Grapes and Wrath, or: Phaedrus on Things Too High

Former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major recently expressed his shock at ‘at the way in which every sphere of modern public life is dominated by a private school-educated elite and well-heeled middle class’.

‘Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born. We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them. And it isn’t going to happen magically,’ Major said.

It is easy to play the blame game (and Major’s own intervention is not entirely free of that). Which one of the political parties is more to blame for the loss of social mobility (the very concept of which has recently been brought into disrepute as well)? Yet, it is an exercise in futility, as it does nothing to identify possible solutions – and as it misses an essential point. A first degree from an Higher Education institution in the UK, for home and EU students, currently comes with an annual price tag of up to £9,000 – on top of the daily cost of life.

The recent change in the tuition fees regime has sparked a massive debate as to whether some degree programmes are more useful than others, furthered by the government’s desire to introduce a ‘food labelling’ system to classify degree programmes and to measure their performance indicators. It has generated a debate as to whether a  degree is a good idea to begin with. It has generated a debate as to whether some (or any) Universities are worth such a significant investment.

All of this is dwarfed, however, by a common trend in the public perception of Higher Education in the UK – the outright despisal and contempt hurled towards Academia and its representatives as a bunch of quixotic, out-of-this-world tree-huggers and eggheads: web forums and other outlets are full of such remarks, as are opinion pieces in newspapers – a trend that no government appears to be interested in contradicting or tackling. This is, of course, remarkable in a situation in which on the one hand ‘the masses’ have effectively been priced out of Higher Education, while, on the other hand, it is perfectly obvious (as Major aptly points out) that the country is run by the recipients of the same.

Phaedrus, a slave, who became famous for his writing of Aesopian fables during the early Roman Empire, tells a well-known story (Phaedus 4.3):

De uulpe et uua

Fame coacta uulpes alta in uinea
uuam appetebat summis saliens uiribus;
quam tangere ut non potuit, discedens ait:
‘nondum matura est; nolo acerbam sumere.’
qui facere quae non possunt, uerbis eleuant,
ascribere hoc debebunt exemplum sibi.

Of the Fox and the Grapes

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach, high up in the vineyard, the grapes, jumping with all his strength; as he could not reach it, he walked away and said: ‘They’re not ripe yet; I don’t like to eat them sour.’

Those who scorn, with their words, what they cannot achieve, will have to fess up to this paradigm.

The fox’s frustration is understandable. Sadly, his response is neither designed to allay his hunger nor, in fact, to remove the need to eat, if he wishes to survive. Yet, it was not the fox’s instinct to try the grapes that was mistaken: it was the inadequacy of his attempts to reach it that betrayed him.

There may be a lesson in Phaedrus’ fable.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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