I’ve just finished grading 124 essays from my U.S. history survey course and I’m fairly certain that the fall of American civilization is upon us. Forget the sad reality that my students’ assessment of the colonies’ place in the English empire has all the sophistication of a “Schoolhouse Rock” jingle. Forget that they seem to have written their papers while watching The Patriot, utterly convinced that American liberty was created alongside Adam and Eve. Forget their self-imposed obligation to hash out clichés confirming their loyalty to an American nation “under siege.” Forget that, because–if my students are any indication–there’s another, more insidious disease poisoning America’s intellectual soul: Nobody can write. The jingoistic, ham-handed, post-September 11 historical interpretations evident in these essays pale next to the stark fact that only a select few of these (mostly) college freshmen could compose a coherent memo stating, for example, that the employee bathroom will be out of order until noon, thanks for your patience.

I’m contemplating the stack of essays in front of me–a stack bleeding with perfunctory comments like “awkward,” “stilted,” and “rephrase, please”–and I’m aware that what I should really be writing in the margin is something along the lines of this: “You have been cheated by a substandard high school education that somehow allowed you to graduate without learning rules like subject-verb agreement, pronoun references, or the difference between a sentence fragment and a modifying clause. I would advise you to write a letter to your representative on the matter, but chances are you would probably butcher your point beyond recognition. I weep for the future.”

Of course, then I might do damage to somebody’s self-esteem, risk losing my day job, or, at the least, become popularly known among the 24,000 undergraduates at my university as “that insensitive asshole history professor.” Hence my dilemma. I have no choice but to pass students who cannot write complete sentences, much less string those sentences into coherent arguments. If I maintained my real standards, I would have just written “F” on 103 papers.

Students who came of age during the go-go ’90s have passively absorbed the attitude that one purchases an education in the same way that one buys a coffee machine or admission to a movie. If a class doesn’t feel right, entertain sufficiently, or make life easier and more enjoyable, one has every right to shop around. This consumer-rights approach to higher education has its merits, but it also quietly wreaks havoc in the classroom. An attendance policy? “Ludicrious [sic],” a student opined on a teacher evaluation last year. “Why should I be forced to attend class when I’m the one paying tuition?” While this student wasn’t being forced to do anything, the intended logic of his point merits attention. This 18-year-old kid viewed himself as a buyer purchasing a credential rather than a student seeking an education.

His claim (threat, really) scares the hell out of us who like our academic jobs because it sheds light on a dirty little secret: The vast majority of academic departments in this country need students more than students need them. Only at a strange place like Harvard would a professor who draws hundreds of students to his class be censured for contributing to grade inflation and making a rap album. At normal schools, a professor who has students beating down the doors to get into his class could be standing on his head and blowing bubbles out of his nose and it would hardly matter. A professor’s job, to a large extent, is to serve his or her students and ensure their loyalty. Granting the majority of the class Fs doesn’t help the cause. You’ve got to keep the masses content, lest they revolt and become anthropology majors. So when a student approaches me, as one did last semester, and explains in no uncertain terms that my course requirements are “ridiculous,” that many students have jobs and children to care for, and that she planned on telling everyone she knew never to take my course, do I care? I might put up a defiant front, but as an assistant professor on a yearly contract in a job market swarming with unemployed Ph.D.s, you bet I do.

I genuinely enjoy my students and, as far as I can tell, the feeling is mutual. Most of my students hail from small Texas towns burdened with underfunded educational facilities and mediocre teachers awaiting a pension. But my students have concrete goals and want to do well in life, which makes everything even more troubling. I owe it to them to be the biggest pain in the ass they’ve ever encountered, a tyrannical grammar czar, a zealous crusader for clean prose. But with responsibility for three “writing intensive” classes totaling 165 students, I’m simply unable to double as a high school composition teacher. Keeping track of attendance is a major burden in and of itself. So when the blond with fierce piercings in seat K7 writes, “This is unlike the New England colonies, who depend on small crops of various types they brew cider and cut timer,” I want to note that “this” must have an object after it;”who” is not a proper reference for “New England colonies”; nobody in the history of the world has ever brewed cider; one doesn’t cut “timer” but “timber”; and that the sentence is a run-on. (According to my grammar checker, so is the one I just wrote, but what does my computer know?) Nevertheless, due to the fact that I’m a pragmatist with other things I’d like to accomplish in life, I can only write next to the offending sentence: “Confusing; please proofread.”

All things considered, the students are probably on to something. My immediate concern about the quality of my students’ writing may be as antiquated as my academic interest in 17th-century British America. In other words, when it comes to conventional notions of success and what is required to achieve them, both concerns are at best quaint and most likely irrelevant. The kind of success that my students seek, which is not unlike the kind of success that most Americans throughout history have sought, does not require an understanding of history, much less the ability to express the nuances of historical developments (or anything, for that matter) in clear, persuasive prose. Thus when a sick student sends me an email explaining, “I am the flue and will bring a doctors’ note for you,” I know what she means. She got her point across, and with most things in life that’s all that matters–getting one’s point across. In a world mediated by market transactions, where happiness is defined by the bottom line, and where students seek to find the best deal, it’s the exceptional among us who actually respond to “confusing; please proofread.” And boy, are we keeping each other happy.

James McWilliams is never confusing.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST