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Penn State is our Cultural 9/11

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front of Pennsylvania State University

front of Pennsylvania State University (Photo credit: daveynin)

Every American knows exactly where they were when 9/11 happened…but do you remember the feelings? Of course we are all different but fear, anxiety and uncertainty definitely played a big role for so many. Our feelings weren’t very reliable in guiding us to where our attention was most needed; obviously the families of those who were killed would need comfort and assistance to come to grips to their loss. There was also a lot of anger that we needed to deal with. At the same time though, a question in the minds of many was “Is America under attack?” Whatever tattered shreds of innocence that might have survived all the wars and cynicism and contentious attitudes in society was vaporized when the plane hit the second tower. Our world had changed so starkly that our collective state of shock was shared by victim and helper alike.

I don’t want to give in to the hyperbole that we read daily about this tragedy, but culturally speaking another aspect of our way of life has been irreparably changed. That said, I do think that this issue represents one of the lowest points of American culture since I have been alive. In my lifetime there has been Iran-Contra, Central America (Nicaragua, Panama), the 1987 stock market crash, Desert Storm, the Oklahoma City bombings, Clinton’s infidelities while leading our land, 9/11 and the devastating change it foisted upon the world as we knew it…

The Penn State tragedy in the context of who we are today has really put into question the safety of one of our must trusted institutions. Not so much in regards to physical safety, but rather it spawned serious doubts about well educated and seemingly ethical people at a place where we send our children. College’s are really just places, and sometimes people show up and shoot strangers in cold-blood like what happened at Virginia Tech and recently in Colorado. It’s not so much that we are numb to the expected, but rather that we are also not as surprised or shocked because it has happened too many times before. There was also the Catholic church sex scandals that have been conveniently forgotten about, but the churches role in American culture while still considerable is increasingly nominal.

On the other hand, college football, the legendary coach Joe Paterno and the iconic institution Penn State had our trust assuredly. Joe Paterno with his thick-rimmed specs and Penn State with its conservative blue and white colors was one of those things that reminds us of being children. You can turn on a college football game and just know that everyone wants to win and you either want this color to win or the other one. There are some less savoury aspects to the machine, but the product itself is pure Americana. Joe Paterno had coached before most people were born. He was of our grandparents generation and totally seemed like the kind of old guy who would yell at you when the ball fell on their lawn, or might hand out candy at Halloween. College for many is the threshold to adulthood. If I tell you my nephew Shawn or my niece Monica will go off to college this fall you have a picture of a ‘child’ going away and not an adult. I might venture to say the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the places where we send our children will be relatively safe and that the educators and leaders shepherding them will do the right thing every time on the most serious issues. You know, in the way that sign that sign on school buses says ‘You are carrying the most precious cargo in the world’.

There are two points about Penn State that I find most shocking. The first issue is how Joe Paterno – regarded as a man of impeccable integrity – could make the decision he did. He would graduate his players, he wouldn’t pay them to attend Penn State and there was plenty of service paid to the time-honored ‘doing things the right way’. They called Paterno’s attempts at athletic success without academic compromise  the ‘Grand Experiment’ and in those respects it worked. Now, you can easily find quotes and people coming out of the woodwork saying how Paterno’s character was not quite as glossy as it appeared to be today. Of course, the only real criticism Paterno ever faced (as far as I know) is for his almost passive-aggressive stance in regards to retiring from Penn State because the team started losing and he’s an octogenarian. However, there were an equal number of sympathizers who said something to the effect of “Joe has earned the right to say when…” implying that Paterno had earned our trust to know the right thing to do. It was like he was our grandfather.

The second point had to do with how the story developed. I always gave Paterno the benefit of the doubt and always had a hope that when it came down to it, it would be proven that he did the right thing. Well, the Freeh Report essentially changed all of that inasmuch as his investigation was internally commissioned and turned up unbelievable information. Not only was Paterno aware of what was going on (necessitating a call to the police), but also covered it up for dubious reasons. The coverup was apparently designed to protect images and things and traditions, but not really taking into consideration at all the flip side of those actions. Namely that more children could be harmed. He never openly considered the worst case scenario, and the worst case scenario actually happened…

That the president of the school was involved as well as others in leadership positions kind of lets us know what time it is. It essentially took something away from every parent who wants to send their child to college . Basically, you have to think about things of a sinister nature, or at least ask the question ‘If something goes wrong at the school, who is the leadership, what will they do about it, and what will I do about it as well to protect my child?’ Though I have never sent a child to college, I know that up to now this is a mostly background issue after setting on a particular location, department prestige, tuition and other issues when deciding on secondary education. Essentially a new set of worst case scenarios that frighten us and are very real has entered into the equation.

So, cultural low point. Being the father of 3 small children and playing a large role in the development of 2 others, I have always been fond of the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ This is a necessity today more than ever, of course the ‘village’ is not what it used to be. The thing is every parent has to make some decisions as to who is included in their village and what isn’t. Friends, family, institutions and different experiences are scrutinized so that our children will hopefully be able to say when they are grown that they grew up happy. We assign a credit rating to their surroundings, to everything, and at this point college has had its rating lowered. Our rating as a society and our culture as a whole is almost imperceptibly but substantially devalued because of the crimes of a monster. Where he acted out his crimes and those who enabled him leave us forced to ask yet again:

Who is looking after our children?