Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Blank Canvas

As I continue to follow the news from my hometown of State College, PA I'm trying to make sense of it all.  We, as humans, do this every day with any experience.  We take in new data and fit it into what we already know, and from that point our understanding either grows to incorporate the new information of we create some sort of spin on the new data to make it fit what we already know, or more accurately, what we already believe.  A wise bumper sticker reminds us "Don't believe everything you think" and that's worth remembering these days especially.  I've read editorials this past week that assert without any doubt that the child abuse scandal may be laid at the doorstep of huge money making sports programs at our universities.  The next article I read, from the sports page of course, stated that large money making sports programs were not the problem, far from it! but the problem lay with one coach becoming so famous and powerful that he lost his sense of reality.
I wonder if we use a story like this to express the beliefs we already have.  Could it be that the story itself is a blank canvas that we project our fears and beliefs onto?  Perhaps a paint by number canvas is more accurate, the story has set up some of the outlines before hand, and we fill in the colors.  I can't help but notice that the stories I've read this week, that sports are out of control at large universities, that an aging legendary coach is suffering under the weight of a gigantic ego, that people living in a "cow town" (thank you for that description of my hometown Maureen Dowd) are too ignorant to know what's right, are the same stories I've heard before.  The only difference is now there's a powerful story with a moral component that can be used to express those same ideas.  I've noticed that "but we need to remember the victims" has become the way to end every news story on the scandal.  Why is that? Why isn't the focus on the victims there from the start?  I wouldn't say that those editorial writers and TV talking heads don't care about the victims, and I do believe people are genuinely interested in making sure this doesn't happen again, but I will pose the question "What steps do we need to take, and can we look for those steps with anything less than a completely open mind?"
Penn State University has taken several steps to address the scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.  Most of the principal players in the story have either been fired or placed on leave.  As much as PSU is a place of higher learning, it is also a multi-million dollar business.  Of course there are plenty of costs involved with being a place of higher learning so the mere fact that money is a factor shouldn't surprise anyone.  There is, however, a large gray area where the need to raise money to pay for  buildings, professors and other operating expenses and the branding and marketing of a product.  I make these points because I believe that the steps taken thus far are primarily about the business side of the university.  Protecting the bottom line or the product is paramount and the people who have been fired or placed on leave were considered detrimental to that product.  The steps taken so far are not, however are not going to solve the issues that aided and abetted the abuse that occurred.  Looking around our society, it seems that this kind of abuse is sadly not uncommon.  The Catholic Church has been struggling to find some direction forward with this, and the political arena is full of issues of harassment and abuse so there's no shortage of lessons to study.  If there's any one thing we could take from the lessons laid out already I would think it's that hiding or covering up never works.  It does seem to be a driving motivator in any of these scandals, that to have allowed justice to prevail would have compromised the institution.  I believe that this is a larger issue than can be solved by firing a few people no matter how iconic they might be.  I believe that this is a time for thoughtful people to think, and to share and engage in conversation.  I think it's fair to say that accepting"conventional wisdom" is part of the problem that has brought us here.  What kind of solutions could we come up with if no ideas were out of bounds?  What kind of world might we create if stretched the definition of what's possible.

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