This afternoon I’d cleared some time to sit down and properly read through the Porkess Report on maths education in England — a document which, at least from a skim through the executive summary, looks as if it might be less silly than either the headline-grabbing recommendation or the choice of committee chair suggest. However, somebody a few streets away had thoughtlessly left some paint drying, and I found myself getting distracted. The result of my mental peregrinations was the following.
The Goose: a highly transparent parable for our times
Once upon a time there was a goose. She was a plump goose, and a happy goose; she scraped and waddled in the farmyard with the other birds; she shat freely in the farmyard; and every so often she laid a single, large egg made of 24 carat gold.
At first the farmer who owned the goose was perfectly contented. But as time went by he became frustrated that he never knew how long it would be before the goose laid another golden egg. Sometimes it was only a few days after the last one; sometimes he had to wait for weeks. Eventually he could bear the uncertainty no longer, and he sent for a committee of eggsperts from the Academy for Eggucation.
The eggsperts arrived: they talked to the farmer; and they poked round the farmyard; and they fell into the dungheap; and one or two of them even looked briefly at the goose. Then they put their wise heads together, and then each of them gave the farmer his or her advice.
“The goose is too fat”, pronounced the first eggspert. “It is essential that this goose goes on a slimming diet so that it produces golden eggs more efficiently.”
“The goose is too thin”, declared the second eggspert. “Only if you increase the goose’s feed will it be empowered to lay golden eggs.”
“The goose is theoretically naïve”, the third eggspert explained. “How can you expect the goose to construct golden eggs when it has no sociological basis on which to do so?” And he offered to design and deliver a state-of-the-art course in eggucational theory for the goose at a very reasonable price.
“The problem is not the goose but the farmer”, chorused the fourth, fifth and sixth eggsperts, nodding in agreement. “The farmer unduly privileges the golden eggs”, said the fourth eggspert, “over all other forms of egg. This is crass egglitism.” “No”, the fifth eggspert corrected him, “it is egglitist that the farmer privileges eggs of any sort over the other realities that a goose constructs. The farmer must recognise the value of the dropped feathers and the shit of the goose as much as that of the golden eggs.” At this the sixth eggspert rolled her eyes. “I am aghast”, she spluttered, “that you can calmly discuss this without any reference to the other animals in the farmyard. I find it highly offensive that you presume that the pigs could not construct eggs of equal validity to the goose’s eggs, and I demand that the pigs be credited immediately with participation in a democratic egg-laying process.” At this point the fourth, fifth and sixth eggsperts started to call each other names.
The seventh eggspert, who had become very famous for providing the voice of a cartoon goose on children’s TV, said nothing because he knew the farmer would give him the credit for all the advice anyway.
By this stage the farmer was rather confused, but he agreed to increase the goose’s food, to decrease it again, to send the goose on an eight-week course in aurovological theory and practice, and every time he sent a golden egg to the goldsmiths he agreed to include with it a large parcel of feathers, goose-shit and pig eggs. The immediate result of this was that the goose became less plump, less happy and more prone to muttering darkly through her beak; however she continued to lay occasional golden eggs. The eggsperts concluded that their intervention had been a success and all nominated each other for several important awards in recognition of it.
And all went happily onward until the goldsmiths became fed up of receiving large parcels of feathers, goose-shit and pig eggs. (No-one had any idea what the pig eggs looked like, but everyone agreed they must be in the parcels somewhere.) The goldsmiths went in a body to the King and complained that the farmer had gone completely potty and was imposing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to the continuing growth of a highly-aureate economy. The King pondered this complaint and found it justified, so he had the farmyard taken away from the farmer and put in the care of the goldsmiths.
The goldsmiths gave the goose a nice desk in a very highly sought after part of a lovely open-plan office environment on the site of the old farmyard, a clearly incentivised professional development pathway, and a suit. They also explained to her at length how in the modern economy it was necessary to be proactively responsive to the needs of consumers, and actioned her to lay a range of designer jewellery and Olympic memorabilia for the 2012 market instead of golden eggs – which, as they explained, hardly anybody wants these days. The goldsmiths congratulated themselves on having introduced private-sector dynamism into the goose industry, and applied for Investor in Poultry status.
The goose did not seem to make full use of either the desk or the professional development pathway, although she completed several modules in leadership skills and attended a course on designing flowcharts in Powerpoint. After a little while the suit was found to be stuffed with feathers, goose-shit and pig eggs, and was thrown away. Eventually a team of consultants hired by the King concluded that after appropriate seasonal adjustment, golden egg productivity metrics had declined on a like-by-like basis by nearly 42% since the reforms. The King pondered the executive summary of their horizon-scanning exercise, and decided to pay the goldsmiths a great deal of money and warn the goose that her underperformance was not acceptable. The goldsmiths got very drunk late into the night celebrating, but the goose became increasingly surly and took to hissing loudly whenever a consultant walked past the farmyard gates.
It was now late in the year, and in another corner of the farmyard, in a small pen, a turkey was growing fat and stately. One night he was woken from his sleep by a familiar voice outside the pen.
“Turkey”, asked the goose, “do you know what is going to happen to you?”
“Of course”, the turkey replied. “In a few days – or maybe tomorrow – they will come and cut my head off; then they’ll pull out my insides, stuff herbs up my bum and roast me for their Christmas dinner. I can’t say it’s the career path I’d have chosen, but what can you do? If I escaped there’d just be a hue and cry until they caught me again, and nobody’s daft enough to offer to swap places with me.”
“I am”, said the goose.
“Really?” asked the turkey. “That’s frightfully good of you. But – even supposing you wanted to – there’s no way we’d get away with it. The first sight they had of either of us they’d know we’d changed places.”
“No they wouldn’t”, said the goose gloomily. “Humans don’t notice things like that. Trust me on this.”
The turkey could think of several further objections, but wisely decided not to mention them. So they scraped a small hole under the wire of the pen; he squeezed out and the goose squeezed in; and the next day the goose’s head was cut off, her insides were pulled out, she had herbs stuffed up her bum and she was roasted; and she was quite contentedly at peace at last.
Meanwhile the turkey scraped and waddled round the farmyard, and the farmer, the eggsperts, the goldsmiths and the King’s consultants watched him, and had anxious meetings at which they persuaded themselves that the goose looked the same as she had always done, and waited for her to lay another golden egg.
To the best of my knowledge, they are still waiting.