I know nothing proves you’re old as thoroughly as bewailing the foibles of kids these days and complaining that they’re not as hard-working as you were. But I have to note that this letter – from a disgruntled student who thinks he’s the next Bill Gates – is beautifully indicative of everything I think is wrong with education today:

You commented that I had probably the best example, to the assigned question, out of all the students participating. However, you also said that I did not complete the assignment as instructed, because I did not explain with the proper support from the text book literature pertaining to the two gentlemen of which the entire assignment pertained to. I beg to differ on your opinion of my interpretation of the assignment. Proffessor, what you fail to realize is that my story explains the topic in so much detail, that being specific is not in my nature as a writer, or a mathotical student. You see if I was to follow the path as the other students, I would have never gained the respect and admiration of my past teachers. What you failed to realize is that I understand the topic in greater depth than any of the other students. So much so, that I had a smile on my face writing this paper knowing that only an A student would understand my direction.

Read the rest here, if you dare.

When teachers can’t fail or hold back students for being incompetent at the basics (spelling, clear writing, following directions) because parents or administration will have a tizzy fit, and when cocky yet borderline illiterate students who think they’re smarter than both teachers and classmates reject criticism as constraining their undiscovered genius, you have the perfect recipe for educational disaster. Cocky students and interfering parents aren’t new, and failing students or holding them back should be a last resort. But having taught college courses to students who clearly shouldn’t have graduated high school, I am worried about the message we’re sending to students: that they won’t be allowed to fail.

This kid is spoiled. Period. And I hope at some point he fails enough exams or term papers to prepare him for the fact that in the real world, you’re not rewarded for turning in an off-topic piece of badly edited creative writing, then telling your boss he’s too dumb to get it.


  1. #1 eNeMeE
    March 21, 2010


    Does anyone know what that means? I can’t think of a word that fits in there, and (a very brief) google search didn’t help…

  2. #2 Arancaytar
    March 21, 2010

    It sounds a bit like “methodical”, but also is only a few letters away from “pathetic” which seems like a closer semantic fit. πŸ˜‰

  3. #3 Ketil Tveiten
    March 21, 2010

    I believe it’s meant to be ‘methodical’. Also, love the extra ‘f’ in ‘Proffessor’.

    I hope this letter was returned to the student with corrections in red pen.

  4. #4 Paulino
    March 21, 2010

    Spoiled? More like textbook NPD. From his email:

    “But I will still go on to follow the path that God has paved for me regardless of your opinion, because I already had the guideness I needed to help me visualize my purpose.”

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 21, 2010

    That’s some funny shit! The poor magical wagical snowflake didn’t get the grade he deserved!

  6. #6 Miss Cellania
    March 21, 2010

    I knew a geologist once who taught junior high science for a year because he had a new baby and needed a “real job”. He was amazed at little effort the students put in, and flunked about 25% of the class. Their helicopter parents objected so strenuously that the geologist was fired. He returned to grad school and went on to teach college, where he was much happier.

    But that was in 1959. The geologist was my dad. As privileged and cocky as students are today, it’s really not a new phenomenon.

    As if that will make you feel any better about it…

  7. #7 CNemes
    March 21, 2010

    My favorite part is “…but I put my heart and sole into my education…” Yup, you really DID put your foot in it!

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    March 21, 2010

    I know nothing proves you’re old as thoroughly as bewailing the foibles of kids these days and complaining that they’re not as hard-working as you were.

    Wait until your kids are complaining about “back in their day!” (A common complaint of my 24yo.)

  9. #9 eNeMeE
    March 21, 2010

    I know what my problem was – I was trying to find a word that made sense.

    I think I’ll define it to mean “navel gazing”. At least then the sentence will be close to true.

  10. #10
    March 21, 2010

    There are no two flaws more dangerous to combine than ignorance and arrogance.

  11. #11 Mike Olson
    March 21, 2010

    At one point I was a clinical psych grad school student. Our midterm consisted of six questions. I answered four. Perfectly. Time was called. I had been very relaxed and had thought I was doing great. There was no clock in the room and I hadn’t worn a watch. I felt like an idiot, but realized completely that I was responsible for the grade I received. My advisor was sympathetic and was sure I’d do fine on the final and it wouldn’t kill my career, but, nothing was going to change the grade and I didn’t even ask. I knew I’d screwed up. Twenty years later I was working with “troubled children.” One had an IQ of over 160. His mother held a masters degree. The kid was seriously analytical, loved sci fi, and gave every impression of loving math and science. But, he wouldn’t do home work. He never completed assignments. I tried to tell him he would reach a point where no matter how bright he was he just wouldn’t understand anything further because of a lack of base knowledge. So, he’d score a 20% in a semester of geometry but he’d see nothing wrong with it, because he and his mother both would point out he’d scored between 97-100% on the work he completed. He continued to see himself as a genius and she fed his belief that if it was boring or tedious or if he’d displayed some understanding of the subject he shouldn’t have to complete it. He is an adult today, but I truly fear for the outcome of someone who failed so miserably to take responsibility for his own lack of discipline and the fact the people who raised him simply fed the belief that such discipline was beneath him.

  12. #12 Ed S.
    March 21, 2010

    Obviously, you fail to recognize the sheer talent that will win this one a highly-compensated position as religion & science reporter at a Murdoch media outlet.

  13. #13 andrew
    March 21, 2010

    i am that troubled kid – or at least, i was 20 years ago. maybe i still am? teachers/parents were constantly telling me that i should finish my work, get good grades because “i could”, etc. etc.

    years went by and i didn’t change. i went through college and graduate school, now am in my first postdoc, and still haven’t changed. i’m convinced it’s because i *can’t* change, despite the fact that everyone (who figures me out) seems to think i’ve just got some flaws in my approach – i don’t complete tasks, i procrastinate, i choose new tasks rather than do the ones i’m ‘assigned’ (i keep waiting for the assignments to go away..). if I’d just get organized, try harder!

    i still don’t know how i was affected by being told by parents, teachers, etc., that i was “so smart”. maybe it made me lazy and disorganized, because i thought i didn’t have to try so hard. or, maybe it just fit into my pre-existing personality, gave me justification to be the way i would have been anyways. i really don’t know. as it is, i’ve managed to slip by so far (knock on wood).

    as for this letter to the teacher, i was always in the opposite position; always apologizing to teachers, parents, mentors, etc., for “not meeting my potential” – always begging for a second chance. if i had taken this kid’s tack, i would never have finished college.

    i hope the kid you met turned out alright.

  14. #14 Mike Olson
    March 21, 2010

    *Andrew*, I’m glad you were successful. I identified with the boy because I thought there were similarities between the two of us. My tested IQ was/is no where near that high, but I never worked at assignments but always managed to pass. My study of psychology was done without ever really developing the discipline to really get more than a 3.0. I was accepted into grad school based on my score on the GRE, which, my advisor told me, would’ve opened doors about anywhere. I was trying to get this kid to study, because I personally failed to comprehend how much a deep understanding of material could help to make life more fulfilling. It wasn’t until I worked in a Navy lab as an enlisted person and took a few more math classes that I saw first hand how a deeper understanding of bio, chem and math could rekindle a desire for deeper understanding and a childish wonder at the nature of it all. But, at the college level it required more discipline to really get that. Frankly, I only read about physics as an interested by stander, but given his tested IQ, and more down to earth character, as well as general personality, I really kind of turned Feynman into a bit of a personal hero. I’d rather study bio-chem…but Feynman seemed to have a grasp of how to communicate and teach that I found very intriguing.

  15. #16 Zeno
    March 21, 2010

    I have a cousin who is an idiot. He thinks he is a genius. All during our childhood he kept lording it over us lesser beings, because he was the most brilliant mind of the age.

    He recently got fired from a custodial job. A volunteer custodial job which got him reduced tuition for his children at a parochial school.

    Probably not a genius.

  16. #17 doctorgoo
    March 21, 2010

    from the letter:

    I want my grade changed, and I am sorry if I offend you by this email, but I put my heart and sole into my education and I believe in myself even if you don’t.

    He put his heart and the bottom of his shoe into his education? Yes, most definitely his grade should be changed!! Throw a “minus” next to that “F” immediately!

  17. #18 Pteryxx
    March 21, 2010

    To Andrew and whoever else… I’m also a very intelligent student with problems concentrating and completing assignments. I turned out to have unrecognized learning disabilities camouflaged by intelligence. This happens a lot with students (and adults) who don’t perform “up to potential”. Usually, they’re just called lazy or undisciplined or some other shame-laden term. Procrastination, for instance, can come from the unrealistic expectation that a smart student must score well on everything, and that falling short indicates a moral failing instead of a weakness that needs to be addressed.

    It’s worth doing some reading on learning styles, talking to a study skills counselor, and picking up some tricks to deal with strengths and weaknesses once you find out what those are. Currently I’m learning how to break down assignments and work harder on those parts that hit my weak points (memorization, error-checking, writing) and lighten up on what I’m good at (brainstorming, analysis). I can also assimilate three times as much information late at night as during the morning… go figure.

  18. #19 Jessica Palmer
    March 21, 2010

    Thanks everyone for your comments, especially Andrew and Pteryxx for sharing your experiences. I can sympathize – I’m procrastinating at this exact moment.

    Some of us have classic “learning disabilities”; some of us have coasted through school on our brains and as a result, have no study skills or discipline whatsoever; some of us have debilitating depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder; some of us have family responsibilities that drain our time and energy. All of these issues affect our performance in the classroom or the workplace. Basically, life is unfair. Pteryxx, your comment shows that you recognized the unusual challenges you faced, took steps to address them, and worked at it. Kudos to you for empowering yourself.

  19. #20 Ali
    March 22, 2010

    Like Andrew and Pteryxx, I’m also a bright student with a serious lack of study skills. For me, I think it was a combination of being far, far ahead academically through high school (so even with minimal effort I graduated in the top 20 of my class), which led to an utter lack of study skills, combined with an autism spectrum disorder that no one picked up on at the time (it was the 90s, I’m a girl, it happened a lot). I made it most of the way through grad school before I crashed. My ability to think abstractly is not the best, and higher-order political theory is pretty damn abstract.

    Since then I’ve been identified as being on the spectrum and learned a lot about how I learn. It’s been really helpful–tools I used (like visual schedules and planners) no longer seem like a silly waste of time, but valuable and helpful. I’m now saving up so I can go back to school (med, this time) and am so glad I’ve started to learn how to be a student, not just someone who turns in papers and expects good grades because I’m soooo smart. There was a lot of “if you only lived up to your potential” guilt going on which masked my real struggles, combined with “but you’re off-the-charts smart, this should be easy!” which was also not helpful.

    However, as I currently work with kids in an inpatient psych hospital, I think I’m going to second Paulino–this is not just usual spoiled brat level conceit.

  20. #21 Tony P
    March 22, 2010

    Want to know what is worse? When the person who designed the course has no clue about the course content.

    It’s compounded by giving it to a nice guy to teach. Said nice guy even agrees that it’s poorly designed.

    An email exchange with course designer yields that he’s got short man complex. Greeeaat!

    We all got A+ for the course btw.

  21. #22 skeptifem
    March 22, 2010

    I hope it gets sent back with red corrections.

  22. #23 skeptifem
    March 22, 2010

    I was also one of those kids who had potential and didn’t do homework. I quit going to class after awhile. I learned what I wanted to in my free time, spent a lot of time reading. My tolerance for busy work and BS was extremely low, and still is. I am in college now, and not having problems. I am learning things I actually care about, so it isn’t hard to keep going.

    Andrew- have you ever been tested for ADD or ADHD? Having a hard time with task completion, organization, and concentration are classic symptoms of that. People without ADD can overcome those issues via effort and willingness, but if you can’t seem to get things together despite trying very hard, you might consider talking to your doctor about ADD or ADHD.

  23. #24 Snail
    March 22, 2010

    I couldn’t bring myself to click the link to read the rest.

    Been out of academia now for almost a year and I’ve been missing the undergrads because they’re fun and most of them are keen and hard-working. But I definitely haven’t been missing this sort of email. Esp. the ones that come in after the exams … Shudder

  24. #25 David Harmon
    March 22, 2010

    Much like Ali, I’ve got a high IQ and a mild autistic-spectrum condition — and I went through “Hoity-toity U.” about 10 years earlier than her, when they didn’t even know about Asperger’s! (I did know I had “learning disabilities”, but I didn’t fit into any of the then-current slots.) I was pretty clueless about social standards and norms… but not clueless enough to write a letter like that! And yeah, being so far ahead of the curve in high school caught up to me when I hit college — I’d never developed proper study habits, and suffered for it.

    You might want to suggest that the student take a year or so off college, to work in the “real world”… that should take the starch out of him!

  25. #26 Esmeralda M Rupp-Spangle
    March 22, 2010


    One of the reasons I chose not to attend college was because I know that I am apathetic when it comes to completing reptetive, boring tasks. That’s why I didn’t enroll in the first place!
    I KNOW that if I were to attend college, there would be expectations that I would simply be unable or unwilling to meet, and that’s why I chose an education via the library. It conforms to my own shifting tastes, schedule, and interests, and I don’t have to write long papers documenting how well I grasp the material.
    I didn’t get a degree, but then, everyone I know whose gone to college just ends up working at Starbucks anyway- but with a huge debt, so what’s the damn point? …Unless I go for a doctorate- which I am not passionate about any one subject to persue. I’m just too fickle.

    I feel zero sympathy for this little self important twerp, and am AMAZED by the number of supportive comments in the thread that follows the full letter.

    If you go to college, expect demands to be made of you that you don’t like; that’s PART OF BEING IN COLLEGE, and one of the reasons I chose not to go in the first damn place.

    What a tool.

  26. #27 Jessica Palmer
    March 22, 2010

    I always suggested to my students that they take time off college if they weren’t sure what they wanted to do – and that they strongly consider deferring grad school to work in a lab first. They NEVER listened to me. Sigh πŸ™‚

  27. #28 speedwell
    March 22, 2010

    God, how did I ever survive to 40. I was the smart kid, told she was smart, coasted through on brains and potential, never did homework, barely graduated from high school, never practiced piano but got into college with a music scholarship, then dropped out of college. Mea culpa.

    But for some reason office work agreed with me and I built a reputation on being the troubleshooting temp who could do anything right the first time. Now I work in IT, and I develop training content, and I can do it faster and better than the contractor they hired to do it for us. ON TIME, yet. And I’ve grown enough self-disciplinary backbone to consider going to college and getting an engineering degree.

    Don’t worry… I had my balloon burst by my younger brother, who despite not being considered “the smart one” while we were growing up, graduated from college in three years and can run lazy circles around me in the training content and meeting deadlines early department. I’m forced to fall back on the fact that I taught the brat to read. πŸ˜€

  28. #29 mediajackal
    March 22, 2010

    See, this is why people my age (late Boomer) will never retire: We can’t afford to let morons like this faux student to take the controls.

    Perhaps “mathotical” was his understanding of the process whereby 2+3=43,781.

    We’re toast

  29. #30 Eff
    March 22, 2010

    Having worked off and on as a lecturer at various schools I deeply sympathize with teachers who have to deal with this kind of rubbish. But I am concerned that nobody has made an attempt to understand the student’s predicament. Surely there are some signs that this student is suffering from the inflated ego and lack of social awareness that often accompany illicit drug use or the onset of mental illness, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other personality disorders, which often occur in the late teens. Undergrads are under enormous pressure and many develop problems. At larger institutions these students are in danger of falling though the cracks. Our job as teachers is to respond to letters like this by shrugging off any personal insult we may feel and considering what is best for the student. Yes – a snarky reply in red ink may be exactly what this student needs, but the professor should also make an attempt to judge whether recommending a visit to a mental health counselor may be a more positive action.

  30. #31 bo moore
    March 22, 2010

    At least this email is written using actual English words, even though it is obnoxious. While teaching years ago, I encountered papers that were utterly bizarre and incomprehensible – as if the students were using a weird language that may have at one time been English, but which had fallen apart. It was horrifying and tragic that American students were not able to express simple sentences or ideas. These kids were utterly isolated – normal verbal interaction was missing from their lives.

  31. #32 Jesse
    March 23, 2010

    I was one of those kids who was smart and didn’t try a lot of the time because I thought I could coast my way through.

    And as I get older and having taught a karate class, I no longer have a lot of sympathy for kids like me. If someone says their kid has ADHD, my response is “so what.”

    Why? Because I learned — via karate — that sometimes you have to repeat things a thousand times to get them right. You aren’t going to be good at everything.

    I had classes in college I had to struggle through. But life is not fair. I think part of the problem I had in math (which I was pretty good at) was that I wasn’t willing to gut it out and really learn.

    There are things I was good at, there are things I am not. In the latter case I have to work harder. End of story. I am not a pro basketball player either, but so what? If I wanted to play basketball it would mean I have to work harder at it to be good enough so that I am not an embarrassment at a pick up game. That’s just life.

    When I teach kids karate, to me it is as serious as teaching them to use a gun. So I tolerate very little. It should be a fun class, but if a kid has trouble with something s/he doesn’t get promoted until s/he knows it cold. That’s what you sign on for.

    I think too damned often parents tell their kids there is a problem with “learning style” (whatever the heck that is) or ADHD or whatever. Well, the world doesn’t owe you jack, and it is under no obligation to make you feel good. If a kid says to me he’s mad that the learning environment isn’t fitting him and he feels dumb, my response is “OK, put that anger to work and show me why we’re all wrong about you. Let’s see how much you want it.”

    I dunno, I guess I am a curmudgeon.

  32. #33 Mike Olson
    March 23, 2010

    *Jesse* I largely agree with what you are saying as it kind of dovetails into what I was saying about discipline. In order to really learn something and to comprehend what you are doing requires a willingness to take time, discuss, and repeat as necessary. Otherwise info is simply thrown into short term memory for a test and then forgotten. On the other hand I completely believe that responsibility for knowledge/learning aside, what works for me to learn may not work for others. Discusssion and independent research might work for me, while for others it might be sitting quietly and taking complete notes on literature. Still others might benefit from combining physical activity with an application of what is learned. E.G whose the best baseball player…applying math to the performance of actual people and friends ERA’s Batting averages…etc. I whole heartedly agree with you regarding your attitude towards karate. Having physical discipline, and mental toughness prior to having an ability to inflict damage is far superior and requires more of a person than simply knowing how to load a gun and pull a trigger. As a less physically aggressive analogy: It takes more to learn basic math skills, log tables, geometric postulates, than to simply give a kid a calculator in the second grade and have them continue to rely on that through high school. I would say further that I believe graphing calculators to be one of the coolest things we’ve come up with…but you have to understand the concepts behind the math before it really impresses. Having such a tool is a given for many students today. There is a difference between increasing your strength/knowledge and having a device do something for you, but devices have their place.

  33. #34 Jesse
    March 23, 2010

    Yeah, some of it is because I don’t really believe stuff like ADHD exists. (I do have a belief that socialization problems exist, but that’s different). Why not? I looked at the DSM criteria for ADHD and I was thinking that every human being on this planet could have ADHD. It’s so vague that it’s bleeding useless.

    Do different people learn differently? Sometimes. Sometimes tho, methods of teaching are used a lot because it works. There really isn’t any substitute for memorizing at least part of a multiplication table. There isn’t any substitute for reading a text to understand it at all. I was bad at math because I thought nobody could teach me a thing and I f-ed up myself. I should have gotten a really, really good grasp and repeated a class. I didn’t. That’s nobody’s fault but mine.

    I really think no calculators should be allowed before college. They had calculators when I was in grade school and they weren’t allowed because you’ll never learn a bloody thing if you never do it. You can’t learn to hammer nails with a hammer if all you use is a nail gun. You can’t learn to read if all you ever see is a single dick and jane book. You’ll never learn math if someone says “2 x2 = 4, now here’s a calculator and you’ll never have to figure it out on your own.”

    That’s because — like karate — math is a slow build of many, many basic skills. You can’t hope to understand algebra in the slightest if you haven’t mastered the four basic functions.

    I also hate the phrase, “child-centered,” when applied to education. The world isn’t centered on your child. Why should their education be? How the heck are they going to learn to cope with stuff that isn’t centered on them? Sometimes you just have to deal, you know? Part of learning to problem-solve and all that.

  34. #35 Colin
    March 23, 2010

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell

  35. #36 Jener
    March 24, 2010

    I too have little sympathy for these people. In high school I identified with the “stoner” group because they were the most accepting, but I paid for it by being constantly invited to skip class, hang out on Sundays (which I mostly spent doing homework), etc. After constantly turning them down, at the end of the year they’d chalk up my good grades to the fact that I “liked school.” (Which was definitely untrue at the time.)

    Most of them were really smart, and some of them knew it, but they used that as an excuse for not doing work. I can’t count how many times one of my friends lamented about his/her poor grades, noting how they were too smart for busy work or that they didn’t go to class because everyone else took too long to grasp the concepts and they became bored.

    What they failed to realize is that kids like me who did well in school didn’t like homework or class either, but we did what we had to do because we understood the long-term benefits of hard work. Most of these kids either dropped out or went community college (or both). As far as I’m concerned, if you waste your intelligence then you might as well not have any.

  36. #37 Mike Olson
    March 25, 2010

    Yes, community college isn’t filled with kids who come from families who can’t afford tuition, nor is it filled with working adults who want to improve themselves. It is filled with stoners, ne’er do wells, and others who just want to screw around. Frankly, most stoners I knew were just too damned busy getting stoned to worry about much else. I should point out, my last college room mate was a stoner. Everyday. He normally didn’t do it in the room, I don’t know if he graduated or not, but he really showed me the problems with daily use of a substance, even if it is not “addictive” as many advocates point out. The poor guy couldn’t function without it and had more than enough credits to graduate, he just kept changing his major and never had gotten the right classed to get the ‘skin. In life interests can change, people go back and get another degree in a different field…but that kid just kept spinnin’. Sorry, I my associates is obviously from a community college. I had a cousin who went to an Ivy league school. He is very successful, but at the time I thought he was just a spoiled rich kid. His time at a prep school didn’t help the perception. I felt like a working class kid trying to get a decent education and a decent job. Some of those perceptions were a bit off, but my experience was not that junior college was filled with slackers and stoners. Poor kids, working adults, young parents…generally folks who were working a hell of a lot harder than my cousin ever considered and generally a lot of really bright people trying to get the good life through hard work.

  37. #38 Pteryxx
    June 7, 2010

    Really, really late response to Jesse @34 (thank you, Google):

    Do different people learn differently? Sometimes. Sometimes tho, methods of teaching are used a lot because it works. There really isn’t any substitute for memorizing at least part of a multiplication table. There isn’t any substitute for reading a text to understand it at all. I was bad at math because I thought nobody could teach me a thing and I f-ed up myself. I should have gotten a really, really good grasp and repeated a class. I didn’t. That’s nobody’s fault but mine.

    Y’know, most of the time, maybe even in the vast majority of cases, I’d agree with you. But giving my own example, I could not memorize the multiplication table no matter how hard I worked at it. I spent extra time on all the homework. I gave myself more homework multiplying random numbers out of a phone book or by rolling dice. I withheld TV and games from myself until I’d done extra practice. I was sent to summer school solely for basic math, *twice*, without showing any improvement. It wasn’t until college that my calculus professor recognized I was failing exams because of basic calculation errors and led me to get tested for a math disability.

    Now I have a master’s degree and never did memorize the multiplication table. In at least some cases, there’s a point at which it’s fair to say hard work has done all it’s ever going to do.

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