Professor, Say Hi to the Devil!

What do our students think of us?
By Howard V. Hendrix

One week before Christmas Day, my fall 2014 medieval literature class came to an end when the last student taking the final exam turned in her work. I handed back her semester literary analysis paper, graded, as I had previously done for all of my other students.

Apparently the student in question was unhappy with the grade on her literature term paper. After I wished her a happy holiday season, she told me, “Say hi to the devil!” and darted out the door.

After thirty-five years in the classroom, I had just been told by a student, in so many words, to go to hell. Although this was the first time such a thing has happened to me, over the last several years I have experienced much stiff classroom resistance to the old-school idea that English majors should be able to read carefully and write well, so at some level I wasn’t all that surprised. I just laughed.

“What has happened to our students?” ask my fellow faculty members, as if speaking of changeling children or demonic possession. “Why are so many of them so rude and inconsiderate, not only to faculty but also to each other? Why are so many of them so uninterested in an intellectual life, and so poorly prepared for one?”

Many candidates for The Answer are put forward, and the devil is, as always, in the details. Some blame it on the smartphone, that demon who turned our students into zombies, obliviously wandering the quad. Others blame the dark spirit of texting and its rapid-fire prose, transforming us all into thumb-twiddling Twitterpates. Still others blame the damning delusions of video games and MTV reality shows. A few blame it on the devilish sleight of hand that has replaced aptitude (the capacity to learn and master a discipline) with “apptitude” (the capacity to operate a machine application).

Beyond these skirmishes of the war in digital heaven, the infernal afterglow of No Child Left Behind (with its bubble-filler tests and excerpted, contextless readings) also comes in for much finger-pointing. So, too, does a have-it-all-now consumer lifestyle, for leading students down the primrose path of spending too little time becoming scholars and too much time earning dollars (past even the undeniable need to cover the rising costs of college). We also blame the hellish effects the Great Recession has had on a campus like ours, one that serves a region in which nearly a third of the populace lives below the poverty line. Or we point reluctantly to that lingering grand deception, the one that says everyone ought to go to college—whether or not they have any genuine intellectual interest in doing such a thing—because we, their forebears, hope that by overselling the work of the head we might dodge the effects of our outsourcing and automating the work of the hand.

And then there’s the explanation that points to the student as “entitled customer.” Both the academic left and the academic right have the number of that beast on speed dial.

The right, in its critique of our educational pandemonium, emphasizes the ridiculousness of the entitled part of that student description: misguided social promotion, identity politics, the fetishization of self-esteem to the point that many current members of the student body think they’re solar powered because educators and parents have blown so much sunshine up their posteriors. The left, in its critique, emphasizes the lunacy of the customer part of that student description: the Apple of temptation that calls us to accept the remaking of all education, specifically in the image of the shiny Apple Store’s “total iconic user experience.” (Never mind why it might be that the clerk at the Apple Store doesn’t grade us on our device-shopping skills, or send us back to try again if we fail to demonstrate mastery of said skills. And of course never wonder whether the analogy of the “student as customer who is always right” might be diabolically wrong.)

The old saying, “Success has many fathers but Failure is an orphan,” is upended in the current discussion. Our fall from grace, our expulsion from some mythical educational paradise, is attributed to many parents, not to mention many parents—among them helicopter parents and bulldozer parents (yes, they do exist). I can’t help thinking, however, that another answer may underlie all of those offered above: perhaps so many of our students are so rude and inconsiderate precisely because they are so uninterested in an intellectual life.

Addressing that diabolical issue is bigger than just the classroom. All the details mentioned above are part of it, along with legions more. But don’t worry: we can count on the passionate intensity of our “education reformers” to distract us from wondering about that larger hell-scape and have us focus instead on, say, eliminating teacher tenure. And we can rest assured there will be no questions from them about whether the situation our schools and universities find themselves in—the deal with the devil that is “education on the cheap”—might have anything to do with hypocritical politicians and administrators, or stingy voters.

So I’ll pass along here what I learned from my student: if we want to say hi to the devil, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

His Satanic Majesty sends his regards.  

Howard V. Hendrix teaches literature and writing at California State University–Fresno. He is the author of six novels and many short stories, poems, and essays. His e-mail address is [email protected].