[My resolution for this year is to find a bit more time for this blog. After all, it’s considerably more fun, and offers far more opportunities for developing ideas that are original and interesting (or at any rate more “me”) than writing conventional, properly referenced journal articles. Either REF2020 will not actually happen, or they’ll have worked out a way to take proper account of social media, in which case my 23 followers here will be serious currency… Since I am currently away in the snow-covered forests of the land of the Brothers Grimm, rather than a proper post I thought I’d share an old folk-tale with you. Of course, Märchen are far more serious, and far more connected to the realities of existence, than they may at first appear…]
Once upon a time, there was king who had many children. Like all children, they were mainly, if never entirely or always, good and honest and open-hearted and hard-working. Like all brothers and sisters, they were in many ways similar but also strikingly different in other respects; not only were some boys and some girls, some older and some younger, some taller, some broader, some red-headed, some rosy-cheeked and some with remarkably long earlobes, they also varied in their character and moods – cheerfulness, perspicacity, introversion, energy, originality, optimism, practicality, pretentiousness and so forth. Each of the children was given responsibility for a different part of the kingdom and the people who lived there; and over time, in most cases, they changed a little to become more like their locality, and the locality and its people changed a little to become more like them.
Every few years, the king made a special distribution of some of the kingdom’s wealth, to help support the different localities that his children looked after. He was sometimes rather generous to the older children (or so some of the younger ones thought), and sometimes neglected others for no very good reason (or so they felt), but everyone received more or less what was needed for the size and nature of their locality, and – most importantly – everyone received more or less the same amount every time, so they could plan for the future with some feeling of security. And so life continued.
Then one day the king – or more probably one of his advisors – had a thought. All the children seemed to be basically good; but it was highly unlikely that they were all equally good. They all seemed to be honest, but were they equally honest? They all worked hard, or claimed to do so, but was this true? And, even if it was, did they actually all work as hard as each other? But if some were actually lazy, or dishonest, or corrupt – and the king, or his advisor, found it all too easy to slip from seeing one child as less energetic than another to seeing him or her as lazier – then was it right to reward them all in more or less the same way, without taking proper account of these differences?
And so the king announced that henceforth he would distribute money to his children according to their Excellence, and he appointed an army of quantifiers, evaluators and scrutineers to examine every aspect of each part of the kingdom in order to inform his next distribution, while at the same time urging the children to double their efforts in order not to fall short of the standards that would, in the course of the assessment, become established.
It rapidly because clear that there might be a problem in determining the precise nature of Excellence. Some of the children excelled in height (with a clear bias towards the older ones, and those who invested some of their hoped-for gains in platform shoes); others spoke several languages (or had the foresight to start taking lessons); some were musical, some could whittle sticks and some were red-headed to an excellent degree.
Every child looked constantly at what the others were doing, and sought simultaneously to imitate them and to set itself apart; and they all hung on every word of the king, in the hope that he might let slip exactly what he thought Excellence was. On one occasion, the king remarked that it was the fruits of Excellence, not Excellence alone, that mattered; and so for a month, every child devoted his or her energies to demonstrating that, for example, cheerfulness on the part of a ruler led to a happier business community, or the possession of very long earlobes supported, however indirectly, the building of a better vacuum cleaner.
Finally, the quantifiers, evaluators and scrutineers completed their work, and the king summoned his children before him. They were all, he declared, at least 40% more internationally Excellent than had previously been the case, which was a clear justification for his new policy. Some were of course more Excellent than others in certain respects, but Excellence can be manifested in many different ways. He applauded the efforts of those who had increased their heights or reduced their waistlines, without decrying those who were naturally tall or slim, or indeed those who had decided to chop off their feet in order to reach a possibly optimal weight. He noted that some had sought to expand the size of their households, in case this turned out to be important, and that some with already large households had sometimes locked elderly relatives in cupboards for the duration of the inspectors’ visits, or even exposed their more feeble children on mountainsides.
It was both the great success of the policy, and a cause for some regret, that all his children now seemed more and more alike in appearance and character – and had less and less in common with the people of their different localities as a consequence – and that in their efforts to demonstrate Excellence, they had become steadily more cunning, envious, dishonest, manipulative and selfish. However, no amount of sharp practice and dishonesty could outweigh the objective demonstration of Excellence across the board, and he was at last in a position to reward such efforts appropriately.
Unfortunately, the salaries of all the quantifiers, evaluators, scrutineers and everyone else involved in the measurement of Excellence meant that there was no money left to distribute.
Happy New Year!