflect the value of hand and heart work seem unlikely to change attitudes significantly for example. But anyone wanting to think about the way forward in a post-Covid world can still learn much from this valuable book.
Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century by David Goodhart (Allen Lane, £20), buy it here.