Teaching Joe Pa

By Martin D. Snyder

Humanists are always engaged in demonstrating the relevance of their subject matter. That’s what makes humanists who they are. The impetus to make connections, however, is more strongly felt these days both because so many of our students are divorced from their cultural heritage and because our current crop of administrative and governmental bean counters are so eager to hack away at any program that cannot demonstrate entrepreneurial potential or marketable job skills. So it behooves us purveyors of literature, art, music, and a host of other languishing disciplines to seize what opportunities we can to apply what we know and love to current events. Papa Joe was a gift from the gods.

When the pedophilia scandal involving a Pennsylvania State University football coach broke last fall, the media were all over the story. Thomas Boswell, a reporter for the Washington Post, like most of his fellow journalists focused not on the perpetrator but on the head football coach, Joe Paterno. Besides reporting the details of the case, Boswell tried to frame the story in a way that made the seemingly impossible comprehensible. Without acknowledging Aristotle, Boswell cast Paterno as a tragic hero.

“Everybody has weak spots in their character,” Boswell wrote,

fault lines in their personality where the right earthquake at the wrong time can lead to personal catastrophe. Most of us are fortunate that our worst experience doesn’t hit us with its biggest jolt in exactly the area where our flaws or poor judgment or vanity is most dangerously in play. It’s part good luck if we don’t disgrace ourselves.

But when it does happen, as appears to be the case with Joe Paterno, that’s when we witness personal disasters that seem so painful and, in the context of a well-lived life, so unfair that we feel deep sadness even as we simultaneously recognize that the person at the center of the storm can never avoid full accountability.

Paterno himself described the events that precipitated the scandal as a tragedy.

At the conclusion of his article, Boswell echoes the voice of Sophocles:

Forces collide, conspire, confuse and an icon of integrity fails to act, fails to see, but in his case, the stakes were far higher than wins. The lives of children, already at risk, were in the balance.

Something shameful, if everything falls just wrong, could happen to any of us. How do we know? Because it even happened to Joe Paterno.

Now it is perfectly possible to disagree with Boswell’s interpretation of events. History and the criminal justice system will decide the degree of culpability of those implicated in the scandal at Penn State. Nevertheless, Boswell’s article was a revelation to my students, who were engaged at the time in a multiweek examination of Greek tragedy. Agamemnon, Ajax, and Oedipus suddenly came alive on the pages of the daily newspaper. The students understood what the reporter was doing. They got it. And much more.

After an animated discussion of the relevance of Aristotle’s analysis of the tragic hero to the Paterno story, one usually taciturn student asked: “Why are we talking about Paterno? He’s not the perp.” A host of volunteers explained that Joe Pa had been head football coach for forty-six years, that he was a legend in collegiate sports, that he was the most important person on the Penn State campus.

Musing for a moment, the student replied: “Oh, I see. It’s all about football. I thought Penn State was in the business of educating students and doing research. I guess I was wrong.”

The pregnant silence that ensued drove home the implications of the student’s comments more eloquently than anything that I was likely to say. How have we come to a point where the seamy proclivities of an assistant football coach and the inadequate response of his superior brought scandal and disgrace upon a great university? How have our priorities and values become so skewed? How have we become so blinded by publicity and money that we have lost sight of the true mission of our great educational institutions? There indeed was a tragedy at Penn State, but it was much bigger than Joe Pa.

Martin D. Snyder senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.

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