A small undeveloped country discovered some mineral resources, and the enlightened government decided on a policy of rapid change to universal literacy and education. An enterprising education minister sent a number of idealistic students to train abroad as teachers; when they returned he despatched them to small towns and villages.
‘The main thing’ he told them, ‘is to show the country people that they can do it; then we can bring out every scrap of the undiscovered ability in our people. In addition to getting the school going, I want you to develop gradually a highest class of promising boys and girls of seventeen. In five years time, I shall come round and will arrange for two or three of the best from each school to be given free education at the university in the capital, plus a later stay abroad if they do well. In twenty years we shall transform the country. As you perhaps know, there was opposition to sending you abroad; people said that we needed the able ones at home. You too will be criticized, but I want you to persist. Don’t be diverted from what you are doing.’
His vision caught fire in them, and full of enthusiasm they went out. After the five years, one such teacher duly received an official letter saying that the minister was coming to inspect his school. It was accompanied by a personal note from the minister himself, saying, ‘I hear you have been working hard, and I have been working too. Our plan will go ahead, and I look forward to seeing you and your school.’
When the minister arrived they greeted each other warmly. The elder man looked over the school and said he was very satisfied: ‘This bears out the reports I have had from the inspectors. Now show me your special class. I take it they are all keen to go?’ ‘Oh yes’, said the teacher, ‘it is the heart’s desire of all the village youngsters.’
They went to a classroom where there were about twenty boys and girls. The minister seated himself at the teacher’s table on the little dais, introduced himself, and looked for a moment at each one. Then he said, ‘You know that the government which I serve sometimes arranges for students like you to go to the university in the capital, and perhaps later abroad for a year or so. There is no competitive examination for these chances, though of course we do take your school record into account. Perhaps from one school half a dozen might be invited, and perhaps none. We have our own method of selection – but you all have a chance.
‘Now having said that, I want you each to imagine that you individually have been chosen. You can go and study anything you like. Afterwards you may be able to go on to a foreign country where there is specialized advanced training in your favourite subject. Now write me a paper explaining what you would like to do, and why. You have an hour to do it.’
As they bent their heads to begin, he said to the teacher, ‘I want to see their exercise books on composition and also mathematics.’ The teacher got the books and held them in a pile, ready to pass them one by one to the minister, but the latter took two or three and opened them flat on the table. He seemed to be comparing them. Then he said shortly, ‘Just put them in a pile here on the side of the table.’ He took more and more off, laying them open side by side, and pushing the pile to make room. Finally he gave one push too many and they all crashed to the floor.
The teacher picked them up, but the minister now seemed to have lost interest. He sat on the edge of the table and began to tell a slightly scandalous story about a newspaper editor who had been castigating in his paper opium smoking and other offences which he himself was committing in private.
Somehow the hour passed, and the children handed in their essays and departed. The minister did not examine them carefully: he did not even look at them. The young schoolmaster was almost in tears as he realized that his patron, who he had respected and even revered, was becoming senile. As he looked sadly at the floor, the minister remarked briskly, ‘It’s those two, isn’t it ? The girl at the back with her hair done up in that big knot, and the boy in the second row, at the right-hand end. Those are the two we want. What are their names?’ The teacher gaped. ‘How did you know? Those are the best two, though there is another one who’s very clever – the fat boy.’
‘Oh no, not him,’ said the minister. ‘When I pushed those books over, he looked up, just like all the others except those two. And when I was telling that story, he had an occasional peep at me. Those two were the only ones who weren’t diverted by me.
‘The others, however clever they might be, when they got to the big city and still more if they got abroad, would look up. And then their studies would go to pieces. Our country is at a parting of the ways, and we want students who will not look up.
‘I asked them to write about their heart’s desire. We want people who don’t look up when it is a question of their heart’s desire.’