Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, January 20, 2006

The Big Payoff Question

[gary daily col. 42 November 24, 2002]

Here’s a scene most of us can recognize.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around and someone always decides that, sure, “It’s all about family.” So the decision is made to reel them all in, the near and the far--empty the nursing homes, put pressure on nearly forgotten cousins, phone the in-laws and e-mail the outlaws--get the whole shebang on the road to Terre Haute, or wherever.

After the awkward hugs, and around the time when the facial muscles start to twitch from smile fatigue (sincere and otherwise), the gathering gets down to business. That business has to do with everyone else’s business. Health histories and concerns are laid out, in excrutiatingly complete physiological and pharmacological detail. Next, the purchase of new adult toys--SUVs to “Home Entertainment Centers” are announced. This is followed by the airing of marital prospects and advice. (Advice always aimed at the young single women, never the men.) The fertile topics of pregnancies, possible and impossible, are delved into. Recent and predicted divorces of those not present are assayed with relish but in subdued tones.

With the important stuff, the good stuff, exhausted, it’s time to grill any college students on the premises, forcing them to deliver a “University Education Report” (UER).

Occasionally a young scholar will not be available to handle the probing questions on the state of education in America. He will absent himself from the gathering (missing the chance to hear about Uncle Joseph’s new table saw or cousin Caddy’s goiter) with the solemn excuse that he must work on a research paper assigned just before the holiday break began. All present get a picture of a frowning prof standing stiff and cold near the parking lot exit. She hands “little Frankie” (in looks, a clone of the singer Meatloaf) a research assignment just as he’s about to head home to the warmth of hearth and home.

Little Frankie, as they say in Rhetoric 101, is “outta here” even before “The Pack” scores its first TD on the TV “Turkey Bowl” football extravaganza.

When the primary suspect is not available for cross-examination, the proud parents are required to deliver a perfunctory UER. This most often takes the form of a survey of the cost of tuition, the cost of dormitory housing, the cost of books, and the cost of those costs in adult toys and trips to Vegas that are now well out of the reach of what's left on their credit card balances.

But on those occasions when the student is available to issue a report, the questioning, and certainly the answers, have little to do with the financing of a fine education. Here’s a brief survey of some of the questions a “Little Frankie” who chooses to face his inquisitors might hear this coming Thanksgiving.

* So, plenty of “cheer leaders” (nudge, nudge) up at that college, right Frankie? (Cousin Phil has been asking this question since Little Frankie was in Junior High School. And always with that knowing, hopeful smirk in his voice.)

* How’s the team look this season? (The perfect UER question for all seasons.)

* I heard the parking is really a problem at that school. Where do you park?

* I heard the food is really bad at that school. What do you eat?

* Did you see any of those guys making porn movies in your dorm? (Cousin Phil, again.)

Like that. Until someone asks the dreaded Big Payoff question.

*What are you studying at that school? Can you get a job studying that stuff?

Daniel J. Boorstin, a historian surveying the development of the public college in the 19th century found that this question was being asked more than one hundred years ago. “Of what good is it,” the suspicious accountant then asked, “when a man can say ‘I am hungry’ in six or seven languages, but cannot earn his own bread and butter?”

This Big Payoff question is the stopper for liberal arts, non-preference, and any student who has not carefully read his or her department’s promotional literature. I personally was able to fend off this question by claiming for a number of years that, yes, I was going to be a civil engineer. I had no idea what a civil engineer did in life, but neither did anyone in my family. My “Cousin Phil” just wanted to know if many “girls” were into that civil engineering stuff.

But there is a valid UER type question to ask the Little Frankies at Thanksgiving this year. It’s this:

*Tell me Frank, what would you say was the book you’ve read this semester that was most interesting or important to you?

If silence follows, suggest to the young scholar that he consider that job Cousin Phil offered him last summer.

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