On being more like John Hills

John Hills – a titan of British social policy, and my old PhD supervisor – died just before Christmas. I wanted to write something about John, but it is hard to write in grief. I simply do not have the poetry to convey fine emotions in words; everything comes out as either a bland list of notable achievements, or running through his personal attributes without recapturing the singular human being behind them. None of this is true of the beautiful, painful tribute written by Tania, Abigail, Kitty and Polly, but their eloquence only confirms my own inability to write.

So I here want to write in a different way about John – not trying to capture who he was or what he did, but just to write about what he meant to me. And particularly: why I have started every day since his passing thinking, ‘how can I be more like John Hills today?’

How to ignore 21st-century academia

To me, John was a force acting against everything that is wrong with academia today.

One of these problems is the intense pressure on academics to publish in high-impact journals at the expense of doing useful work. Social policy academics talk a lot about this, and when we do, it is common for someone to try to deflect these pressures by saying at one point: “Well, you can’t put your publications list on your gravestone”. (Though see this).

But somehow John just ignored these pressures. This isn’t to say that he eschewed high status: obviously he had a prestigious appointment at LSE, enormous public impact, a knighthood, and was revered by a huge swathe of the great and the good. But as far as I could tell, none of this mattered to him – unlike most academics, he wasn’t trying to achieve some sort of fame or immortality through his work. He was simply and wholeheartedly trying to make the world a better place.

There are various ways of describing this, but one is the fact that John simply didn’t publish that much in academic journals, let alone top US journals. Only 1 of his 20 most-cited works is in an academic journal – he mostly wrote books, government reviews, and research reports rather than papers. John showed me that you don’t change the world by chasing publications in prestigious journals – it comes from what you say and how you say it.

Nor did he try to do unnecessarily fancy things in his research to persuade other people that it was ‘novel’. If you look at Inequality and the State – the book that towered over my earliest studies in social policy, and which seemed to be required reading among Labour politicians at the time – there is little complex causal analysis using opaque econometric techniques. Instead, there is just a series of clear descriptions of poverty, inequality, and policy, which he built in his unparalleled way into the deepest and subtlest understanding of the British welfare state.

I don’t mean to suggest John didn’t do novel research. His work with Jane Falkingham on welfare state redistribution over the lifecourse is seminal. And perhaps his most under-rated work went back to people every two weeks over a whole year (a 26-wave panel study!) – which showed how some people have incomes that vary wildly over the course of a year, something that social security policymakers too rarely understand. But John mostly did excellent descriptive work, of a type that is too easily marginalised in academic social science.

The meaning of ‘integrity’

But this is only part of what John meant to me. As well as his work, John was just a remarkably decent human being – something that those around him have universally described in their tributes here & here. Words like ‘decency’ and ‘integrity’ are too abstract to do justice to this, so here are some more tangible memories.

John had a remarkable ability to treat everyone the same. I remember having PhD supervisions just after he had spoken to Cabinet ministers (my desk was just outside his office so I could eavesdrop a little). He gave me the same time that he had given them, gave me the same attention, and talked to me in exactly the same way. Just as he did with everyone. Likewise, John was always supportive, seeing the best in you, and trying to help you bring out what you were capable of.

I was also always struck by the way that John taught poverty measurement. Poverty measurement is both a technical issue (albeit a very important one), and one of those topics that many of us end up explaining dozens of times to the point of boredom. Despite this, when John taught me about poverty measurement as a Masters student, there was a genuine tear in his eye. Not in an affected way, and not to prove anything to anyone – it was just that he somehow always connected the driest of statistical discussions to the real lives that they described. I don’t know anyone else in social science that manages to do this so well.

By way of contrast, I remember a very famous American professor telling a group of young inequality researchers how he had found something getting worse for some people in one survey – he checked it in another survey to see if it was true, and was genuinely happy to find it was! (One clever, committed, sensitive young researcher left the room at this point in tears). Sometimes brilliant academics revel in showing how bad things are – but this is the opposite of John, who knew that every headline-grabbing statistic represents the pains and struggles of real people, and is therefore a tragedy.

A final memory: when John taught students about earnings inequality, he would tell them his own salary, and where this put him in the income distribution. I have never heard any other inequality researcher do this, but it struck me as such an important thing to do that I have always done it since (and for when I’m not talking about inequality, it’s always at the bottom of my webpage). He didn’t make a point of it; there was no virtue signalling involved. It was just a small part of how he lived his values in everything that he did.

On being more like John

Grief can be a solitary experience – everyone experiences it in a different way, and my loss pales compares to that of John’s family and friends.

Still – I do feel John’s loss, still feel the loss of his way of being. In the past, I felt all of the pressures of contemporary academia, of mindless publication accumulation and defensiveness with our time – but against this I saw John’s guiding light about how to live as an academic. Now that John is gone, it can feel like the harsher side is getting the upper hand.

Yet we also have John’s memory. This year, I have tried to spend the first five minutes of every day thinking about how John would have approached the day. To be clear: I am not like John. Trying to be him would be a lost cause – not just in his enormous intellectual contribution or wonderful communication abilities, but also in his instinctive integrity. I instead experience academic life as a struggle between my better and worse selves – between everything that is rewarded in the current system vs. all the reasons I went into academia in the first place. I would guess that many others recognise this struggle too.

And thinking, ‘how can I be more like John Hills today?’ helps my better self win.

2 responses to “On being more like John Hills”

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