On Fairness

“It’s not fair.” I tend to hear this more often when I have high school students in my college freshman English courses, but it’s not their complaint exclusively. Increasingly, it seems, we are all concerned in getting what’s “fair,” usually based on the notion that we deserve a bigger share of whatever it is we want than we are getting. Yet that’s a perverted sense of fairness. I like Hamlet’s response to Polonius, when the old gent says he will “use” or accommodate the visiting actors as they deserve (“according to their desert”). 

“God’s bodkin, man, much better!” Hamlet says. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity.” 

My good friend Hamlet and I, as we tool around Paragraph City, think that what others deserve is not so important, not even that knowable, as how we ought to respect others, that respecting others suggests more about ourselves than the others, and perhaps speaks favorably about our honor.  

Which is a distinctly round-about rumination resulting from a student who told me it wasn’t fair to apply my late paper penalty to his submission because it was only a little late. Ironic, isn’t it, to say a professor is unfair and in the process ask him to break a policy just for this one student? I suppose granting the request would prove its premise. We do tend to see what we prefer to see, I suppose. 

Actually being unfair strikes me as one of the great sins a professor can make, partly because it’s usually done with impunity. Especially in evaluating writing, a professor uses his judgment to make distinctions that, however much he explains them, are often only dimly perceived by the student writers he’s addressing.  

And in the face of the pathetic student wanting just one more chance, just one break, just this one exception because he deserves it, the pressure mounts to, as it seems, be kind. But fair has to trump kind, and an opportunity – even an opportunity to waive a deadline – given to one but not to all is favoritism. I long ago gave up trying to level the playing field of life by giving advantages to those with hardships, gave it up about the time I started to realize that a good number of these hardships were phony. It’s enough, I hope, to be fair within the constructed little world of my course, and hard enough to achieve at that.

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