January 6, 2021

Exploring ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ by David Goodhart

Smart people have become too powerful. That’s the claim made by social commentator David Goodhart in his latest book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. 

The talent to pass exams and handle information efficiently, he argues, has become the gold standard of human esteem. Those with a generous helping of such aptitude have formed a new class – a ‘mass elite’ – which now shapes society in its own interests. For those employed in manual work or the caring professions it’s another matter.

“It is becoming harder to feel satisfaction and self-respect living an ordinary, decent life, especially in the bottom part of the income spectrum”, writes Goodhart.

Brexit and Trump have frequently been criticised because of the low intelligence or poor education of their working-class voters. Yet the recent wave of Covid-related school closures and exam cancellations suggests that academic values aren’t all-conquering either.

The pandemic has seen a re-evaluation of the importance of blue-collar workers and the caring professions, such as in the weekly ‘Clap for Carers’ during the height of the crisis. However, it has also seen those protesting against masks and lockdowns labelled as low-information ‘Covidiots’.

So to what extent is Goodhart’s distinction between Head, Hand and Heart helpful in understanding the contemporary tensions in education? Is he correct to claim that we have reached an era of ‘peak Head’ in which a meritocracy based on educational achievement is counter-productive? Or can one believe in high intellectual standards and the importance of exams without excluding those who have little aptitude for them?

Is a school system which embraces both the academic and non-academic possible – or are these distinctions meaningless anyway?

To consider these and other questions, this Academy of Ideas Education Forum event took the form of a book group on Head, Hand, Heart. Gareth Sturdy gives a short introduction to the book before opening up the meeting to round-table discussion.

How does one argue effectively for a schooling system which accords dignity and status to the non-academic, while upholding academic standards?

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