Off Topic: On Penn State, Whitman, and the Difficulty of the Word “And”

This has nothing to do with publishing, but with the morning’s news my alma mater is yet again back on the front page. I’ve been asked a handful of times for my take on things and thought I’d might as well put my ignorance into print. Everyone else seems to be.

Overall, I guess my take is: we are all wrong. And it’s impossible for any of us to be right in this situation.

Today, the NCAA handed down a fairly crippling penalty on the college, followed in short order by the Big Ten announcing its own sanctions. The details are on line if you’re interested. It’s hard to be both draconian and toothless at the same time and yet that’s what they’ve managed. The problem of course is that, given the nature of the crimes (and I can only pray you somehow haven’t heard the nature of the crimes, because they’re appalling), there is no punishment severe enough. Leaders in the university, including Joe Paterno, failed at such a staggering level that it boggles the mind, and so to the put the price of $60 million or to symbolically erase wins…that “penalty” is window dressing. There’s no justice for anyone there and in the face of such failure, how can you not simply tear the whole thing apart, brick-by-brick?

But Penn State is more than ten or fifteen men who turned coward when it mattered most. There are over 60,000 people whose lives are tied to the university who had nothing to do with this. (You may say, “They are part of the system” but if that’s true, we are ALL part of the system. Do you have cable? If you a pay a dime for television or watched a bowl game–and advertisement–around New Year, you’re part of a system that built college football into a business.)  And so for them, the “justice” falls on the wrong heads. Paterno is dead. Sandusky is going to (hopefully) die in jail. The college president resigned and won’t be finding work soon. Trustees of the university are resigning. Any punishment was sure to find the wrong people.

Most coverage of the event (like most coverage of everything these days) seems deeply one-sided.

Penn State is either a place where 60,000 people come together in the name of learning, a place whose academic accomplishments are being overshadowed by our obsession with a game. Or it’s a model for everything that’s wrong in major colleges right now, a place that sold its soul to Nike and Gatorade and the BCS and who allowed a game to become so important that its failure literally threatens the entire university.

Paterno is either a great man–a molder of men and generous philanthropist–who made a mistake but is now being scapegoated. Or he’s a doddering figurehead obsessed with control and appearances who turned a blind eye rather than risk his legacy.

The unacceptable answer of course is that all these things are correct simultaneously. Paterno did great things AND terrible things. Penn State is a wonderful place of higher education AND tied to a corrupt system which funded much of the infrastructure underpinning that learning.

Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself tries to explore a place where there is a space for AND

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In general, though, we’re not comfortable with paradox or AND. We topple one way or another in our thoughts and judgments. Our beloved lion is crying either because we’re sad for the pain “we” caused in innocent lives or because the sadness we feel as everyone targets us.

Meanwhile, our lives continue to contain multitudes. And we just don’t want to admit it.

2 responses to “Off Topic: On Penn State, Whitman, and the Difficulty of the Word “And”

  1. Always good to hear thoughts from a fellow alumni. Living close to all the turmoil, I can see it’s not going to quiet down anytime soon. I feel we’ve forgotten the victims in our hurry to punish those responsible.

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