In the latest edition of Harper’s Magazine there was an interesting, albeit small section which listed genuine examples of questions asked of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. While I found many (if not most) of the questions deliciously stimulating as an intellectual exercise, there was one question which I was quite surprised by in terms of the simple-minded assumptions which undergirded it.
The question was:
If you had to send three things to a group of isolated tribespeople that would immediately convey to them what it means to be “French,” what would you choose?
Of course there are many ways people can approach this question. Seeing as how the French have gotten a bad rap as of late, conservatives may suggest sending some wine or a white flag of surrender. A slightly more sophisticated approach may have been to send a copy of the collected works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or a manual documenting the history of French schooling practices.
The problem is that although the second approach may earn you more brownie points if you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge any time soon, it, just like the first, is profoundly flawed.
The problem isn’t the answer but the question itself. The underlying premise of the question is that there is anything that you can send which will be symbolic of a given country in its entirety. In short, this question takes the popular assumption that countries are a unified whole, similar to an individual human being writ large, which therefore can be described and characterized.
Never in the history of humanity has such a country existed.
Over 2000 years ago Plato wrote his Republic documenting how perverse it was for states to continue on whereby the elite government pursues its own interests at the expense of the rest of the city. His reason? Well, he argued that just as a person who does something which is pleasant for the mind, yet harms the rest of the body would be considered insane; a state which pursues actions which help one part of the state at the expense of another part should also be considered equally insane. Plato’s dream was, to put it bluntly, to see the rise of just one trule sane country… And we’re still waiting.
So, show me a state where the government’s focus is on helping all of its citizens, not just the capitalists and not just the rich, and I’ll show you a country that is a unified whole and which can, therefore, have things which characterize its essence like the question above asks us to consider. But what’s more, show me such a country, and I’ll show you a socialist paradise.