Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Penn State? Who created the darkness?

If someone commits evil under cover of darkness, whom shall we punish? The one who commits the evil or the ones who create the darkness?

(The above is a "remembered quote" rattling around in my head. However, I can remember neither the source of the quote nor the exact wording. I apologize for my failing memory, but the point is still worth a bit of meditation.)

It occurs to me that this thought applies equally well to the Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State saga as it does to the Aurora massacre. That there were small children present for the premier of "The Dark Knight Rises" and that we put guns in the hands of a young man who is clearly mentally ill (perhaps sent over the cliff into insanity by the last iteration of the Dark Knight -- think Heath Ledger) implicates all of us in a tragedy beyond measure. We created the darkness that covered James Holmes.

But this morning as talk radio (not just sports radio) is bloated with bloviation about the NCAA sanctions, my mind is on the multiple layers of darkness with a common epicenter in Happy Valley. I have been concerned for months that the legal and institutional responses to this travesty render a clear judgment that the behavior of Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, et al. (including Jay Paterno and Mrs. Paterno and Mrs. Sandusky) was not in any way acceptable. I have also been concerned that those responses be constructive: making the victims whole by acknowledging the complexity of their experience for which they were and are not responsible, and ensuring that this could not happen again. In other words, I have been concerned that we would lift the multiple veils of darkness.

The Freeh Commission began the process.
1) Joe Paterno was only human. He was gloriously talented and accomplished and so very sadly flawed. (He was also aging. Does anybody seriously think that his judgment was not compromised as other problems -- players in legal trouble remaining on the team, for example -- emerged in a program that had once been squeaky clean? Who is responsible for failing to level with Mr. Paterno about his own failings? His son, Jay, perhaps? The Board of Trustees, unquestionably. The PSU alumni? You bet. By the way, Graham Spanier is not responsible for this layer of darkness .... He tried to save Joe from himself.)
2) The Board of Trustees supported the deification of one man, failing to fulfill their own responsibility to the well-being of all young people.
3) The administration of the university owed their jobs to Joe. They could not or would not challenge him.
4) Major college athletics dominates decision-making in universities around the country.

But there are more layers of darkness that have to be exposed:

5) Penn State fans pass their season tickets down from generation to generation constructing and legitimizing a cult that is impenetrable. This is why the university could announce a hike in football ticket prices this week in advance of the NCAA's announced sanctions.
6) The legislature in Pennsylvania (and legislatures throughout the country) have been cutting state aid to public and publicly-supported higher education for decades. Penn State, a land grant institution, has had subsidies cut to the bone. At the same time, there is significant political pressure to keep tuition affordable. In that fiscal stranglehold, the Board of Trustees understandably supports the care and feeding of the "golden calf" that at Penn State really did subsidize the academic side of the ledger. (So when Governor Tom Corbett gets up and says that no taxpayer money will go into paying the $60 million dollar fine the NCAA has levied, he is either terribly stupid or wildly hypocritical -- and frankly, the evidence suggests both. If it's football ticket money that pays for this, then there will be less football money to subsidize academics ... and tuition will rise and/or program quality be cut. The citizens of Pennsylvania will pay.)
7) As a community, writ large and writ local, we have failed to understand the meaning of responsibility. A Penn State employee told me that "insurance" would pay for law suit settlements, etc. Anybody who ever claimed insurance compensation knows that this is nonsense. A claim (whether to an insurance trust or a self-insurance fund) has to be recouped and replenished. There is no free ride. But the point of responsibility is not retrospective punishment -- as emotionally satisfying as that may seem in the moment. The point of responsibility is prospective. Who are we going forward? What does "We are Penn State!" mean? What will it mean tomorrow and tomorrow?

For the most part, the University has been remarkably good about taking responsibility for its role in creating the darkness that gave Jerry Sandusky cover and that allowed Paterno et al. to keep the lights off. But others are not. I just heard Franco Harris on the radio (Franco Harris whom I have always admired as an athlete) saying that this hasn't played out yet and the Freeh report is just one source of evidence. Oh, please, Franco ...

The NCAA has come up with a ridiculous set of sanctions that will allow all the other NCAA Division I schools where all sorts of "evil" (sexual harassment, rape, academic corner-cutting, misuse of young athletes) are being covered up under cover of a related darkness. And I suspect they have done so in order to label Penn State as the source of the evil and to cloak themselves in a cover of "light."

They didn't have to take away fourteen years worth of victories ... just two victories would have cleared the way for Grambling's Eddie Robinson. (Or do they truly have a gallows sense of humor, establishing Mike McQueary as the last successful Penn State quarterback??)

I am more concerned about what the NCAA did not do. Yes, they have punished Penn State severely, making it likely that education will cost more. But in the process of punishing just Penn State, they have made it seem that only they are the transgressors ... when it is we who have created the darkness.

[Postscript: If I were the Queen, I would have required that a statement be read at the start of every NCAA event (and printed on all tickets) at every school for a period of three years minimum saying something like: "We in the NCAA are committed to the prevention of child sexual abuse and every other kind of human abuse and harassment (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological) and we pledge to bring such abuse and harassment to light. What happened at Penn State and Syracuse and -- we acknowledge -- in other forms in other NCAA institutions, will not happen again." And then I would leave the financial and juridical consequences of all this to the courts.]

[Post- postscript: Would somebody please tell Jay Paterno to stop whining?]

Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Dewey and His Continued Relevance

I have a new book out this month and after having the manuscript out of my hands with the publisher for a while now, I sat down to flip through it. The book is about how to develop good citizenship skills in school children, especially the ability to speak out in political dissent, given recent shifts in American democratic practice following open protests in our streets promoted most notably by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. When looking back at the book, I was reminded at the outset of chapter 1 of a debate I had with myself about John Dewey and his relevance today.

Like many other authors, I decided to start the book with a quote. I had an array of suitable lines at the ready, most by political leaders. Yet I found myself coming back again and again to a quote by Dewey. Despite being from 1922, I was surprised at its continued pertinence to life in US schools and society. Ringing in the back of my mind were words spoken partially in jest and partially in sincerity by a dear member of my doctoral committee when I decided to write my dissertation on Dewey several years ago: “get over Dewey.” While herself enamored with many of Dewey’s ideas, I had wondered if perhaps she was right; maybe it was time to move on to someone new or different. Yet I just can’t seem to do it. I continue to find such rich insight in Dewey, such careful assessment of context that, though many things have changed in our contemporary age, still serves as a model for how to analyze educational contexts today and still rings true in many cases. So, like many others, Dewey opens my book and I’m sure that many others in the future will use his words as well.

And for those who are wondering what those words might be:

“What will happen if teachers become sufficiently courageous and emancipated to insist that education means the creation of a discriminating mind, a mind that prefers not to dupe itself or to be the dupe of others? Clearly they will have to cultivate the habit of suspended judgment, of scepticism, of desire for evidence, of appeal to observation rather than sentiment, discussion rather than bias, inquiry rather than conventional idealizations. When this happens schools will be the dangerous outposts of a humane civilization. But they will also begin to be supremely interesting places. For it will then have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs.” Education as Politics, 1922, p. 141

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Democratic Culture and the Culture of Fear

I have just published a new op/ed style essay, Democratic Culture and the Culture of Fear, on the recent protests in Québec. It's part of the second volume of a special rush issue of the Journal of Mobile Media. It's available here, along with many other interesting articles on the same theme.