15 July 2012

Culture, Compliance, Community (Penn State part six)

Previous posts on Penn State: Cultures of ComplianceThe Teaching of Tribalism, Darkness at Noon (Saturday), The Realities of the Victims (Omelas), and The Silent Stadium. Please see Voices4Victims at Penn State for more information.

"They [the janitors] witnessed what I think in the report is probably the most horrific rape that's described. And what do they do? They panic. The janitor who observed this said it's the worst thing he ever saw. This is a Korean War veteran who said, 'I've never seen anything like that. It makes me sick.' He spoke to the other janitors. They were alarmed and shocked by it. But what did they do? They said, 'We can't report this because we’ll get fired.' They knew who Sandusky was. … They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that's the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top." - former FBI Director Louis Freeh, 12 July 2012

a culture of fear and compliance
Last Wednesday I sat with Hamilton, Michigan schools superintendent Dave Tebo and liistened to him describe his efforts to get secondary school teachers to separate compliance from academic achievement in the grading process. And last Thursday I listened to former Clinton Administration FBI Director Louis Freeh describe the road to ruin which cultures of compliance create. On Friday I heard the Pennsylvania State University administrators respond to the Freeh report by announcing renovations to their football building. On Saturday I heard those same administrators insist that, regarding the campus statue of child rape enabler Joe Paterno, "[We] are hoping more time pass and people will forget about it and then it won't come down," one trustee said. "They don't get to tell us," the source said about members of the public clamoring for its removal. "This is a Penn State community decision."

We should not be surprised that the supposed "leaders" of a supposed "great research university" are betting on everyone in State College, Pennsylvania forgetting the rape of children - they worked so hard at forgetting it for 14 years. Nor should we be surprised if they - at least locally - succeed. "Happy Valley" has proven - again and again - to be the Omelas of Ursula LeGuin's fiction, a place where the comfort and glory of the majority are happily constructed out of the pain and misery of the forgotten few.

That happens not just because the Pennsylvania State University put football above all else (and women's basketball too), but because, clearly, Pennsylvania State University relishes unquestioning compliance in its community. It is the gruesome compliance of fake, forced smiles and pretend agreement which denies inquiry, investigation, and emotional and intellectual discomfort.

The football building must be rebuilt so that week-kneed Nittany Lion football players won't be "creeped out" by the thought of child rape. The Paterno statue must remain because "people would be unhappy" to see it removed. There remains - as Judge Freeh pointed out - not one thought about the victims. The voice of victims - whether whispered from the shower room tiles or shouted in the destruction of a monument to a monster - would force the Penn State community to think, to debate, to recall, perhaps even to disagree. And quite clearly, that is completely unacceptable to the leaders of "Happy Valley."

Which should force all of us to ask: what is education about anyway?

There are, in my mind, two forms of "education" we can choose from, or, as I might say, we can choose between "education" and "training." Now, I am not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with "training" - the teaching of a specific form, a specific skill, through instruction and, usually, repetition - but I would argue that "training" is not something which moves us - as a society, as a community - forward. It simply reproduces what "we" already do.

What I would call "education" is something different. "Education" enables doubt, and doubt enables change, progress, and the future. If we simply "train" - for example, the mathematics educational efforts suggested here (or here) or the "go ask your elders" view which prevented Michael McQueary from acting when he saw a child being raped and prevented Graham Spanier from acting morally at any point - we remain locked in one place. I can recall being "trained" in a sport, but if I watch that sport today, there is not one technique which has not changed dramatically, and that change is the result of "education," of continuous investigation, challenge, learning.
Not, "how do I swim like that guy?" but, "how do I swim faster?"
1976 (above) 2012 (below)
When we "teach compliance" - whether by grading homework completion, or on-time appearances, or by insisting that a leading "educator" cannot be challenged, we are training. When we "educate" we force students to doubt their world, and to imagine all things greater.

This is not always easy in education. Many of the education professors I know speak of the trouble they have getting the future teachers in their classes to dissent, to doubt, to think beyond the linear. Many secondary school teachers, those who try to move away from "training," say the same things about their students. "I tried giving them choices," I've been told, "but the students want me to tell them what do do."

Faced with that, we can choose be "Penn State," and raise a generation which will challenge neither a Sanduskey nor a Paterno, nor a belief, nor formula, or we can choose to be something much better, and raise a generation which will lead us to new places.

Eight months ago I asked:
"What creates such a powerful interest in loyalty and stability that it completely over-rides the commitment to the best interests of children? And understand, I would not ask this question here if I did not think it had implications far beyond the ethically-challenged land grant university of Pennsylvania.

"This was not one of those, "uh, not sure it matters" kind of thing McQueary watched that afternoon in 2002 [turns out it was 2001 according to Freeh]. It wasn't a friend driving five miles an hour over the speed limit, or someone having a few too many drinks, this was - first - one of the "big crimes." In New York City's Police Academy we were told that there were only five crimes for which you could use deadly physical force to "prevent or terminate." The acronym was "Mr.Mrs." - Murder, Robbery, Manslaughter, Rape, (forcible) Sodomy. McQueary observed one of those, and - second - he knew the victim of this crime to be a child.

"What, one wonders, would McQueary have to see which might get him to call 9-1-1?

"Or, the real question, why did Mike McQueary not call police within this "educational environment" when - and I'm guessing here - he would probably have intervened if he had observed the same scene in another place, say, in a park or library rest room?"
In other words, the question becomes, how does the teaching of compliance and unquestioning respect for anything, deconstruct both our humanity and our communities? The Pennsylvania State University stands today as a monument to all that is wrong with the teaching of compliance in education, all that is wrong with traditional forms of institutional loyalty and "team spirit," and all that is wrong with reverence for leadership. All that is wrong with the community cultures of so many of our schools. And so, again, we must ask, how do we consciously, quickly, effectively, undo this.

What the Penn State story shows is that, at the "bottom" (to use Freeh's word), be it the custodial staff or a graduate student, the culture at Penn State was/is a culture of fear and blind compliance. No one, apparently, at that "bottom" felt allowed to trust their own judgments or to act on their own moral beliefs. All were sure that any challenge to the system would have devastating consequences for them. I suspect they were right, as was the reverse. Perhaps for his silence, certainly not because he had challenged Sanduskey or Paterno, Mike McQueary was the only graduate assistant coach of that time rewarded with a full-time job.

And this not only enabled child rape, it disabled thinking.
"Despite being children within easy reach of many supposedly great local figures, they were offered no outstretched hand. They were left to save themselves. This campus is plagued by desperate, insistent shrieks of `We are Penn State.' It's time for Penn State to realize that adhering to this mantra is distancing and self-defeating. It is time to follow a path of humility, not one of hubris." – Matt Bodenschatz, a Penn State student and spokesman for Voices for Victims.
And, I would argue, it is time to stop "training," and start "educating," because if Penn State had valued doubt, questioning, and individual decision-making, Jerry Sanduskey would have been jailed 14 years ago.

It may seem a huge leap to go from insisting on homework completion to Mike McQueary running away from the scene of a crime in progress and handing off moral responsibility to someone he had been told to respect ("You did what you had to do. It is my job now to figure out what we want to do," ... Freeh quotes Paterno as telling McQueary), but it is not a "slippery slope," rather, it is a direct path.

Do not challenge anything! Citizenship grading
Every time we tell a student what to do, we move decision-making from them to ourselves. Every time we decide how a student will learn something, we remove the learning of responsibility from that student. Every time we substitute our judgment ("You cannot skip class") for a student's own micro-economic decisions ("I have better things to do"), we block the learning of the connection between decisions and consequences. Every time we choose stock, pre-cooked rules for community developed moral and ethical expectations, we risk creating the next Mike McQueary, the next Graham Spanier, the next "Penn State."

A quick Google search found this "gem" of a definition of citizenship from a "California Distinguished School," Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, California:
"Citizenship grades are based upon the following criteria, each of which is observable during the grading period. Citizenship grades are also cumulative throughout the semester. Students are expected to be:
Responsible - Bring supplies regularly, submit completed assignments when due, have textbook covered at all times, request work missed during absences, put full name on all assignments, utilize class time wisely, be organized and neat (notebook, backpack, etc.).
Respectful - Behave in a manner conducive to the learning environment, follow all the rules within the class, be polite and courteous to the teacher and classmates, be friendly and helpful.
Reliable - Be on time and attend regularly (especially on testing days), make up work missed during absences, complete all individual and group work.
Honest - Some work is collaborative (group work) but most and especially quizzes / exams are not.  There is no tolerance for cheating, copying others, plagiarizing sources, etc. and severe penalties may result, including receiving an F grade in citizenship."
when your school reopens: don't be Penn State
This may seem like the "rules" in many schools, and it is probably close to the rules in Penn State's football building (We've been told many times this week that new coach Bill O'Brien's rules are "be on time and never lie to me."). It suggests that doubt, questioning, challenging, and making one's own decisions are not part of citizenship. It equates neatness with honesty, compliance with responsibility. It is a recipe for both school and community disaster.

Communities, societies, and nations succeed when people are not compliant, either in politics (think Thomas Jefferson), science (think Albert Einstein), arts (think anyone from Monet to Christo), or ethics (think about those French leaders in the late 1940s who began to forge a shared destiny with Germany). Communities, societies, and nations fail when they adhere to the past out of loyalty (think Czarist Russia, Imperial Germany, or Egypt's Mubarak Regime).

School begins (in the northern hemisphere) in five or six weeks. Will you be "Penn State"? Or will you be something better?

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

Amen. This needs to go viral.

Staff and student

devin jack said...

I suspect they were right, as was the reverse. Perhaps for his silence, certainly not because he had challenged Sanduskey..

compliance signs