Free Parking and the Once and Future King

Sometimes, the higher education community amazes me. In a good way.

But not today.

This morning, as I occasionally do, only today was much later than usual, I sent out a list of articles for colleagues to at least be aware of. This snippet was part of that:

And…it is 10:35 am EDT and this article has received 36 comments already:

To this point, yesterday’s article on a more nuanced Bill Gates has received only 47 comments….. I am not sure I need say anything more about the values of the readers of InsideHigherEd

There was also a blog post from John Warner about a recommended reading list for Mr. Gates to become better informed about higher education.

It is now 9:48 pm and Warner’s post has received 18 comments, primarily reading suggestions. The parking article is now up to 73. This tells me that if Gates wants higher education to support the Common Core, all he has to do is buy parking spaces for every faculty, staff, and administrator. However, if  indeed the average cost of a parking space is $18,000, that is roughly $72B to cover four million college and university employees. I’m sure he could get a deal to buy existing spaces for a small fraction though.

I’m sure few people think that Gates care what us higher ed folk think about him and what he knows. I suspect though, that if enough people make a point of commenting on a regular basis, word will get to him.

So, I have a reading suggestion. I made it to Warner, but I don’t think he took me seriously. Few enough people do so. My suggestion is T.H. White’s, The Once and Future King.  It was my first reaction to Warner’s tweet for suggestions and 30 hours later I stand by it. To me the story has always been primarily the education of boy and king. Education is about observation, experience, gaining knowledge, and translating those things into understanding and the ability to improve one’s condition. With Merlin’s guidance, Arthur learns that Might does not make Right and that even as king, and to the end of life, Arthur was still learning.

“He would go to war, if King Uther declared one. Do you know that Homo sapiens is almost
the only animal which wages war?”

“Ants do.”

“Don’t say ‘Ants do’ in that sweeping way, dear boy. There are more than four thousand
different sorts of them, and from all those kinds I can only think of five which are belligerent.
There are the five ants, one termite that I know of, and Man.”

“But the packs of wolves from the Forest Sauvage attack our flocks of sheep every winter.”

“Wolves and sheep belong to different species, my friend. True warfare is what happens
between bands of the same species. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species, I can only
think of seven which are belligerent. Even Man has a few varieties like the Esquimaux and
the Gypsies and the Lapps and certain Nomads in Arabia, who do not do it, because they do
not claim boundaries. True warfare is rarer in Nature than cannibalism. Don’t you think that is
a little unfortunate?”

“Personally,” said the Wart, “I should have liked to go to war, if I could have been made a
knight. I should have liked the banners and the trumpets, the flashing armour and the glorious
charges. And oh, I should have liked to do great deeds, and be brave, and conquer my own
fears. Don’t you have courage in warfare, Badger, and endurance, and comrades whom you

The learned animal thought for a long time, gazing into the fire.

In the end, he seemed to change the subject.

“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”


Sisters, mothers, grandmothers: everything was rooted in the past! Actions of any sort in one
generation might have incalculable consequences in another, so that merely to sneeze was a
pebble thrown into a pond, whose circles might lap the furthest shores. It seemed as if the
only hope was not to act at all, to draw no swords for anything, to hold oneself still, like a
pebble not thrown. But that would be hateful.

What was Right, what was Wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to
have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery, for fear of a
Doing which might lead to woe.


“Listen, then. Sit for a minute and I will tell you a story. I am a very old man, Tom, and you
are young. When you are old, you will be able to tell what I have told tonight, and I want you
to do that. Do you understand this want?”

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Put it like this. There was a king once, called King Arthur. That is me. When he came to the
throne of England, he found that all the kings and barons were fighting against each other like
madmen, and, as they could afford to fight in expensive suits of armour, there was practically
nothing which could stop them from doing what they pleased. They did a lot of bad things,
because they lived by force. Now this king had an idea, and the idea was that force ought to
be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not on its own account. Follow this, young
boy. He thought that if he could get his barons fighting for truth, and to help weak people,
and to redress wrongs, then their fighting might not be such a bad thing as once it used to be.
So he gathered together all the true and kindly people that he knew, and he dressed them in
armour, and he made them knights, and taught them his idea, and set them down, at a Round
Table. There were a hundred and fifty of them in the happy days, and King Arthur loved his
Table with all his heart. He was prouder of it than he was of his own dear wife, and for many
years his new knights went about killing ogres, and rescuing damsels and saving poor
prisoners, and trying to set the world to rights. That was the King’s idea.”

“I think it was a good idea, my lord.”

“It was, and it was not. God knows.”

“What happened to the King in the end?” asked the child, when the story seemed to have
dried up.

“For some reason, things went wrong. The Table split into factions, a bitter war began, and
all were killed.”

The boy interrupted confidently. “No,” he said, “not all. The King won. We shall win.”

Arthur smiled vaguely and shook bis head. He would have nothing but the truth.


Arthur learned too late the folly of easy answers. Chivalry, a common core of standards for behavior, was not enough, was never going to be enough. If White had written this today, perhaps the quest for the Grail would have been a quest for better standards. As for Arthur, if he had perhaps loved his people more than he loved his idea, things would have turned out okay in the end.

For me, I suspect I will never forget the badger’s question and the answer will always be “the wild geese.”


3 thoughts on “Free Parking and the Once and Future King

  1. I find your commentary so persuasive that I am, momentarily, at a loss for words and numbers. I hope Bill Gates as well as the New America Foundation leaders are reading this. Thanks

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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