A Boy and a Press (A Parable)

Jan 28, 2020 | Parables on Learning

There once was a boy who lived in a small village and who loved books. He spent most of his time reading and thinking about them.

The boy stood out from others in the village, who were mostly concerned with planting and harvesting crops and tending their livestock. But the fact that he was different didn’t concern his parents. In fact, they loved him all the more and believed that one day he would grow up to achieve great things.

One day, a traveling merchant passed through town and, learning of the boy’s interest in books, told his father that he had in his possession something that might be of use to the boy. “It’s an old press,” he said. “It’s rather ancient, but I guarantee that it still works. And I’ll trade it to you for practically nothing, only a single goat.”

The father readily agreed to the trade and later, with great pride, took his son to their barn to show him the newly acquired press.

The boy was overwhelmed with joy and immediately began dreaming of all the books he would be able to write and publish with the press. So great was his excitement that, for weeks, all he could do was stare at the apparatus and make mental lists of ideas and future book projects.

Finally, when his initial excitement had passed, the boy decided that it was time to learn how the press worked.

He went to the barn and began to inspect the large apparatus. Inside a large, wooden frame was a pair of large threaded rods connected to a flat metal plate on one end and with turn-handles attached at the other. The boy could easily see how turning the handles would lower the metal plate.

Even with his limited experience, he could see that it was an impressive feat of engineering. What he couldn’t understand, however, was how that might be used to print text on a parchment’s surface.

“There must be other parts for the press that I’m not seeing,” he said to himself. But, after searching through the entire barn, he could find no other parts.

That evening, the boy went to his father and shared his concerns about the press.

“I fear we may have been taken advantage of,” the boy said. “There seem to be a number of parts missing.”

“The merchant promised me that it was complete and in good working order,” the father said. “Are you certain it is missing some parts?”

The boy admitted that he couldn’t be certain, and promised to devote further study to the apparatus and its functions.

The father, for his part, decided to consult with the local priest, who also served as the village scholar. He went to church the following morning and explained his problem.

“You know my son, the one who loves books,” he said. “I recently bought him a press from a traveling merchant but we are having trouble figuring out how it works. My son thinks there may be several missing parts. Could you please come to our home and give us your opinion?”

The priest was happy to help and arrived at the family’s barn that same afternoon. As soon as he entered the building, he began a meticulous inspection of the press. He turned the handles to lower the metal plate. He inspected the bottom side of the metal plate carefully. He also spent several long minutes examining the foundation against which the metal plate would press if extended fully.

When he had finished his inspection, the priest said, “Well, I have discovered your problem.”

“Were we cheated? Are there missing parts?” the father said.

“There are no missing parts,” the priest said. “But, the merchant certainly cheated you.”

“I don’t understand,” the father said.

“The merchant knew that your son loved books and that he wanted to write and publish books one day, correct?”

“That’s correct,” the father said.

“And,” the priest said, “He offered to trade you a press for one of your goats?”

“Yes.”

“And, based on your conversation, you believed he was offering you a press for printing books?”

“Of course,” the father said.

“Well, the merchant was truthful in a way,” the priest said. “Although he certainly acted deceitfully.”

“I don’t understand,” the father said.

“He was truthful in saying that he had a press he could sell you and that it was in good working order,” the priest said.”

“So, how can we get it to print books?”

“You can’t. What he sold you is not a printing press.”

“But I thought you said he was truthful when he said it was a press in good working order?”

“He was. What he failed to tell you, however, was what kind of press he was giving you. You see, the apparatus he traded you was not a printing press, but rather a device that soldiers form an earlier time used to torture their captives.”

Hearing this, the father turned to look once again at the press. He looked at the long rods, the handles, and the metal plate, with sudden understanding.

“It actually seems rather obvious now,” the father said with a shudder. “At least once you’ve explained its purpose.”

“That’s only natural,” the priest said. “Knowing an answer in the present will inevitably provide insight into questions from the past.”

The Lesson

Ignorance and a limited perspective can lead to misunderstandings and confusion about what we are observing, as well as its significance in our lives.

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