Literary Hub

How Our Obsession With Test-Taking and Credentials Led to the World of Trump and Brexit

The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.

On today’s episode, David Goodhart, author of Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence Is Over-Rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect, discusses the narrowing concept of a good life, how pushing higher education led to Trump and Brexit, and the future of AI within white-collar jobs.

From the episode:

Andrew Keen: Your first book was about “anywheres and somewheres.” You’ve expanded that to a trinity: head, hand, heart. What do these terms mean?

David Goodhart: Well, these are aptitudes connected to different parts of the human anatomy. And my argument is not against intelligence. It’d be completely dumb to be against intelligence. We need intelligent people more than ever to come up with a vaccine against COVID-19, to work out how to suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere. We need intelligence. This is not a book that is against intelligence.

But what I’m arguing is that one form of human aptitude—cognitive ability, analytical thinking, the exam-writing ability that some people have and many people don’t have—has become too much the gold standard of human esteem. And the other forms of aptitude, other abilities, have had the kind of status and prestige and reward sucked out of them in the last few decades. We’ve overemphasized one of those three aptitudes.

And that has contributed to the mass political alienation we’ve seen in Brexit and Trump and so on. It has contributed to, I think, too narrow a definition of what it is to lead a successful life. Essentially it’s to do well at school, go to a more or less good university or college, then have a more or less successful professional career. Cognitive professional career. That is what a good life now is. You don’t have to go back very far to find a much broader definition of what a good life is and a more varied route into it.

One other thing that’s happened in recent times is that we now have effectively a kind of single ladder, a single funnel, into that safe life of the professional class, as it were. And that ladder takes you to higher education. There’s a single ladder; there used to be lots of little ladders. You could get promotion from below. You may not have been a very well educated person, but your talents and abilities were recognized and you’d be promoted. Now, if you don’t have that initial credentialism of a three-, four-year degree, you don’t have a chance of getting into what one what one might call the kind of mass elite, the mass cognitive elite.


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David Goodhart is one of the most distinctive and influential contemporary political analysts. He worked for the Financial Times for twelve years before founding Prospect magazine in 1995. He now leads the demography unit for the Policy Exchange think tank. His book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration was runner up for the Orwell book prize. In bestselling book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Goodhart identified the value divisions in western societies that help explain Brexit, Trump, and the global rise of populism.

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