The COVID-19 Pandemic & More: A book recommendation while Omicron continues to ebb in ColoradoOct 4, 2022
Over the last month, I have read Fiona Hill’s There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, a book for our times. You may remember her name from the first impeachment of President Trump during which she testified on matters related to Russia and Ukraine. This memoir begins with the gripping story of her upbringing in the impoverished north of England during the challenging economy of the Thatcher years and her education and rise as an expert on Russia in the U.S. government. In her last government position during the Trump Administration, she was Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019. Much of the remainder of the book addresses her experience in the government, focusing on her last two years and offering her personal, chilling, and timely insights into Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The short remainder of the book offers her thoughts into how to advance opportunity.
I was particularly absorbed by her account of classism in the United Kingdom. Raised in a poor area of England that had been economically buffeted by the closure of underground coal mines, educational and work opportunities were limited, leading her father, a porter in the local hospital, to tell her, “There is nothing for you here.” At that time, secondary education was in transition from the 11-plus system, which sorted students into educational niches based on a test at the end of primary school, to a system with comprehensive local public education for all. Hill took the 11-plus exam in its last year but attended a local secondary school in the new comprehensive model.
In the now defunct 11-plus system, the track for secondary education was determined by the single test, locking children into potentially lifetime education and career trajectories. Behind the testing was the wrong notion that intelligence had a strong genetic basis and that a child’s future performance could be anticipated based on a test. Based on the test results, children were then steered towards what was deemed appropriate education and training. The system intrinsically maintained the caste system of socioeconomic class, given the distinctions in education by the wealth of communities.
The twin studies of Sir Cyril Burt, an educational psychologist and geneticist, were influential in the establishment of this approach, showing the dominance of “nature” over “nurture”. While his early studies may have been valid, much of his later work was shown to be fraudulent. Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of Burt and the impact of his “research” in the 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man—a superb account of erroneous and fraudulent “research” carried out to support purported racial inferiority. In my opinion, this book remains the definitive history of biased and fraudulent science carried out to support racism.
Following local secondary education, Hill attended college at St. Andrews, beginning her studies of Russia and the Russian language. She describes her failed attempt at applying to Oxford, lacking the preparation needed for the most elite universities in the United Kingdom. She tells jarring stories of how her origins in the north of England continually evoked classist reactions from colleagues, who questioned her legitimacy. These reactions were to continue across her doctoral and fellowship years, and even came when she met peers from the United Kingdom in the United States. She does not report racism as visible during her upbringing in England but finds it when she comes to the United States for her fellowship.
Beyond classism, her gender was a powerful driver of her opportunities and compensation. Her story is familiar as she finds that women were treated differently from men in professional contexts and compensated poorly by comparison. Hill learns to fight back.
At a moment when the illegal actions of Putin have started war with Ukraine, bringing the threat of nuclear weapons, and Donald Trump with his MAGA followers threatens the foundation of democracy in the United States, Hill’s insights into both men are prescient and worrisome. She provides a timely introduction to populism.
By now, you realize that I am giving this book a two-thumbs and all fingers up recommendation.
Jonathan Samet, MD, MS
Dean, Colorado School of Public Health