Paterno story brings up issues in US public schools

thank you, Luis Valdes for mage

It sounds like a parody, but it’s true: in the wake of the Penn State pedophile investigation, the Joe Paterno Child Care center will be re-named by Nike, who know how to back winners and swoosh away from losers.

To some, it’s an archetypal American morality play with resonance for our current conversation about American public education. The story that is emerging of Joe Paterno’s fall can be read as a repeat of the age-old Faustian bargain: in order to protect his marvelously winning program, this “greatest” of all coaches (as measured by wins) choses (tragically?) to back a pedeophile.  One supposes that teachers and administrators in Atlanta schools made similar compromises with NCLB America.

It is not mainly through creative coaching that his Nittany Lions spent all those decades in the top ten. Joe’s game plans were about as daring as the team uniform. What set Joe apart according to Luis Valdes (a connoisseur of “peak performances”), was a single-minded focus winning (“failure is not an option” to such a performer). Concentrated solely on completing his mission, the peak performer is ready to “pay the price” of “pain, suffering, and hard work.” His “[f]earlessness” helps him toward “effective managing of emotions,” since allowing too much feeling would be inefficient in achieving the “clear, unwavering goal” of “striving for perfection” and “high levels of performance” with a “consistent focus on the end result.”

In other words, you, like JoePacan be a “peak performer” if you repress your natural feelings when they interfere with “winning.”  Repress your natural repugnance when it protects the success of the program. “Dedicated” winners like JoePa will find that when they champion the success of the team, the group will reward and protect them.

According to this article in the Boston Herald, the entire town (or “Happy Valley” as it is known) was eager to look the other way, since everyone benefitted from the continued success of JoePa’s work and no one wanted to damage the Penn State “brand.” The report faults “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community [emphasis added]” for keeping the pedaphilia under cover as long as it was. Things were happy in Happy Valley.

Before the fall, a dedicated winner. (image from

It may baffle readers in other civilized countries, but in the United States, our unofficial national sport is football. Every fall weekend through mid-winter, from coast to coast, ritualistic battles take place between coordinated teams of US males in semi-protective gear and numbered uniforms. They struggle on a field about the size of a soccer pitch to make points and deny the other team points. The field, on which teams perform as coordinated platoons, is demarcated in grid lines for easy measuring. It is a linear game based on sequential reasoning. When the game works right, the individual player’s effort is seamlessly integrated into the group’s–one side’s young men function together as a better “machine,” or integrated unit, than the other’s, and a righteous victory is the result. Getting your platoon of young men to act as a highly effective machine is not quick–special training and coaches are necessary, which is where we get men like JoePa.

After the fall, taken away as a shameful reminder.
sourced at 

An unquestioned article of faith in every American high school is that it employ at least one credentialed, educated man whose sole job is to give the school a good American football team. That’s it. If he teaches, it’s not a heavy load, and in any event not deemed important by administrators. What is important is that in season and out, he build the best possible team (in terms of wins) for the pride of the school. In season, he is the general of the army, the commander in chief for the school’s existential struggle. At Pep Rallies, he is the minister, delivering the sermon.  In spring and summer, he trains and strategizes for a better fall than the last. If he fails in his mission for more than two seasons, he is almost certainly fired. Football coach is a high-visibility, high-stakes job with much mobility, except at successful schools like Happy Valley.

Here are some of the analogies between JoePa’s story and public education in the US. In both American football and US public schools now:

  • Data driven decision-making, or strict “accountability” regimes can drive performers to un-ethical extremes–witness in football JoePa’s sanctioning of abuse, the New Orleans Saints “bounty” scandal, and  and the hundreds of brain-injured NFL veterans; in education, the Atlanta school cheaters illustrate my point.
  • In human endeavors, the pursuit of narrowly-measured group “success” leads to individuals getting hurt. In JoePa’s case, boys under his pedaphilic assistant were victimized, and in NCLB America’s case, it is the millions of kids in poor districts whose potential as artistic or creative thinkers is stunted in favor of high-stakes math and reading test prep; or students in schools that are deemed “failing” and in need of “turnaround.” With this DofEd-sanctioned procedure, mass firings, busing, and other disruptions to make students anxious, less liable to learn.

Doubtless you can think of other parallels to be drawn between the JoePa scandal and the way US school “reform” is going. But here’s a couple of general lessons we can derive from the tragedy of Happy Valley:

  1. When being “successful” requires one to compromise one’s values and damage humans, no one “wins.” 
  2. Competition can be good. Winning is a good experience. But in some activities, competition needs to be carried out judiciously, if at all.  
Please add your own in the “comments!”

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