Fairness vs. Forgiveness

I hate to hear the four-letter F-word used, especially by young people. The F-word I’m referring to, however, is probably not the one you’re most likely thinking of. The F-word that rankles me is “fair,” as in the commonly uttered, “That’s not fair!” It’s such a childish complaint, voiced only by children or fools. The former I can excuse, the latter not so much.

I’ve been thinking about fairness a lot lately, especially in connection with the conversation surrounding the student loan debt crisis, which brings me to another F-word I’d like to discuss in conjunction with the first one: forgiveness. I completely understand those who insist on their “pound of flesh” and who wholeheartedly disagree with the different proposals being offered to forgive various amounts of college loan debt. I too was steeped in debt when I graduated from college as were two of my children, yet we all managed to pay them off, so why shouldn’t those currently in debt be expected to do the same? And if these “freeloaders” are to be forgiven, what precedent does it set? And shouldn’t those of us who honored our debts be given some sort of refund? I mean, it’s only (gulp) fair.”

Well, maybe.

Respectfully, I have questions for those who are insistent on these borrowers repaying their loans:

  • What is the true motivation for your insistence? Is it a genuine devotion to the virtues of fairness and accountability that is driving your insistence, or is it envy or possibly schadenfreude (the joy derived from another’s suffering)?
  • How are you, in any way, hurt by these folks’ good fortune if they do, in fact, have their debt reduced or forgiven entirely? 
  • Why can’t you just be happy for them?
  • Are you unaware of how reducing these folks’ debt will benefit the wider economy and, therefore, you individually?

A friend and mentor of mine, Carey Clum, is a possessor of an encyclopedic collection of homespun, practical wisdom. Many years ago, Coach Clum enlightened me with the knowledge that treating everyone fairly does not necessarily mean treating everyone the same. Individual life stories and extenuating circumstances must always be taken into consideration when determining what is fair. In that spirit, I would not argue for a blanket forgiveness but a selective one that takes into account those extenuating circumstances.

A certain amount of cognitive dissonance (the cognitive ability to recognize and accept that two polar opposite claims can both be true) is necessary in this conundrum that sets fairness and forgiveness in opposition to one another. However, one must set aside their “either/or” thinking and recognize that demanding full payment of student loan debt is a good, but so is the forgiveness of said debt.The scales of justice appear to be balanced and noncommital on the point. For me, however, what tips the scale toward the side of forgiveness is the general concept of forgiveness itself.

I’m in no way a Bible thumper; however, for those steeped in the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness is an expectation, not an option. In the Gospel, when Peter asks how many times a man must forgive one who has sinned against him, Jesus replies “70 x 7,” which was his figurative way of saying “always.” In this case, these mostly young folks drowning in college debt are not “sinners”; rather, I’d argue that many of them are the sinned-against victims. Many of them were first-generation college students, who, despite guidance counselors’ best efforts, had little understanding of the college financial aid racket and lacked the parental guidance to help them make sound financial choices. Even more pernicious is the fact that many of these students who were provided these loans were borderline college-qualified students in the first place. But universities have freshmen dorm rooms and stadiums to fill, so these students are accepted in order to become the fodder to feed the beast only to be shat out later with exorbitant debt and little else to show for it when they are incapable of handling the academic rigors of college.

The poorly-kept secret is that, according to Forbes.com, “[E]ven after six years, less than 60% of students at four-year colleges have earned a Bachelor’s degree.” My point is that even as universities concoct “too-good-to-be-true” financial aid packages for prospective students, which are typically loaded with an array of student loans, they know – Iet me reiterate – they know that the majority of the students who take out those loans will never receive a diploma or obtain employment with a salary that will allow them to repay their loans in a reasonable manner and time frame. If you ask me, these universities and the government and lending institutions that offer these loans are the sinners and the ones who should be seeking forgiveness.

Surely, as a society, it’s reasonable to offer some degree of forgiveness to those who, many of whom were teenagers at the time, were poorly or completely unadvised or, even worse, duped into unwisely borrowing what they could never afford to pay back and for which, in reality, they should never have been considered qualified. If we are willing to bailout financial institutions, the auto industry, and farmers, we can find a way to alleviate at least some of the financial burden of ordinary, good-intentioned people.

A concept similar to forgiveness is mercy. For those readers more given to secular reasoning, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he tells us that mercy is “twice blessed // It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Both Jesus and Shakespeare assert that the one who forgives is – at the least – an equal beneficiary of the act. Therefore, you’d think we would be quick to forgive others’ debts, financial or otherwise, as to be obedient to the teaching of two of the world’s greatest teachers and to be made better ourselves by doing so.

Forgiveness cannot be mandated; it is always a choice. It is a practice that appeals to and reveals the “better angels” of humanity, for it is highly unnatural. That is the beauty of it. Magnanimity is a trait revealed by being great of mind and heart. In recent years and especially within our body politic, both forgiveness and magnanimity have been devalued in preference for retaliation and small-minded pettiness. Perhaps, it’s time to restore them both through an act of communal forgiveness by the easing of the student debt burden that is crippling so many in our society.

As I’ve said, I understand the accountability side of the issue. I really do. And my intention is not to ignite a debate here. Rather, I’m just asking for consideration of this side, my side, of the argument.

For the second blog post in a row, I’ll finish with words of wisdom from Don Henley. This time from his song “Heart of the Matter”:

These times are so uncertain

There’s a yearning undefined

People filled with rage

We all need a little tenderness

How can love survive in such a graceless age?

Ah, the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness

They’re the very things we kill, I guess . . .

But I think it’s about forgiveness


Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

4 thoughts on “Fairness vs. Forgiveness

  1. Once again, thank you Ty! Great points about the college financial aid traps. Maybe there were some well intentioned players, but the business aspect of the schools motivation cannot be ignored. Knowing full well that repayment required graduation and employment with suitable compensation did not shape the policy. Even with a degree, the debt repayments could be difficult for many starting out. And students were presented the packages with such an expectation of acceptance without really explaining the commitment, especially the cumulative commitment over several years. Some college administrators saw security in the arrangement. You were obligated to return for additional years to have any chance to repay. And they could raise tuition without much resistance as everyone just borrowed more. Part of a cycle that has doomed many smaller schools in recent years, and will likely dictate a different approach to higher education in the future. We can benefit from some effort to re-set the scales.

    My college tuition was low enough that I could earn the majority of what I needed by summer employment and a part time job during school. Simply no longer possible.

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