Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lessons from Wossamotta U.

In one of my favorite Bullwinkle episodes — mind you, this goes back nearly half a century, which reminds us that there is nothing new whatever in the absurdities of college football — the trustees of Wossamotta U. are told the college has only enough money to keep the football team or the professors. "Which should we get rid of, gentlemen?" the president asks. "The professors!" yell the trustees, in chorus.

(Bullwinkle, who has an incredible forward pass, is brought in on a football scholarship; his coursework consists of reading "Dick and Jane at the Seashore.")

The trustee of Penn State, summoning a bit of moral fiber heretofore absent in the college's handling of an eyewitness report that one of its top coaches had been caught buggering a 10-year-old boy in the athletic facility showers nine years ago, did the unheard of when it comes to college sports, and applied the same norms of morality and accountability that apply to everyone else in the known universe.

It was, as I noted the other day, a moral conclusion that a hamster, if not an amoeba, would have had little trouble reaching: that "legendary" head coach Joe Patrno had grossly failed in his duty by not personally notifying the police or even inquiring once about what action had been taken in the matter; and that the president had shown an equal moral midgetry in promptly declaring his "unconditional support" for two other senior administrators who had, on the prima facie evidence released in a grand jury indictment a few days ago, violated the law by not notifying police within 48 hours as required in cases of suspected child abuse.

The accused coach is now charged with sexual abuse of at least seven other boys. His only punishment from the university at the time was that he was no longer allowed to bring little boys onto university property to be buggered: he had to do his child molestation elsewhere, which he apparently did, including on out of town trips to football games.

Such a deep moral calculation on the part of the trustees was still too much for the Penn State students, who last night rioted in the thousands when they heard that legendary head coach Joe Paterno had been fired by the trustees, along with President "Unconditional Support" Spanier. Having fully absorbed the key moral lesson so stirringly offered our country for years by our upstanding Republican leaders (Herman Cain most recently), the students promptly blamed the media for the fact that they were smashing cars, throwing bottles, rocks, and flares at police, and overturning a TV news station van. “Make no mistake," offered one student in another variation on this theme of personal responsibility, "the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”

I recall recently reading the results of a survey on moral understanding on the part of college students. Asked to provide an example of a moral dilemma they had personally faced and how they resolved it, none could even properly frame an example (one student, in a typical response, cited her uncertainty about whether she would be able to afford the rent on an apartment she was thinking of taking as an example of a moral conundrum).

So here's a thought for the future of university eduction: how about firing a few assistant football coaches and using the proceeds on a mandatory class for all freshmen on moral philosophy, starting with the idea that just because you yourself want something or personally benefit from something, that does not make it right. This is what developmental psychologists refer to as "Stage 1" moral development, which in the normal course of events appears at around age 5.

All of this, of course, is a reminder that college football, with its multi-million-dollar coaches' salaries, TV contracts, and semi-professional "student" athletes not only has nothing to do with the mission of a university but has eaten many universities alive. The idea that somebody who excels at teaching large guys to run, throw an inflatable bladder, and knock other large guys down has anything to impart to the world at large in terms of learning, moral values, wisdom, or role models is one of the stranger bits of fantasizing justification for universities selling their souls to the entertainment business.


What I enjoyed so much about Rick Perry's 53 seconds of silence during the debate last night was not that he had forgotten his own list of The Three Most Evil Federal Bureaucracies he would abolish but that he could not even manage to finesse the point and instead kept struggling to come up with No. 3 as the clock ticked, the spotlights glared, and the beads of sweat formed on the Not So Great Communicator's forehead. Afterwards, Perry tried to joke to reporters that "I may have forgotten about the Energy Department but haven't forgotten my conservative values." Alas for posterity, no one asked him how many conservative values there are, or if he could name them.