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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


No Schadenfreude Here, Only Dread

The first step to returning to a public good is acting like one.

September 14, 2020

There is a thin line between unhelpful blame and productive criticism, and I’m going to risk falling on the wrong side of that divide by declaring that in the vast majority of cases, the only sensible decision for higher education institutions this fall was to go remote for as many classes as possible while discouraging students from returning to the campus community, unless campus residency was an absolute necessity for learning.

This is not hindsight talking. This is not even a criticism of the clearly significant efforts that many schools have made to address the threat of COVID-19. It’s not even a criticism of the schools that did not plan quite so thoroughly and find themselves the subject of widespread condemnation.

The fact is that residential, face-to-face postsecondary education is fundamentally incompatible with a COVID-19 world. This was clear in March when schools shut down and should have been even more clear over the summer as plans for the fall were being formed, and yet, we have colleges across the country that are the new epicenters of infection. It was all preventable.

At the same time, campus leaders are not at fault for the decades of underfunding and corporatization of the institutions that left them believing they were in a position of having to open in order to survive.

However, perhaps we can cast some blame on administrators for making the wrong decision while also acknowledging that it is not their fault.

RiShawn Biddle put it well on Twitter: “Higher ed institutions aren't responsible for decades of underfunding or the failure of the Trump regime and Republicans to provide pandemic aid. But they are responsible for decisions that harm their students, faculty and staff. They could have chose differently.”

That some (the Cal State system, for example) did choose differently is proof positive of this, though we can also observe that the structure of the system and the fact that so few of the Cal State students are residential made it a much easier choice than some other schools faced.

The choices people faced were incredibly difficult, impossible even, and yet I still can’t help but feel that the choice to go remote was perfectly clear. This may seem easy to say from someone who is not required to make that choice. So be it. Opening was still the wrong choice.

It is worth considering why the clearly correct choice was so difficult to make, and what changes have to happen so the correct choice is not so difficult to make.

Writing at Inside Higher Ed, Susan Henking makes a stirring case “against schadenfreude.” Even as someone who has spent many words trying to alert those who matter to the very structural problems that are now causing such havoc, and was expelled as one of academia’s “waste products,” I am experiencing only dread, not schadenfreude. I am deeply worried about our institutions and the people they are meant to serve. We need these institutions to survive, and things are not looking good.

Henking identifies -- correctly in my view -- that the structures under which these bad decisions are happening are to blame: “But in so deploying blame, we risk participating in and strengthening the structures that are truly blameworthy. Such structures have created a version of higher education that faced and faces collapse because of this pandemic. They include a privatized higher education that rests debt on individuals, rather than supporting the right to education through tax dollars, and the set of institutional realities that emphasize market conditions and business models (both extremely relevant, of course) almost to the exclusion of the ways all education, including higher education, is and must be a public good.”

Henking suggests that schadenfreude is an obstacle to progress, and it is, but I’m also afraid that the opposite she identifies -- compassion -- is woefully inadequate as a remedy for what ails our institutions.

I have heard many expressions of compassion over my career over the fate of adjuncts, or the mounting amounts of student debt, but those expressions of compassion, the notion that compassion can be a substitute for action, is how these became such problems in the first place.

Henking’s final call is both emotionally moving and utterly ineffectual at the same time:

“We must do the best we can and help others do so as well. We must move beyond blame to a better world and higher expectations of us all. I hope we will act. I know we can.”

We must both embrace the spirt of Henking’s call as a necessary balm to our spirits and reject it as any kind of pathway out of this mess. The time when mere solidarity could’ve solved this was decades ago.

If the problems are structural, we must attack them at that level, which will mean strife and contention, such as the graduate employee strike at the University of Michigan as they seek to secure safe working conditions. If there are calls for compassion, they should be heeded by administrators who are choosing to sue the students to force them to return to work in these unsafe conditions.

I see worrisome little evidence that institutional leaders are truly facing up to the severity of the threat. Every school that broadcast this year’s recently U.S. News rankings demonstrates that they absolutely do not understand what is happening to them. Your rankings are not going to save you now. They never were.

The first step to being treated as a public good is to start acting like one, no matter the consequences. It is a terrible and painful choice, but a necessary one.

It is not too late because it can’t be too late, but the solutions must be matched to the problem.


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