Teaching students has its challenges.  But this?

The night before Thursday’s class JoePa, arguably the most influential person in Penn State’s history, got sacked after 62 years on Penn State’s football coaching staff. Students rioted. Graham Spanier, the University President, who had been in our class just a few weeks earlier, was also sacked. By Thursday, Penn State was front page news globally. Everyone on campus was confused and angry. TV and satellite trucks were everywhere.
I spent most of Thursday morning wondering what to teach that afternoon. I decided I could not teach the regular stuff I had planned. Science seemed oddly irrelevant, for once.  
So I decided we had to discuss the situation, at least for 15 minutes. I polled the students that did turn up (easily the worst turnout yet) on whether sacking the President was fair. They thought it was, 34 to 5.  Some of the students wanted to talk about the football coach sacking. I didn’t. They love him and, like the President, he has done so much for Penn State. But the problem started in football, and it was allowed to persist there. How could the guy at the top of football stay?  It happened on the President’s watch; it happened on JoePa’s watch.
So I asked the students about Sandusky.  
He’s the guy accused of the child molestation which started all this. The grand jury indictment makes him sound like a monster. First off, I asked the students to imagine the consequences if he is innocent. Gasps. Yeah I can’t imagine it either. All this turmoil for nothing? No, lets assume he did do what they say.
In which case, why did he do it?  He knowingly wrecked the lives of those kids and their families. He trashed his wife’s life, the life of his adopted kids, and his own outstanding reputation. And he trashed the Penn State ethos, JoePa, Graham Spanier, and a lot of otherwise very good people.
So why did he do it? He must have had extraordinarily strong urges to have sex with young boys. Where do those urges come from? We never ask this as a society. We throw around meaningless labels instead. Evil. Deviant. Sick. Animal. Pervert. Monster.
Of course, the students and I had nothing concrete to offer by way of explanation either.  It reminds me of medicine in the 15th century. Discourse based on ignorance. I think it’s pathetic. To understand is not to exonerate. It’s the first step in trying to properly prevent child molestation. Slapping labels on it does nothing. It’s moronic anti-intellectualism at its worst. I predicted to the students that in 50 years we will have a proper understanding. But only if society unleashes scientists to work on this one.
One student texted the Comment Wall to say it was inappropriate of me to turn a tragedy like this into a teaching moment
Nah.  That’s the whole point.  Science is not irrelevant.

3 thoughts on “Scandal

  1. Clive Copeman

    First, it’s clear what Sandusky did was wrong. But I agree it deserves closer study. There may be psychopaths who are capable of evil without reflection but I just can’t imagine that this guy didn’t have an incredible inner conflict. So why and how did the dark desires win out? Can this possibly relate to our everyday conflicts like the choice to turn down a piece of cake or cold beer ?(I happen to think yes). Those who think this is not worth study – with a view to treating people and preventing further tragedy – are as bad as those who knowingly ignore the crime.


    The email we received from President Erickson raised even more questions when he stated that “I will reinforce to the entire Penn State community the moral imperative of doing the right thing—the first time, every time.” My usage of bold because it is, fundamentally, what I believe is another complete oversight in this fiasco.

    How many students, or even the general public, know what the moral imperative is or who Immanuel Kant was? What about the moral dilemmas associated with such a philosophy?

    I think of one of those classic dilemmas where your friend knocks on the door and tells you that someone is trying to kill him. You let the friend in and soon after a knock is heard on the door. It’s the person after your friend and asks whether he’s inside the house or not. You either lie and save your friend or tell the truth and see them killed.

    Of course, not telling the truth to save a friend is the common response. But then what if the killer is after the friend because he molested and raped young children?

    Does the university intend to mandate moral discussion and require all students to take a philosophy class? What about the ill effects of Group Think and Agreement Reality? Or as you said, attempting to understand the role of biology in it all.

    Perhaps I can ask some of these questions Tuesday.

  3. Andrew Read

    Absolutely a good question for Tuesday.

    [for those not in SC200, the Dean of the Eberly College of Science, Daniel Larson, is going to speak with the class Tuesday about what has happened and how we go forward. Dean Larson was originally scheduled to talk to the class about the Universe; we decided the universe is less important at the moment.]


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