“Fine Words Butter no Parsnips” – Global education, the need for tolerance and the emergence of equality

Author :

Dr. Colin Carlile

“Dr. Colin Carlile is a physicist and researcher who moved to Lund, Sweden in 2006 to head up the Swedish bid to host the 2B€ science research infrastructure, the European Spallation Source (ESS).  Initially heading a 4 person effort at the University of Lund, he became the founding Director General of the ESS and led the way to convert it into a 300 person operation and one of the largest science and technology infrastructure projects being built today. The ESS is currently coming to the end of a ten-year construction phase. In recognition of his achievements in 2013 he was awarded the Royal Swedish Order of the Polar Star. Previously, he was the Director of the International Research Centre, the Institut Laue Langevin, located in the city of Grenoble, France.  After 8 years qualifying at UK universities, he spent a year as a post-doctoral fellow in Italy, which shaped his affection for the cultural diversity that an international scientific life offers and the whole of his professional life has been spent in research institutes. He is pleased to now contribute to a very different international organisation, the Global Best Practice Group, as a Special Advisor”

Parsnips are an undervalued vegetable. They can be left in the ground even in the harshest winter, ready to be harvested when the weather warms up and at a time when there are no fresh vegetables to eat. Put in a stew or roasted in an oven, they add a deliciously fragrant taste to a meal that belies their unrefined appearance. When Vladimir Lenin spoke the above words, doubtless parsnips were in adequate supply but butter less so, at least not for the man and woman or the child who was prising the parsnips from the frozen ground. We can conclude from Lenin’s quote, made more than a century ago, that worthy pronouncements were being made by those in power that were not followed up by effective action. “Let them eat cake! History proves our point. However, Lenin did not in fact coin this aphorism. We read in “Epigrammes written on Purpose to be Read” from 1651 by John Taylor, who was a Thames boatman, that

Words are but wind that do from men proceed; 
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed; 
Great men large hopeful promises may utter; 
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.

Lenin, and Taylor, are in no doubt that butter was for the few and not the many, to echo the evocative line in Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy. Undeniably 100 years later things have changed. Living standards have increased and levels of comfort have exceeded the dreams of our grandparents and, most certainly, those of their grandparents. Life expectancy has increased and poverty is slowly though too slowly – being reduced, at least in some parts of the world. However many things have not changed and in fact are not changing, rather they appear to be getting worse. Why? 

I am referring to a pervasive practice in modernday life of promises being made and not delivered. We are all guilty of this on a personal level from time to time but, on the whole, when promises are made by individuals or within a local context they are made with the full intention of delivering on the promise. That is the glue that keeps society together – mutual trust. But do we sense the same intention when we hear the fine words that are spoken by our political leaders, distant from us and surrounded by their spin doctors secure within their exclusive bubble? (I often think that many nation states have become far too large to be efficient, far too impersonal to be representative.) Or do we sometimes suspect that such promises are made with the unspoken and yet express intention of deliberately not delivering on these promises? The political art of dissembling is well practiced; being “economical with the truth” in the revealing words of the UK’s Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, in a court case in Australia where an attempt was made to suppress the book The Spycatcher. The court record of that cross-examination is illuminating and at the same time it is chilling. It reminds me that I was once told by a UK civil servant, when French and German partners were unhappy with the advantages that speaking your native language gives, that “you must listen to every one of my words, every word means something”. But not necessarily what the hearer might conclude!

We are of course aware that a tantalising promise creates an immediate impact and may provoke a warm reassuring glow for a short time. Skillfully handled, a battery of such promises may attract our vote but, human memory being what it is, the lack of eventual delivery often gets lost in the mists of time, and indeed the promise is often denied when it inconveniently reappears. Did we perhaps fail to listen to every word? Rather like gravitational attraction the more distant the Oracle is from the hearer, the weaker is the effect. And let’s remember that gravity diminishes as the square of the distance. So statements made in some exclusive and unattainable place, perhaps in front of a congregation of likeminded disciples, can be crafted to appeal to populism instead of realism, with scant thought given to the actual consequences of the words when they ripple out beyond the closely constrained horizons. Are we today therefore experiencing an increasing lack of trust in our leaders, in whichever political scenario we find ourselves? And does this experience nurture a feeling of simmering resentment amongst those who are disappointed and disillusioned when they realise that their parsnips are not buttered and might never be? This is the message that I want to deliver: humankind will surely only survive with a fairer distribution of the common wealth. For that to occur we urgently need to get beyond promises to the delivery phase because, whilst on an integrated level standards are rising so is the level of inequality. And that is unsustainable. 

By a happy coincidence, as I write this, today is the International Day of Education sponsored by UNESCO. It is to be applauded. Events have been organised all around the world and many of them are still available. 


These initiatives are important. However, what is surely essential for the world to become a fairer place, as this century passes us by so swiftly, is education. For resources to be made available for underprivileged children to be able to learn, for schools to be built, for such children to be adequately housed and sufficiently nourished so that they are receptive, and for them to be secure from violence. It is difficult to learn if your stomach is empty, your sleep is fitful or your very existence is threatened.

It is an appeal to our leaders to tone down their excessive promises, and instead to enhance their delivery and for the immense global wealth to be shared more equally. 

But perhaps I should come down to earth a bit. I am excited to be invited to join the Global Best Practice Group as a member of the International Advisory Board. It is a new organisation that is aiming to level up, mainly within the countries in the Eastern Hemisphere, remembering that the Eastern Hemisphere begins at the Greenwich Meridian and thus it encompasses much of Europe and the whole of Asia. The rich diversity of culture in these regions of the globe contrasts with the stark differences in living conditions, perhaps evident in a way that they are not in the Western Hemisphere mainly comprising North and South America. Here too though, accidents of birth within a rich society can still condemn you to a life of poverty and struggle. 


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