Against Schadenfreude

Higher education confronts a collapse that's more than whether we can continue to pay employees, more than whether our students and institutions are healthy and safe, Susan Henking argues.

September 14, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/teddyandmia

Schadenfreude. I suspect we have all experienced it: the guilty pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. It’s the feeling that is the subtext of the cliché “There but for the grace of God go I.”

These days I find myself asking whether there is such a thing as institutional schadenfreude. That might be a good label for the realization, as one scans the landscape of higher education, that the incredibly hard decision a number of colleges made weeks and months ago to be fully remote this fall has been confirmed by the awful experience of many institutions around us. Some -- for example, Beloit University -- were truly creative from the very beginning. One wonders what their leaders think now, as we hear of institutions that open with limited or full face-to-face classes and then must rapidly move back online instead. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. North Carolina State University. The University of Notre Dame. The list goes on.

There are memes. August Madness mimics March Madness, with brackets focused on the potential for sudden closures. Betting pools on how long any given institution will remain open abound. Gallows humor, some people say.

And the blame is circulating, too. All too often, the people blamed are students.

Yes, they are sometimes unmasked. They party. They may feel invulnerable -- and lonely. They have been waiting for college. And many had -- let’s be honest -- depressing and difficult conclusions to their high school careers in the midst of the shock of a global pandemic

Others blame institutional leaders or governmental appointees whose judgments shape those made within higher education. They accuse people of putting money before health, failing to understand science or substituting hope for planning. Faculty members are suing institutions. Small towns are caught between, on the one hand, the crucial economic benefits of bringing students to the region and, on the other, the risks to public health of people arriving from across the state, the nation and sometimes the world. Some are making such decisions in hospital deserts.

American individualism tempts us to see blame as purely individual. It is not. Blame, like guilt and power, circulates among individuals -- as we try to locate it and, perhaps, feel just a bit more control in a situation that is uncertain in ways many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. Blame also circulates among categories of people as we seek to validate our own roles in these -- yes, that word again -- unprecedented times. We are tempted to deploy blame against others to shore ourselves up.

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. These are the structures that mitigate against being prepared to navigate the moral crises of our time when institutional and individual survival seem posed against one another in our imaginations and all too often in reality.

Whether we speak of campuses or the many other kinds of institutions that make up the wider educational ecosystem, we confront a collapse that is more than economic, more than whether we can continue to pay employees, more than whether our students and institutions are healthy and safe.

The challenge we call COVID-19 is and has been a moral challenge. It calls us not to blame but to do much more. It calls us to follow our missions of civic engagement and complex thinking, inclusion and access, evidentiary and persuasive speech, science and art, and, most crucially, education. It calls us to change not only ourselves but also our institutions and our very understanding of the structures of leadership.

All too often, it is only when we face such crises that we hear calls for moral and ethical leadership in higher education: protests on campuses and beyond, Sept. 11, the threats to DACA, gun violence on campuses, and more. We can meet those calls -- and the ones we face today -- not through blame and schadenfreude, not through the structures of competition, but through more collaboration.

What if -- a phrase that seems also to be circulating -- we shared buildings across our locales for student quarantines? What if we did not fear the market consequences of our decisions and agreed not to poach other institutions’ students who yearn for face-to-face interaction? What if we did our purchasing, our teaching, our thinking together in new ways? Some of us are. More of us ought be.

What if we helped one another?

And we must -- we must -- change from an episodic call for ethical leadership to a consistent one, from the false use of metrics to disguise values to the use of metrics to meet our values. We must be humane and care for people, institutions and values in their full entanglement.

Perhaps the opposite of schadenfreude is compassion. And the call to resist schadenfreude in these times is a call to an ethic of concern and collaboration. We must move toward valuing ethical leadership as much as we value fiscal responsibility and student success. We must move beyond bureaucracy, fear of liability and risk assessment toward the more central ethical concerns that appear in our mission statements in phrases like responsible citizenship, equity and inclusion. We must move toward understandings of liberal education that focus on the pursuit of a world that rejects racism, sexism and other forms of injustice. Put another way, we must know the realities of procedural justice and act with an ethic that is more than only procedural. We must move beyond blame and schadenfreude to helping one another more and giving one another grace.

We know that this will not be easy. The problems we face are messy and our ethical judgments will be, as well. Yet we must embrace the messiness.

That means embracing the realities of our institutions, our lives and today’s problems. 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.

Bio

Susan Henking is interim president of Salem Academy & College, president emerita of Shimer College, and professor emerita at Hobart & William Smith Colleges.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top