11 November 2011

Darkness at Noon [Saturday]

Imagine being so afraid of a boss that you will not report the rape of a child? Not because you fear losing your job and your children going hungry, but just because your entire family is terrified of a dictatorial regime.

Imagine being so afraid of a boss that you will remain silent about horrific child sexual abuse for a decade, all while partying with the abuser.

Joe Paterno was a great humanitarian, we are told. He did so much good. Or/and, he is a scapegoat, "I do think Paterno was a scapegoat. Of course he was. I’ve already said that he had to be let go. But to let him dangle out there, take up all the headlines, face the bulk of the media pressure, absolutely, that’s the very definition of scapegoat," says a completely clueless Sports Illustrated writer named Joe Posnanski. "Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors."

Perhaps if Penn State folks knew history,  they'd know that this "whole life" needs to be evaluated with a real set of measuring tools. Josef Stalin industrialised the Soviet Union, pushed what took England 200 years into 30. Created a health care system. Defeated the Nazis.

Accomplishment does not equal a great leader. Iconic doesn't mean good. And folks, a man who places a football team, or even a friendship, above the safety of children - does that for at least a decade - is not "decent."

How scared must both Mike McQueary and McQueary's father have been of
Joe Paterno for them to behave as they did?
The Grand Jury Report is a horrific tale, but only a part of that horror is Sandusky's child abuse. What is perhaps equally awful is the culture of fear and intimidation - fear, intimidation, and brainwashing- which Paterno constructed at Pennsylvania State University.

beware all who are celebrated in bronze before death
Because, simply put, if Paterno had not ruled by fear, Sandusky would have been jailed or hospitalized in 1998, or surely in 2002. Joe Paterno's leadership is directly responsible for every act of abuse which took place after that night in March 2002 when an underling was so scared of his superiors that he failed to act as a human.

At each step, people didn't do the right thing because, hmmm, let's try this out... they so respected Joe Paterno that they thought they'd be fired for calling the police on a child rapist? Or, because they were afraid they'd be fired for calling the police on a child rapist and perhaps disrupting a university's football team?

Sara Ganim, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter who seems one of the few people in "Happy Valley" to have any guts, takes us through the disinformation process in PaternoLand:
"According to the grand jury, then, here is how McQueary’s eyewitness account became watered down at each stage:
McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.

"1995. 1998. 2000. 2002. 2008.

"These dates spanning 13 years share two common threads that run through the entire grand jury presentment. At each stage, boys voiced concern or pain or alarm at the conduct of Jerry Sandusky — or adults witnessed behavior they found troubling or alarming.
"And at each stage, other adults dismissed, minimized or failed to act upon those concerns."
And they "dismissed, minimized or failed to act" because they lived in fear of troubling their "great humanitarian" leader. Everyone, from janitors to the University's President - everyone, including McQueary's father (terrifyingly, a youth coach himself), was working overtime to make sure they did not trouble their iconic leader.

If they troubled him...? well, they were obviously doing this for a reason. What, exactly, was "Joe Pa's" leadership like that led everyone, at every level, to be so scared?

Wednesday night in "Beaver Canyon"
Paterno rewarded the silence. The university rewarded the silence. Of the 2002 graduate assistant coaches at PSU, one got a full time job the next year. "Sometime in 2002, Penn State football graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary walked into his team’s locker room and allegedly saw his team’s former defensive coordinator sexually assaulting a young boy. McQueary left, called his dad, told his boss, and went back to work. McQueary has been promoted ever since," says Indiana reporter Mac Engel who contrasts this case with that of Abar Rouse, the assistant coach who blew the whistle in 2003 on the crimes of Baylor University basketball coach Dave Bliss.

It may be telling that, despite apparent administration desires, neither Paterno nor McQueary could be fired in the decade since that night in the locker room.

But all this is only one part of the issue for Penn State and many other universities and schools. You can see on the faces of Penn State students and alumni, you can read it in their words, that an article of faith has been shattered for them. The Penn State University community was trained, was taught, to believe unquestioningly in Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions football team.

Penn State basketball coach Rene Portland abused players
on sexual terms for decades, and it was no problem for
Paterno or the university.
This faith was so pure, so true, so embraced by seemingly all of this academic community, that even obvious problems were ignored. How, for example, could "St. Joe" - the most powerful man in the university's athletic department (everyone above him had once played for him) - have allowed the scandal that was Penn State's Women's Basketball Team to go on? As Michele Voepel writes at espn.com, "It took a quarter-century of people not speaking out, or looking the other way, or rationalizing that led to Portland having complete belief in her dictatorial power." Sound familiar?

Yesterday I wrote about tribalism and loyalty. Today, perhaps the bigger issue for any educational institution, the encouragement of doubt over faith. We cannot really be in the field of education if our academic communities teach unquestioning belief. Yes, I admire Tom Izzo at Michigan State, but that admiration doesn't go so far as to not doubt his judgement when he shows up on the Spartan Stadium sideline posing with "The Situation." That mistake is hardly a "deal-breaker" of course, but it should, and it did, raise questions in East Lansing about how field passes were being distributed for football games. When you are the very public face of an institution of higher learning, every message you send matters.
Tom Izzo making a bad photo choice, September 2011,
he took a lot of heat for this, as he should have.

And, everyone at a university deserves to be doubted. Everyone in education needs to be doubted. And not just in terms of their research and their "academics."

When a professor I had deep respect for demonstrated atrocious manners, sensibilities, and even inquiry skills, it made me wonder how open his research inquiry had been. Is that fair? Yes, it is. We are the whole of our parts. Can our academic openness truly rise above personal close-mindedness? We need to ask.

Similarly, when I watch professors with great research records discriminating against grad students because of gender or race, I need to ask deep questions about their research. Just as I may quote Heidegger, but only after very deep investigation, because I have to see, after a lot of reading, if I can separate truth from the other insanities of a pro-Nazi philosopher.

This is all part of an atmosphere of doubt and questioning which must permeate any community devoted to learning. Our students should wonder "why?" about everything. "Why do we have separate classes for maths and history?" "Why do we break up the day into periods?" Even, yes, "why should I listen to you?"

"Why are so much of our universities resources tied up in American football?" might be one question? "Why is the highest paid person on almost every D1 American campus an athletic coach?" could be another. These are the easy questions, and if these cannot be asked, no academic questions will really be asked either. Students, guaranteed, will be passive receivers of information rather than scholars.

Now, I know people at Penn State. I know brilliant people at Penn State. I have many reasons to see Penn State as a great university (even if people from State College can think that East Lansing is a "big time place"). And I suspect that they know what I'm saying here: that worship of, absolute faith in, anything or anyone has no place at a great university. That the kind of faith and belief Penn State encouraged in Joe Paterno is toxic to the learning environment.

So, the Pennsylvania State University has much to rebuild. It has let atmospheres of fear and faith to control their academic community. And rebuilding must go beyond firing the entire football staff and leadership of the athletic department, it must go beyond firing the President. This was a poisonous atmosphere, and those who were complicit in that - and we all know there were many - must be replaced by people with a different view. If it were me, I'd shop for a new administration from schools without major athletic programs, but... that's really not a requirement.

Beyond that, of course, we all need to look at our schools. Where has faith, belief, automaticity, replaced doubt, questioning, and conscious thought? And how can we undo that?

Questioning is the heart of learning, it belongs everywhere in your school.

- Ira Socol

Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noonis a classic novel about atmospheres of fear.

Myth v. Reality:
This, from a reporter:
   "One of my beats (for the Centre Daily Times) was the courts and one day at the county courthouse I got a tip of an interesting lawsuit – Joe Paterno was suing Our Lady of Victory Church. The case was simple – Paterno’s son David, then 11, fractured his skull after he fell off a trampoline at the church and Paterno alleged negligence (David recovered fully and a settlement was reached).
   "I was told by my editors that I had to get a comment from Paterno, which made me nervous since I had never talked to the legend. I dialed his number and got him at home. I introduced myself and explained that I needed a comment on the lawsuit. I got a comment all right, but not what I expected.
   "Paterno launched into a stream of expletives, pretty nasty stuff, telling me how dare I ask him about a personal matter and he would talk about football but not his family. I tried to explain that he filed a public lawsuit in court and it was my job to get a comment. The berating started again and I so wished I had recorded it since I was stunned by his vehemence and use of language, so at odds with his public image (such a recording would have gone viral in today’s Internet era).
   "I got off the phone shaken and told my editors. When I asked what I should write, the response was, “Mr. Paterno has no comment.” When I shared my story around the newsroom, I was told it was not that much of a surprise. Paterno could be a dick, as I saw firsthand. One reporter told me that a group of middle school kids getting awards on campus were kicked out of their space early when Paterno decided he needed it for football purposes that day; that story was never written, since Paterno was the most powerful man on campus and lauded nationally and our paper was not about to rock the boat."


David said...


Kudos and this is the reason I read your words and blog with much interest. You tell it as you see it. You reveal the truth and in the vein of Voltaire, "ecrasez l'infame". Thank you.

There is a certain streak of blind devotion that runs through American society (and us all). We need more to call this out and say the emperor's wear no clothes. This issue is much of the military rhetoric that reeks through so much in America.

I hope I get to meet you in person sometime and thank you for your devotion to an often unrecognized role - the fifth estate.


Tyler Davis said...

My name is Tyler Davis and I am in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to comment on your post and you can also follow me at davistyleredm310@blogspot.com. The first thing that I wanted to say is that I was required to look at your blog and comment, but for now on I will be reading your blog because I really enjoyed reading it. I wanted to say that I was really interested in what you had to say on the subject matter.
One thing you mentioned is that teachers need to be doubted, and that really stuck out with me. The reason is that how can students respect educators if they aren't qualified? To me, the only way to get the respect is to be the best teacher you can be and to know the subject matter you are teaching.
Another thing was what you said about Joe Paterno. I never knew all that information you shared, and it definitely makes me have a different outlook on the people I look up to! So, with that being said, I wanted to thank you for your post and insight. I look forward to reading more of your post.

irasocol said...


Welcome to the conversation. We're in a complex time, but I think the best thing about escaping the Gutenberg-Era of fixed-print is that we construct and analyze information differently, with better critical capabilities. In the Gutenberg/Reformation Era knowledge was certified by degree ("PhD") or by publisher ("Harvard University Press"), but those rules are gone. We know that "Harvard" no longer mean infallible, and we build our belief in people's expertise by seeing if what they fits into the world logically - with, hopefully, "bullshit detectors" set on maximum.

So we need our students to doubt us, and our schools. Because one thing has not changed. If we claim to "know everything" our students will know, without a doubt, that we are liars, and that's a bad way to start a classroom relationship, or, in this case, a university/student relationship.


Thanks, I do hope we can meet up soon.

- Ira Socol