The Parable of the Islands

Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, recently proposed that 5-7-year-olds in British primary schools should be taught about the ‘concept of a nation’. This proposal, along with several others, it seems, is to be dropped. So unfortunately I will not be able to send the following story to Mr Gove for possible inclusion in his new syllabus. But here is an updated version of it anyway.

Many years ago, a sailing ship carrying two-hundred people sank in a storm. Fortunately, no one drowned. The people managed to swim to two different islands, one hundred on one, one hundred on the other.

One group was very lucky. Their island was large, fertile, and full of trees bearing delicious fruit. Though the seas were sometimes rough, their island had steep beaches to protect them, and they were able to build small rafts from which they could catch the plentiful fish in the sea near the island. They called their island Copia, the Latin word for abundance.

The second group was less lucky. Their island was small, infertile, and contained nothing more than some bushes bearing a little fruit. The rough seas often inundated much of the island, and the seas near them were largely barren of fish. They called their island Inopia, the Latin word for poverty or need.

The Inopians managed to survive, through eating berries, catching a few fish, and cultivating some higher parts of their land to grow corn. Their quality of life, however, was very low. They died at a much younger age than the Copians, and often their children did not survive infancy.

The islands were within several miles of one another, and because the Inopians had to travel farther to catch fish, a group of them eventually discovered Copia. The Copians welcomed them, and gave them a fine feast. When the Inopians saw how large and abundant Copia was, they asked when they might bring their friends and relations from Inopia to live there.

The Copians were shocked. First, they pointed out, they had claimed Copia as their own when they landed after the shipwreck. Second, over the years, they had cultivated the land and cared for the fruit trees, ‘mixing their labour’, as they put it, with both. The Inopians asked whether they might at least come to fish in the rich seas around Copia. Again, however, the Copians refused. They had been fishing the seas for years, and hence now had established rights over the whole area. The Inopians were welcome to visit at any point for a short period, but they would then have to return to their own island. And if it became common for them to visit, they would have to pay to enter Copia.

The Copians grew ever more affluent, while many Inopians died through famine or disease. The Copians did send them some good things every now and then, but only a very small amount of the total produced by Copia.

As time went on, Copian civilization developed, and various forms of technology were invented. The Copians found that by burning certain materials, they could produce energy to provide them with more goods. They also realized that by doing so they were causing changes to the local weather system in the area, which would result in greater storms and rising sea levels. But, the Copians were relieved to find, the brunt of these effects would be borne by the Inopians.

The Copians had schools. They decided that it was important that their children should be made fully aware of the glorious history of Copia, and set about designing a curriculum to do just that. Some Copians objected that this might make their children excessively nationalistic and arrogant, and that it would be wiser to present the facts more impartially – including the facts about their neighbours in Copia. These objections were taken seriously. But in the end nothing much was done to help the Inopians, and eventually it became too late to do anything even had the Copians wanted to. Inopia disappeared, and all that remained were stories to be told of it by Copians to their children.

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