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14TH November 2011

Race to the Bottom - Sport - Timely - Uncategorized

JoPa told to hit showers, will take higher education bubble with him.


Hopes. Dashed.

Ugh.

I grew up in the shadow of PSU, the veritable Emerald City for athletes like me. For my  generation it was hope incarnate; now it’s blown to bits.

Let’s face it, most of us in Western PA were headed for the coal mines or the steel mills, and distinguishing oneself on the gridiron was one way out, longshot but true. (See an early Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves for a taste of what I’m talking about). Every kid on my team knew that Beaver Country, PA produced an incredible number of NFL QB’s, (Namath, Unitas, Marino, Kelly, Hanratty, Blanda, Gannon top the list) and perhaps one of us would have the chance to join them.

I love the quote “Man never forgets where he ran as a boy”. No doubt, this is one reason why.

If we could just get a break we often thought to ourselves, and get noticed at one of the big programs… Hope can be so powerful, but so misleading at times. It was that hope that lured and betrayed young men at Happy Valley. And it was the almost deific influence of one man who allowed people to replace doing what’s right with doing what must be done. Penn State will never be the same, but that’s probably good in the long run.

Greg Matusky covers it perfectly in a larger piece in his Gregarious blog: (his words)

Penn State, like many colleges and universities, has become the ultimate bubble. Where football trumps education. Where binge drinking is celebrated and institutionalized. Where on any given fall Saturday, 100,000 people engage in a false culture of alcohol-fueled friends and good times. It’s where the 84-year-old head coach, who isn’t really coaching, has that fact covered up by assistants. Where students are encouraged to mortgage their futures by taking on mountains of debt. Where too many families part with their lives’ savings to fund educations that employers don’t want, while jobs in engineering and the sciences go begging.

It’s where tuition dollars fund climbing walls. Where free laundry service has more promotional value than a new physics lab. And it’s where  uality is set by a ranking in U.S. News & World Report. In this alternate reality, is it any wonder that a coach, an athletic director, a college president could overlook child abuse to protect one of their own? Two years ago, Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” ran a horrifying piece about Penn State and its love of alcohol and abhorrent behavior. When I told my Penn State friends about it, they denied all of it. When now-disgraced former Penn State President Graham Spanier came to power, it was as a reformer. But he soon caved to alumni and  hometown pressure to keep the wine flowing. The party going. In the “This American Life” segment, Spanier almost sounds proud that PSU was named the top party school in America.

Need further proof of just how far colleges have distorted our perceptions? Google “the best college in America.” You get thousands of hits by schools identifying themselves as the best. Google “the worst schools in America,” and you find few lists or reporting. Clearly marketers have swamped objective reporting and commenting when it comes to reviewing colleges and universities. In their world, they are all the best.

But long before Greg’s piece was Peter Thiel who has railed against the Higher Education Bubble for some time now, for reasons outside of sport. But if you tie together his arguments with Greg’s, it becomes more clear.

 …for Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels. Thiel talks about consumption masquerading as investment during the housing bubble, as people would take out speculative interest-only loans to get a bigger house with a pool and tell themselves they were being frugal and saving for retirement. Similarly, the idea that attending Harvard is all about learning? Yeah. No one pays a quarter of a million dollars just to read Chaucer. The implicit promise is that you work hard to get there, and then you are set for life.  It can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt,” Thiel says.

This bubble was fueled by sport and its spectacle. More specifically, football.

Joe Paterno was the golden goose (some estimate he raised $1,000,000,000 of revenue for PSU in his time there). He spent 60 years doing what was right. He brought dollars to campus, hope to aspiring athletes and their hope-fully promoted coaches, and unfortunately, through an assistant coach to whom he was too loyal, brought young boys into the care of moral monsters. That the whole PSU system was unable to summon the courage to do what must be done- instead of simply what was simply right- is a tragedy.

It may well change higher education forever. It saddens me that so much had to be abused, from young men to good names to hope itself- before real action is taken. I mourn the victims.

Søren Kierkegaard said: Life can only be understood looking backward, but it must be lived going forward.

 

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