I don't know when a news story has made me as mad as this week's Freeh report on what happened at Penn State. I guess we've all seen someone try to cover up something. Years ago, a priest tried to discourage my husband and me from reporting an attempted sexual assault on a parishioner by a member of the vestry. What is it about people in institutions, that causes them to disregard what is morally right, in favor of what seems at the time to be the safest thing for the institution - be it the chuch or the university?
Apparently it is easy for people to get caught up in togetherness forces, instead of thinking about (and acting on) one's own principles. Sometimes, though, these same togetherness forces work for the good. A teacher was telling me just the other day about a class she had, one of those classes with all kinds of negative energy, which she just hadn't been able to turn around, until one day the principal paid a visit. The principal chewed her out in front of the whole class about her students being late, running the hallways when they should be sitting down, ready to learn. After he left, she said, the room was a completely different place. The students were suddenly on her side, united with her against the principal, and were cooperative for the rest of the year. The principal had inadvertently created a triangle between himself, the teacher, and the students - and it operated to improve the classroom environment for everyone.
A group of students wired together somehow to make a joint decision about fairness and how they would operate in response to a threat makes a great deal of sense from an evolutionary perspective. Not just humans, but mammals, porpoises, and even birds have a finely developed sense of fairness and an extraordinary ability to cooperate for the common good. If you doubt this, just watch birds around a bird bath, taking turns to access the water and watching for cats while they wait. Among people, though, something seems to go wrong when groups get too big to self-monitor, or when authority structures unbalance systems, with a resulting lack of responsibility among those who are involved. As human beings, we too easily lose our way when pressure is on and the stakes are high.
So what's the take home message on Sandusky? It is easy to be angry about what happened. What is harder is to stop blaming a couple of people in key leadership positions (who admittedly could have done something) and start wondering where all the ordinary people like you and me were, people who had to have seen something. What happened to everyone's curiosity and sense of responsibility? Does a lack of responsibility spread, like a virus, infecting an entire community? These are things I wonder about, as I contemplate the sad story of Penn State.