Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Penn State alumnus speaks

When I got out of the army in 1967, I began matriculating at The Pennsylvania State University that fall. I was delighted. My family's males had attended Princeton for generations, and I knew that my father was disappointed that I would not even apply. Having grown-up in Princeton, the town, I was intimately familiar with the halls of ivy, had haunted the campus as a 'townie' as a kid on my bicycle, been to countless Tiger football games and lived in a house where orange and black were even the color scheme for a bathroom. (Seems like a recipe for hemorrhoids, in retrospect.)

So, when it came time to apply to schools I already knew that Princeton and its endemic elitism was not on the list. As it turned out, I applied only to one college and was accepted. When I arrived at the Schuylkill Haven branch campus, I was not at all overwhelmed by either the size of it or the demands of it in a social sense. In fact, it felt like a good fit; I felt as if I had come home and knew it was where I belonged. After three quarters, I transferred to the main campus in State College, and that was an easy transition too. I relished having a course catalog the size of a small city's phone book. And, after three years in the infantry, I was dedicated to the idea of taking courses I wanted to take because I was excited about them, instead of taking them because it would lead to a career field. I studied art, in one medium or another, for my entire undergraduate time. I ended-up majoring in philosophy...not because I was fascinated by the incoherent blather of dead Germans trying to explain life by looking at it through the ponderous power of their intellects, but because I met a professor who understood that I was in search of meaning in my own life. And, this, he well knew, would not come from traditional studies, but through widely varied investigations of people like Eric Fromm--a former stevedore turned philosopher--who were devoted to the idea that philosophy needed to be, above all else, RELEVANT.

Under the kind tutelage of Dr. Ernst Hans Freund--a professor emeritus on the verge of retirement, who had as a young man escaped Nazi Germany and the death camps, where he would have ended-up due to being a Quaker--I read whatever Dr. Freund suggested as a likely place to find answers, and I met with him in his office once a week and supported what I had written in response to the most recent readings. It was a higher education in the true sense of searching for meaning and had a depth that just sopping up intellectual arguments and regurgitating salient aspects of them on exams could never touch. All the years since those days of wonder and introspection I have remained deeply grateful to Dr. Freund...and to Penn State for having the wisdom to give this jewel of a man a place from which to shine.

So, when I read the headlines and subsequent press about the scandal that has now devastated the university I felt sad on a very personal level....sad that something precious has been sullied, sad that there are victims of despicable predations, sad that what once seemed like a bastion of learning, both moral and academic, has now been damaged so severely that it will likely take at least a generation to repair it...if that is even possible.

As an undergrad I photographed Penn State football from the sidelines. I watched Joe Paterno in action. It was 1968 and he was yet to become the iconic JoPa, but it was apparent that he was a skilled and caring coach. I felt great pride that his players would receive an education rather than be scooted through a 'phys ed' program that would leave them still semi-literate as has been so often the case at other ultra-competitive universities. Football is important at Penn State, but Joe Paterno never let it become so blown out of perspective that his players were merely being used....often used up.

Apparently, somewhere along the path between then and now, however, something changed. Footbball became God at PSU, and the welfare of a ten year-old child would be considered as less important than a 'reputation' to protect. How this happened and what the mechanisms were that encouraged this descent into turpitude will be much studied and dissected in the next few years. The university is already sending out e-mail to alums saying, essentially, don't worry, we'll bounce back.

But, I will never again look up at the diploma hanging on the wall a few feet from where I am writing this and have quite the same feeling of pride that I did until just a few days ago. Honor is dying in this country. It has a few bastions where it is holding on for dear life...but, it's critically endangered all the same. And, another one of those bastions of Honor just crashed and burned.

You can put the crystal goblet back together...but, it will always have cracks.

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