This week I've been reading numerous articles about the town I grew up in and the university I attended. The fact that they are essentially one in the same makes the experience all the more powerful and potentially confusing. I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, a town that while some might not want to admit it exists because it's the home of the main campus of Penn State University. As a child abuse scandal unfolds and threatens to take down many top officials in the university and it's football program there has been a lot of ink split, or data entered on the idea of lost innocence. Many times I've read that "The town I knew is gone" or "This isn't my alma mater any more".
I have not felt this loss of innocence. I've not felt like my hometown has been taken away. I'm still a Penn State alumni and my feelings about the university haven't changed. And so I've asked myself, "Why not?"
One thing that comes to mind is that when I think of Penn State I think of the people I knew there, teachers and fellow students and my day to day life. I think of walking to class across the leaf strewn fields of autumn. I remember late nights working on paintings in the studio or those early morning classes in winter when we'd stumble into a large auditorium looking like zombie extras from the latest horror movie. I never looked at the university as a sacred idol, it was a series of experiences good, bad and every point in between.
If the president of the university resigns tomorrow Penn State will still be there. The bells from Old Main will still ring four times an hour and students will still walk through the same hallways as I did back in day. As much as I admire the football talents of Coach Paterno if he leaves there will still be people playing football. The sun will still rise in the east and set over the western edge of Beaver Stadium on a perfect, brisk autumn afternoon.
Perhaps these feelings of losing something essential and un-replaceable is connected to what may have motivated the people involved in the scandal. It seems that many large and profitable entities have grown over time to a point where people will willingly sacrifice the most vulnerable and needy to preserve the institution. Church officials who hide sexual misconduct or re-assign priests, corporations who cover up pollution or other practices that impact the local community or in this case (it appears) university leaders who either ignore or cover up abusive treatment of children. Perhaps people are doing this without even thinking. If something good can come from this I think it would be that the punishment is strong enough to erase any doubt in anyone's mind as to what are the appropriate actions to take when a child is being abused, sexually or any other way. Those, of course, are to notify police immediately. If that message came out clearly then this would be a great lesson learned and after all isn't what places of higher learning are all about?... learning?
From the details that have emerged so far I question the judgement of Coach Paterno but still admire his skill as a football coach. The memory of the many games I watched from the stands or listened to as I helped run the radio broadcasts are still there and still wonderful. It may well be that he needs to leave his position at the university as a result of these incidents, but again the world will continue. My love for my hometown and undergraduate university have not diminished because of what some people have done even though they hold powerful positions within that institution. It's the same as my love of my country which is not diminished by the many horrible actions it's committed over the years. The treatment of Native Americans, imprisoning Asian Americans during the 1940s, anything from slavery right on up through the invasion of Iraq, our history is full of shameful events but I believe it's still possible to love something while you work to make it better. If you've made your country or your church or your college an idol or some kind of sacred ideal then it's almost impossible to acknowledge any human frailty or mistake. Again, this kind of worship seems to bring about the horrible actions we're reading about every day now in this particular scandal. I don't believe that my country or school is absolutely right all the time and so while I will work to make things better I'm not surprised when people turn out to be... well, human.