"How's about, 'I surf the Net therefore I am'?"
A door slammed in the hallway, distracting Doctor MacArthur from a suitably sardonic response.
"I presume you know the original expression."
"Course I do." Henry chuckled, enjoying his professor's obvious frustration: "Old Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. Every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that."
"Then can you, or perhaps said Thomas or Richard, remind me how Descartes rendered this in the original French?"
Henry's prolonged silence turned little by little into a sullen frown. He hated to be bested by a man whom he regarded as a throwback to the dinosaurs. Or if the don didn't go back quite as far as the Mesozoic era, then he was at least pre-Microsoft. The old man might be able to pontificate on some nuance of pre-Enlightenment philosophy, but he had to call in his secretary whenever he wanted to send a document to the network printer.
"I don't see what this has to do with my essay."
"Your basic premise, Master Brown, is flawed, your conclusions cannot be substantiated, and your argument is riddled with inconsistencies."
"But it's a great essay. I paid good mon—"
"You paid £23.75 for it plus VAT and you were guaranteed an A grade, isn't that right?"
Henry's gaze fell to the floor. "How, er, I mean, who—"
"How did I find out? First of all Suzanne, my secretary, is particularly talented when it comes to the Internet. And secondly because a student submitted an identical essay last year. Some intellectually challenged lecturer may possibly have awarded such codswallop an A grade elsewhere, but in this college we take the time to appraise what our students submit."
"I thought it made a lot of sense. You select fifty families in a rural community, supply them with seed and fertiliser, pay school fees for their children, provide a monthly handout so that they can re-invest all their profits into the land. Within three years they will claw themselves out of poverty. Seems ideally suited for the developing world."
MacArthur smiled in anticipation of the duel to come. "And what about their neighbours who miss out on all these benefits? How do you think they will react?"
"Well, you know, it's like that story of the girl walking along the beach who sees hundreds of starfish washed up by the tide. Okay, she can't made a difference to all of them, but none of those she throws back are going to object."
"Do you know the originator of said moral tale?"
Henry looked up, puzzled by the question. There was no way that some old dodderer like Descartes would have come up with something so engaging. Drawing a blank he shook his head.
"It first appeared in Holy Man, an inane comedy by Eddie Murphy, who I believe also voices the talking donkey in Shrek. Do you honestly want to develop your arguments from half-baked pop psychology. I hardly think that a university education is a prerequisite to being a self-help guru."
Henry knew he was beaten. "So how do you think I could improve my essay?"
"The question, young man, is do you think?"
"Well I certainly try to."
"You certainly do not. You and your generation have learned to plagiarise, parrot and prevaricate. Rarely if ever do you think. Now answer my question: how will the neighbours in your scenario react?"
Henry rested his chin on his outstretched hand, his elbow pressed back against one thigh, in unconscious emulation of Rodin's The Thinker. "I guess that they would become resentful and might even ostracise those families who benefit from the aid package."
"That's good. And what's the worst possible outcome at the expiration of three years?"
"I don't know. Maybe the father spends all the donor money on beer. He becomes lazy, unmotivated, dependent on external funding, and of course he's alienated himself from his immediate neighbours."
"So give me an alternative."
Henry pondered this for a moment then shrugged his shoulders.
"Are you familiar with the Chinese proverb? Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and—"
"and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day. Only kidding! Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. So you think education has to be part of the overall package?"
"The question, Master Brown, is what do you think? I want your answer on my desk by 9am Wednesday. Good day."
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