It’s spring. And asparagus is in the shops – real asparagus grown in England and in season. Not that asparagus grown elsewhere isn’t real, of course, but simply that imported asparagus for Christmas dinner is a crime against reason and taste. Alas, asparagus has its own unique way of getting revenge on those who would summarily plunge it alive into boiling water, and then smear it with good butter and a little Maldon salt. (You weren’t going to bother with all that fancy hollandaise muck, were you?) It obliges you to piss in solitude, and with a clothes peg on your nose. Such is the obnoxious result of ingesting the spring spears that a London club is reputed to have had to install a sign reminding members that “in the asparagus season gentlemen are requested not to relieve themselves in the hat-stand.” Not all of us are subjected to this vegetable reprisal, apparently, and it is often said that this is because some people lack the enzymes required to break the asparagus down into this particular malodorous set of molecules.
Remarkably, this is no longer thought to be true. The “problem” is not the production of the molecules, but our differential ability to smell them. In an experiment that I would rather not have been part of, the asparagus-eating participants were asked to sniff each others’ urine. And it transpired that those who could smell the disgusting whiff from their own urine could also detect it in that of their fellow participants; whilst conversely those who thought that their own excretory juices were pure and undefiled were equally convinced that everyone else’s were as well. So it is now believed that everyone produces post-asparagus-munching foul piss, but only those with the necessary genome can detect the fact.
I think there is a more general lesson here. We frequently assume that we see the world as it objectively is. In reality, of course, we merely see the world as we see it, and that is often not the same thing at all. There’s a further lesson. When we view the world through the particular lens of our experience and knowledge, there is no way in which we can view it with another person’s experience and knowledge. This is not for lack of looking. The person who is genetically unable to smell the pissy results of their having consumed asparagus will never do so no matter how many times they eat it. And the more often such a person eats it, the more convinced they are likely to be that their piss remains fragrant, and that it’s those who report on the smelliness of their post-asparagus urine that have the problem.
I fear that a similar, albeit not olfactory, blindness is afflicting the coalition’s view of education. This obsession with parents being able to set up schools with government money but outside the state system is born of a perspective rooted in middle-class volition and middle-class means. The very parents whose children attend bad schools are likely to be those with neither of these attributes. These are the very parents castigated for their lack of parenting skills, and lack of interest in their children’s education. One might as well ask those genetically unable to smell asparagus-infested urine to be in charge of sniffing out illicit asparagus eaters (perhaps those that insist on air-freighted spears to decorate their Christmas dinner tables!) If this policy achieves anything, it will merely be the syphoning off of public education funding from those who most need it, and the effective subsidising of the educational aspirations of middle-class parents who in these recessionary, deficit-reducing times might struggle to pay the school fees demanded by the private sector. Freedom and responsibility for some, perhaps, but not fairness.