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

What has the enactment of the Technological University legislation in March 2018 which allows for institutes of technology to apply for university status in Ireland to do with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump?

That is a question that David Goodhart in his latest book ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ does not pose but points toward in his exploration of the polarisation of different societies in recent decades along the lines of people working in cognitive ‘head’ jobs versus those working in manual ‘hand’ employment or care ‘heart’ jobs.

Michael Sandel ‘in ‘the Tyranny of Merit’ opens the conversation on meritocracy as part of a growing cottage industry of academics and intellectuals trying to understand the disaffection that is rising in societies in the ‘western’ world. Following on from his earlier book ‘The Road to Somewhere: the Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics’, Goodhart joins Sandel in this discussion. However, his work in writing ‘Head Heart Hand’,  feels like a much more genuine attempt to understand how the loss of merit, esteem, respect, standing, and value of both the manual productive work and care work that has received a temporary, if platitudinous, boost during the covid-19 pandemic has come about.

Despite the long applause at the start of the pandemic, the pre-occupation in policy and discourse, on the benefits of remote and hybrid working, underlines that perspective that among the elite, the only work of consequence or esteem, is cognitive ‘head’ work. The reality that the majority of workers in Ireland do not have the option of remote, home-working, seems to have no bearing on the weight of the conversation. It is as if, as the curtains are coming down on covid, that the wave of appreciation, the semblance of esteem, afforded to the ‘working class’ is becoming a distant memory.

While the government, and the news media, dedicate time and effort to exploring the new paradigm of ‘wfh’, the reward for the care-workers, the essential staff is a scrap over a few crumbs.

Society, whether in the United States, Britain, Ireland and parts of Europe, has seen a huge uptake in third level education in the last twenty years, encouraged through government policy, legislation and investment, moving away from investment and support to training for hands-on work (hand and heart) toward cognitive-based, white-collar jobs as the standard for achievement.

In his book, Goodhart laments the scurry of the polytechnics in the UK, over the past twenty years, to abandon their roots and chase university status, reinforcing the ‘graduatisation’ of all kinds of work with many negative consequences. While he appreciates the polytechnics desire to be esteemed to the same level as the universities, this is bad news all round.

The univeritisation of the polytechnics simply pushed the universities to further distinguish themselves by the creation of the ‘Russell Group’, reminding observers, which are the ‘real’ universities, while the poltytechnics, in the effort to appear more university0life, divest themselves of their bread and butter – quality technical skills and qualifications, being replaced by a move towards degree courses in the arts and social sciences.

This is not the sole problem, and the National Strategy for Higher Education commits that a Technological University will be distinguished by a mission and ethos that is aligned and consistent with the current mission and focus of institutes of technology but with an emphasis on programmes at levels 6 to 8 and industry-focused research, remaining true to their roots, but the lessons of the polytechnics loom large.

No matter the good intentions, the accessible, technical courses of shorter duration will fall to the wayside as has happened in the UK and limited value will be placed on having those qualifications, yet young people will be pushed – or pulled – increasingly to seek degree level qualifications or to opt out of training altogether as the options for vocation training reduce.

Non-college employment in skills trade is already dropping, and those without college degrees are increasingly falling into non-skilled and poorly paid work. The ‘graduatisation’ of society, with 48% of school leavers going to 3rd level education, is creating a divide between those that are deemed ‘successful’ by going to college, leaving their homes for the big city, joining the masses of the ‘anywheres’ and those that seen as ‘left-behind’, with decreasing options for valued employment and careers open to them.

As a consequence, there is a new ‘epitocracy’ created in society. The people who move into the ‘head’ sector are the ones who take their place in the establishment. While many graduates learn little that is of use in the workplace and end up in jobs that do not require graduate level qualifications, they push those without into the unskilled roles that are what make up Hilary Clinton’s deplorables.

This creates two very different societies, living unconnected lives – one half of society that are in thrall to the abstract, to culture, dismissive of connection, and the other half who are rooted in family and connectedness and their local community. There is an increasing elitism that became evidently clear after the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit, and it was not in whispered terms that it was spoken that the uneducated cannot be trusted to make these complex decisions.

This is reflected in the widening gap between the views of wider society and the ideas of the establishment. Increasingly, elected politicians are not representative, or able to represent, the preferences of one half of society. There are some who think this is a good thing, but Goodhart also argues that the highly-cognitive are not always the most rational. Indeed, the clever, partly through hubris, are able to rationalise their perspective and think away inconvenient facts. There is an argument that for more effective and considered policy, that the ever-increasing trend of politicians from the ‘head’ sector all with degrees and qualifications of various types (although mostly in the softer rather than the harder sciences) dominating, there needs to be a rebalancing with representation for those from the ‘heart’ and the ‘hand’ walks of life.

Although there maybe greater esteem in graduate level qualifications, the actual economic returns, for most degree holders outside of the elite ‘Russel Group’ universities is an increasing failed promise. The focus in the ‘Technological University’ on level 6 – 8 qualifications is undermined by statistics in the UK that show that graduates from non-elite universities by the age of 30 are earning 11% less than they could have had they done a two-year technical qualification. Coupled with that, they have also burdened themselves with an addition two years of debt-creation in college and usually higher fees as well.

Goodhart admits that his book is more of an exploration of a subject and an attempt at understanding, rather than positing solutions or a clear policy path forward. He points towards where society is broken and has the humility to admit that he does not want to, or cannot expect to, turn the clock back, but in some way to propose a means of rebalancing the relative levels of esteem (and incomes) that goes with the different types of work in society.

With rapid development in IT and artificial intelligence, he feels that the knowledge economy is going into ‘recession’, with much of the work done by secondary level workers – the managers and the drones – moving toward algorithms and automation (just as much of the skilled manual work did before it), with only the highest ‘Head’ roles surviving for the most able and creative, and these will be increasingly valued and rewarded as the newer but tiny elite.

Goodhart’s meagre attempt at a way forward involves giving greater esteem, appreciation and remuneration to care roles rewarding them with more than platitudes; celebrating craft in the manual skills that will provide some authenticity in the face of automation and algorithms.

He does not have the answers, but his book poses many important questions and it feels like he genuinely considers them important for the good of society as a whole and not just in order to figure out how Donald Trump got elected and avoid allowing it happen again.



Author: David Goodhart

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Published: 08/09/2020

Binding: Hardback

Pages: 368

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