It is true, of course, that there has often been a dramatic disconnect between aspiration and reality: it's all very well wanting the best to rise to the top, after all, as long as one's own chances are not in any way diminished. Some of the most stratified and unfair societies in the history have maintained their openness to those from all backgrounds - despite all evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, one of the keys to a fair and just society is not just to allow but to actively encourage those with talent to go forth and prosper.
That prosperity that does not have to be wealth-related: we live in a world where it seems very easy to forget that success can be measured in other ways too (as educators; as carers; as civil servants; as parents, as siblings, as friends and so on). But success is difficult, if not impossible, in a world where lack of opportunity is twinned with poverty.
If I were in a better mood, I'd give some examples from the Byzantine Empire; or from the Islamic world; or from the Mongol era - where contrary to popular belief, stability and social equality were jealously promoted and protected (You can read more about that in my Silk Roads book next month)
But I am today spitting with rage about the latest round of persecution within the university system. Government cuts announced last week will result in 'substantially higher debt[s] for the poorest students'. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports, this will have a dramatic effect on education participation in the UK.
The results will be startling. More than 3.5 children in the UK - an astonishing 1 in 4 - live in poverty. Save The Children estimate that nearly half of them, 1.6 million, live in conditions of 'severe poverty' - with some concentration levels in individual wards across the country at 100%. These figures do not reflect the huge cuts in welfare that have just been passed - along with those now proposed - that Robert Peston says do not amount to efficiency savings but to 'public service reinvention' itself.
Education has always been a key motor for social mobility, allowing new ideas to burst out to challenge the old. At a time when the world is changing dramatically, we should be encouraging our finest young minds to study, rather than putting obstacles and debts in their way. We should be urging young talent from all backgrounds iinto engineering, into medicine, into studying Russian, Arabic, Persian and Chinese history, literature and languages so we can understand emerging opportunities, and commercial, political and military threats that will shape the coming decades.
But what those who teach students can tell you, is that when education and debt is linked, there is enormous pressure to run to safety - to walk down well-trodden paths. With debts to pay, it is all but impossible not to pick subjects that deliver safe results that unlock the jobs that unlock repayments and freedom from debts. Why pick subjects that are complex, challenging and exciting if they are risky and require hard work? Why learn a new language? Why be different?
The raise in fees, incidentally, will not even help the Treasury, says the IFS. It is the triumph of a nasty and ill-thought through dogma, where education loses its value - and produces a bland homogeneity where everyone repeats the same thing to each other, and believes it.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago at the wonderful Chalke Valley History Festival. I had been asked to talk about Russia and the Ukraine - a topic that was the subject of lively debate on the panel, and considerable discussion amongst the audience. Everyone seemed to be bursting with opinions about what was going on and what the West should do.
At the end, I asked my audience (in Russian) who spoke Russian; and (in Ukrainian), who spoke Ukrainian. Given only 5 out of nearly 600 put their hands up, i pointed out that it seemed to me that most views were grounded in emotional reactions to events, rather than being based on any body of evidence or knowledge (beyond that day's newspapers).
Through the disastrous pressure on our education system over the last few decades, we rely on gut instinct rather than on facts; we rely on being able to rush to snap conclusions that are not grounded in the solid earth of research, but on patterns that seem familiar and right.
Little wonder, then, that we can make such catastrophic misjudgments when the blind are leading the blind. I've written about Iraq and Afghanistan in my book, and thought I had seen it all. Then I read this US report that was declassified a few weeks ago. which empahises the West's support for the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaida in Iraq] against Assad's regime in Syria. It was worth supporting these groupings, noted the cable from 2012, even though they would be unlikely to depose Assad. We chose to back a horse that we thought would not win - oblivious to the pure evil that it helped unlock.
(Note too, by the way, that the report carefully notes that ''Russia, China and Iran' all disagree with the approach of supporting armed militant fanatics. Who looks smarter now?)
The dramatic narrowing of society into a winner-loser culture, where those who are dropped down one chimney have all the advantages, while those dropped down another get no chances is a recipe for disaster.
I am a historian, so try to understand the past without claiming to be able to read the future. But i can tell you this: nothing good comes when those who are already struggling have inane barriers put in their way by self-satisfied politicians who are out to prove what capable leaders they are. Government for the few at the expense of the many has never ended well.
The new attack on the poor and on education is narrow-minded philistinism of the highest order. Surely I am not alone in thinking so ?