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Head Hand Heart

We can all see that we live in a world of misallocated capital, but we also live in a society of misallocated labour.

We disproportionately praise, and pay, those who work with their heads. Yet when it comes to the people who work with their hands or their hearts, well, they end up with crumbs in comparison.

So how did the cult of the knowledge worker become so pervasive? Host, Ross Ashcroft met up with author, David Goodhart, to discuss.

Too much head, not enough heart

In his book, The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart outlined the value divides in wealthy industrial democracies that led to the Trump and Brexit phenomena. In his latest book, Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, the author continued this theme by digging deeper into the problem of educational stratification. Goodhart’s basic argument is that society has allocated too much reward and prestige to human aptitudes associated with cognitive analytical ability (head) at the expense of some of the other clusters of aptitude associated with care and emotional intelligence (hand and heart).

Goodhart claims that the former attribute, particularly in the UK and US, has been misallocated, with too much attention devoted to the knowledge sector of the work force resulting in economic, cultural and political forms of dysfunctionality. What is needed, Goodhart asserts, is a shift in social values to reflect the importance of the creation of real value within the non-financialized sector, an issue that Covid-19 could paradoxically help address.

It’s Goodhart’s contention that not only is the pandemic helping to shift the emphasis away from the cognitive head, but that it is the catalyst for the creation of new democratic demands such as higher pay and recognition for hand and heart workers who have been left behind. The shift in emphasis also relates to how capitalist society has traditionally undervalued the care sector embodied both in terms of historically patriarchal attitudes and in the discriminatory way in which merit is measured.

These factors have been exacerbated due to the geographically uneven way in which capitalism has transformed over time between and within countries. Goodhart notes that the gap between the richest and poorest regions in the UK is almost twice as large as France and three times larger than in Germany largely as a result of the relative shifts that have take place between former industrial and contemporary post-industrial economies.

Contradiction

One of the contradictory aspects of UK public policy over the last 20 or 30 years has been the extent to which the cognitively-driven knowledge sector in metropolitan centres, have denuded the rest of the country of its brightest people.

“So you have a domestic brain drain while at the same time politicians are wringing their hands about regional inequality. With one hand they’re creating it and with the other hand they’re saying, how can we stop it?”, says Goodhart.

The problem, as the author sees it, is the way in which those with higher cognitive abilities who tend to gravitate towards the metropolitan centres have been exclusively rewarded by successive governments both economically and culturally.

The irony, though, is that the head-related jobs are those most likely to be taken over by artificial intelligence (AI) while the growth area, fueled by the demands of an ageing society, are hand and heart-type jobs. This shift is having an impact in terms of undermining the merit of a university education which is increasingly a gateway to what the late, great, David Graeber referred to as “Bull***t Jobs”.

“Even prior to AI we still have the routinization of a lot of functions that once did actually require a fair amount of of cognitive judgement. The classic example of this is the bank manager who used to decide whether to lend the bank’s money to local individuals or businesses. You’ve got an algorithm that now essentially makes those decisions”, says Goodhart.

The author contends that mediocre middle and lower levels of people who have gone through the education system are piggybacking on the prestige of higher cognitive function types. This is potentially politically destabilizing and has the effect of dragging productivity down. The middle and lower levels are effectively doing the same jobs that their non-graduate parents might have done in some relatively lowly administrative function.

Getting off the treadmill

“We’ve got to get off this treadmill of sending more and more people into these lower paid, lower status cognitive functions, that in any case are not really going to be there in five or ten years time”, says Goodhart.

An awareness that the treadmill is flawed gives credence to the notion that hand and heart jobs in the middle and bottom end of the labour market have been undervalued. Goodhart argues that one of the problems is what he terms the “over-academization” in secondary schools.

The author is in favour of the re-introduction of more rigour into the system:

Mossbourne and Michaela in London have absolutely amazing results. You can teach things that are often regarded as sort of soft subjects. You can teach them really rigorously. You can teach them just like you teach Biology or French”, says Goodhart.

The author continues:

“Carpentry, metal work and those kinds of things have almost disappeared from the secondary school curriculum. And because of the demands of the university sector, which is where the schools are overwhelmingly focused, these things have no value and so they’ve fallen by the wayside.”

Goodhart argues that children should be leaving school with at least one non-academic skill and emphasizes the need for the UK to build its own version of the German apprenticeship system in order to enable active engagement in the real economy.

Ultimately, Goodhart recognizes the need to address the problems associated with over-praising the cognitive class by giving more attention to those who work with their hands and those who work with their hearts.

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