From Geoffrey Chaucer to The Onion, satire has played an enormous role in British and American culture. As a form of rhetoric, it’s certainly one of the most entertaining ways to make an argument. Increasingly, younger people — particularly students — look toward modern satirists for their news.
It makes sense, therefore, that the satirized student is such a popular topic in both early and contemporary writing.
Satire asks audiences to have a critical mind in order to figure out what the author’s true opinion is on a given subject. While hundreds of societal woes have been satirized throughout English literature, one figure that has been heavily scrutinized is the student.
In fact, many writers have satirized students, and through their appealing form of rhetoric, it’s easy to see what some might view as a student’s role in society.
One of the most popular sources of satire in English literature is Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and you can notable connect some of its stories to the satirized student.
In the General Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer describes the Clerk, one of the pilgrims, as a skinny, young man wearing plain clothes. Chaucer also mentions that the Clerk does not work and dedicates all of his time to his studies because he’s a student of logic.
In fact, he would rather have 20 of Aristotle’s books than a nice wardrobe. This portrayal leads scholars to believe that the Clerk is one of the only pilgrims that Chaucer does not scrutinize but actually praises for his detachment from worldly possessions.
One cannot, however, talk about the Clerk without mentioning the story he’s telling. Notably, he tells the other pilgrims that he heard a story from the one and only Francis Petrarch. The tale is a retelling of the story of patient Griselda, a woman put through horrible tests of humility and obedience by her husband. Literary experts suggest that Petrarch’s version can be read as an allegory of how humans must submit to the trials presented to them by God. The Clerk’s retelling, on the other hand, is most certainly a satirical jab at the famous Wife of Bath, which is evident on what he emphasizes in his adaptation.
Some critics interpret the Wife of Bath as a figure of protofeminism. After all, she has a real and distinguished agency within the story, and the way that she conducts herself sets her apart from all the other characters in the poem.
While many scholars have made convincing arguments that the Wife is an antifeminist figure, it’s important to note how the Clerk reacts to the Wife of Bath’s comments about students. She mentions in the prologue to her tale that Clerks will never have anything good to say about wives unless they are stories of Catholic saints. Upon hearing this, the Clerk takes the notion personally.
His reaction isn’t a surprise, seeing as he devotes all of his time to studies. After the Wife of Bath’s remark, he feels he must prove himself to the pilgrims. This is why his story is the antithesis to the Wife’s tale of bringing a knight to justice for raping a young woman.
The Wife’s moral tells the pilgrims not to take away a woman’s choice and to let her be sovereign. Interestingly, this may be the medieval version of mansplaining, considering the author. However, in this case, it’s more important to see how each character reacts to one another.
The Clerk’s over-emphasis on his satirical portrayal of what a wife should be deviates just a bit too far from the source material for the story to work. The allegory is muddied by a mix of secular and religious details in order to prove that he, even if he’s a Clerk, can say something “good” about women.
Finally, taking into account the Clerk’s studious nature and his sensitivity toward what others think of his intellect points to the fact that students sometimes like to pretend they’re experts. The failed retort he gives to the Wife proves that, as she says herself, some things cannot be learned from books and must be learned from experiences.
For something just a little more contemporary, websites like The Onion and Clickhole provide good examples of the satirized student. For instance, in a short piece by The Onion headlined “Freshman Emails Every Claudia On Campus To Find Missed Tinder Match,” the author satirizes the predatory nature of the online dating apps that are popular throughout college campuses.
Rather than critiquing the modern student on their academic ability, this piece portrays how students should treat each other in a social setting, such as at a university. The sarcastic quotes of appraisal given in the article help further prove the piece’s ultimate point.
Additionally, an example of satire written by Clickhole can be found here. In this listicle, the author gives sarcastic advice on writing a personal statement for grad school. The recommendations given seek to artificially inflate the credibility of the student in order to seem more appealing to graduate programs.
That said, the author makes two arguments in this piece: one is that students should be honest and true to themselves when writing a personal statement, and the other is that students feel encouraged to go to the greatest lengths in order to stand out amongst their peers.
To further that point, in an article for The New York Times, Jane Adams cites that “perfectionism, especially when influenced by social media, has increased by 33 percent since 1989.” Adams proves that the satire presented in the Clickhole listicle truly does depict the modern student’s tendency to try too hard.
In fact, the listicle is ridiculing the idea of perfectionism through its arguments, which are as outrageous as they are sarcastic.
One final piece, written by Kirby Davis for The Miami Student, is headlined “Local Man Still Isn’t Totally Sure What A Period Is, And At This Point, He’s Too Afraid To Ask.” The rhetorical approach of this article satirizes the students who are too scared to learn new things because they fear seeming ignorant.
The article also points out the irony of a student who’s nervous to ask questions, even if he’s outside a classroom. It’s ironic because students are meant to inquire about things, and they’re not meant to know everything — even if they act like they do.
From the late 14th century to the beginning of the 21st century, the satirized students portrayed in these pieces share some common threads of critique. While those who attend university are legally considered adults, they’re still learning to treat each other as such.
Each of these pieces pleads for students to remain humble, to respect their peers and to understand their role as a learner and not as an expert. It’s hard not to be embarrassed in class when you answer a question incorrectly or feel as if you’re falling behind the other students, but the lessons learned from these works can give solace to those who are still adapting to the college lifestyle.
N.B.: I must apologize to any of the authors whose work I discussed in this article, especially if you feel that I ruined your jokes through dissection. The analysis I provided aimed to explore the rhetorical side of these pieces, rather than try to answer the dreaded question of why something is funny.