Feature: Finding Compassion in Higher Education: A Provocation

By William J. Carpenter, Director, Honors Scholar Program, High Point University

For almost forty years, neoliberalism has been a dominant economic ideology across western societies, characterized by a set of theories and policies concerning human behavior that prioritize free-market-based logic and the subsequent privatization of public services and spaces. In neoliberal thinking, the role of government is not so much to supply services and goods, but instead to clear the way for private entities to compete for customers and for the market to establish where and how resources are employed—ultimately resulting in a tendency to prioritize short-term profit over long-term investments, superficial branding in lieu of deep identity formation, and hyperspecialization in place of intellectual flexibility.

One pervasive consequence of this trend is a bifurcated society—with growing gaps between and among socioeconomic classes—systemically maintained by unequal access to education, health care, financial services, etc. The primary tool in maintaining these inequalities is the certified credential—or the college degree. On one side is the robust information services sector, walled off from many by the expense and inaccessibility of higher education. On the other is the human services sector, much of which relies on under-compensated manual labor and remains economically flat to those without college degrees. With social safety nets falling away, movement in socioeconomic status stalling or trending downward, and whole sectors of the economy being labeled outdated, the result is a culture steeped in fear: fear of not getting by, fear of losing status, fear of a threatening “other.”

Higher education, the engine for propelling people into more robust sectors of the economy, has not escaped—and has in some ways exacerbated—the influence of neoliberalism, perhaps in an effort not to face obsolescence itself. Often, rather than promoting their potential to be uniquely-positioned spaces to foster empathetic, civically engaged, critically thinking, and globally minded changemakers, colleges and universities function as certifiers. They sustain the “information-services-credentialing complex” by marketing to societal fears about gaining and maintaining traction in the economy.

As a result, colleges and universities produce recruitment materials that focus not on the processes of education but on the products of it, and students typically aren’t encouraged to view campuses as anything more than comfortable way stations on the path to a job. At the same time, market economics teaches students to see tuition rates as initial bargaining positions, and they demand higher levels of discounting before enrolling. To make up for discounting, schools must attract larger numbers of students or charge more for amenity-rich campuses. In the end, campuses are forced to sell their own brand of the credentialing process; their graduates enter this self-perpetuating system and the social stratification that results.

This stratification, and the accompanying divisiveness, was brought into stark relief by the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency was powered, in part, by the frustrations of an alienated population[1] who saw as unfair the policies and practices that shape this broken information-services-credentialing complex. This group distrusts the system for its power to determine economic status;[2] and on the reverse, those with status fear the alienated for their willingness to challenge progressive trends toward inclusivity and diversity.[3]

In this context, it can be no surprise that our students often come to campus steeped in a host of fears that are reinforced by college recruitment, placement, and retention processes. These fears are socioeconomic at their base, rooted in neoliberal emphases on competition and ranking. The effects of such fears on students’ well-being are twofold. First, they foster debilitating cognitive states such as loneliness and narcissism,[4] while increasing social anxiety and intellectual rigidity.[5] Second, they reduce students’ capacity for compassion, which is concisely defined by Richard S. Lazarus as “being moved by another’s suffering and wanting to help.”[6]

I want to draw a clear distinction, as psychologist Paul Bloom does, between compassion and empathy.[7] Empathy is sharing the feeling of another, of being attuned to another person’s emotional and even physical state. It is central to our social and intellectual development, and empathic thinking can help people understand their situations more effectively. But empathy itself does not connote action beyond the response. Nor is good or moral action a necessary result of empathic thinking. It is compassion that, according to Maria L. Schantz, “impels and empowers people to not only acknowledge, but also act toward alleviating or removing another’s suffering or pain.”[8] For the systems around us to change for the better, we need to foster in our students a bias toward compassionate action.

If higher education is, even if well-meaning, perpetuating a cycle of fear, perhaps the concept of compassion can lead us to a theoretical way out. As faculty members, campus administrators, and student affairs professionals, we have direct access to students in a space built to encourage them to think critically, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to build relational connections between knowledge and life application. It is our responsibility to lead students through direct, recursive, and scaffolded analyses of the economics of higher education throughout the undergraduate curriculum—and join that with activities and reflective practices that compel self-motivated acts of justice and relief.

We should begin by embedding opportunities for fostering compassion into students’ higher education experience—for example, with first-year seminars that directly address the national conversations about college and professionalization, providing students with a theoretical lens and vocabulary for identifying and explaining the pressures and fears they experience, or cocurricular experiences such as volunteer opportunities, service-related internships, and cultural events that provide outlets for the energy produced by such analyses. Our society needs not just employable, credentialed workers, but people who can, regardless of their economic roles or status, stand against fear with a compulsion for redemptive action—people who embody compassion. If we expect such characteristics of our students, we must model them ourselves.


[1]  David Brooks, "The Alienated Mind," New York Times, May 23, 2017, https://nyti.ms/2rNQkLa.

[2]  Thomas B. Edsall, "How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump," New York Times, July 20, 2017, https://nyti.ms/2tsnrtA.

[3]  Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel, "Fear of Diversity Made People More Likely to Vote for Trump," The Nation, March 14, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/fear-of-diversity-made-people-more-lik....

[4]  Paul Verhaeghe, What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, trans. J. A. Hedley-Prole (Melbourne: Scribe, 2016).

[5]  Jeff Sugarman, "Neoliberalism and Psychological Ethics," Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 35, no. 2 (2015): 103–16, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038960.

[6]  Richard S. Lazarus, Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis (New York: Springer, 2006), 245.

[7]  Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016).

[8]  Maria L. Schantz, "Compassion: A Concept Analysis," Nursing Forum 42, no. 2 (2007): 48–55, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6198.2007.00067.x.