Book Review: Head, Hand, Heart

By Richard Van Egmond  |  December 6th

With typical prescience, Peter Drucker was among several theorists who began writing about the rise of the “knowledge worker” in the later 1950s. Anticipating the impacts of information technology on the economy, he suggested that a new class of workers was emerging that would grow in importance and size and begin to overshadow the place of the manual labourer in the job market. These “knowledge workers” would be paid primarily to think, manage information, and creatively design new products and services, rather than perform physical tasks. Drucker’s predictions proved to be accurate, and this new class of worker became increasingly important in the decades that followed.

David Goodheart’s recent book, Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence is Overrewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect, joins a growing number of authors who suggest that the trend of focusing on cognitive achievement (what he calls “peak head”) might be facing some headwinds. He assesses whether the ascendancy of the “cognitive class” might actually be part of a larger shift that has led to the inadvertent devaluation of other career pathways based on manual labour skills (“hands”) and the capacity for care and compassion (“heart”).  While this Head/Hands/Heart trichotomy is in some ways an overly simplistic way of categorizing modern careers, the shorthand works effectively for his argument and captures a number of his key themes.  

Goodheart first describes the process that led to the rise of the “knowledge worker” and the educational pathways and meritocratic process that selectively guided students into these cognitive careers. He also probes the reasons why careers based on the capacity for working manually and caring for people physically and emotionally, have typically been under-rewarded in salary and compensation, as well being given less prestige and status within a hierarchy that places “head” careers at the top of the ladder. He examines some of the trends that may be leading to a more balanced view of these three vocational sectors. For example, he notes the work of the father and son team of Richard and David Susskind, which has traced how many professional, “white collar”, knowledge-based career professions such as doctor, lawyer and accountant are being impacted by the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He also notes how COVID-19 renewed appreciation for the “hands” and “heart” workers who maintained our retailers and health care sectors during this healthcare crisis.  

In addition to these larger trends which are beginning to challenge “peak head”, Goodheart offers a call for society to reevaluate the relative prestige of differing career pathways. He ends his book with several possible strategies that could potentially help to rebalance the way we value varying kinds of work (head vs. hands/heart) in many modern societies. Among these are creative and intriguing policy ideas that would enhance the fabric of families and provide support for unpaid, at home caregivers of the young and elderly; encourage local economies and entrepreneurs in smaller communities; and contribute to the development of training for young people in the perennial crafts and skilled trades. While some may see these as idealistic, they offer alternatives to allowing market forces alone to determine what we value.

As Christian schools, one of the many valuable things we do in our work with students is to provide them with resources and experiences that help to discern their callings and begin to plan their post-secondary pathways. For educators interested in gaining a better understanding of the current trends impacting the career and educational landscape in Western economies, and the world of work our graduates are entering upon graduation, Goodheart is a valuable guide and worth the read.

Richard Van Egmond is Director of Venture and Cooperative Education at HDCH and the OYAP Project Leader at Edvance.