What the Penn State Scandal Says About Personhood

Main entrance of Old Main, at Penn State Unive...

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Yesterday, while blowing a gasket because of a bad day in traffic and impatience with the scandal glamor over at Penn State, I started thinking a little more sanely about the question of how much personhood “things” have in our social and legal environment.  So let me be a hypocrite for a moment a talk about the Penn State scandal.

An assistant coach at Penn State is accused of molesting as many as eight boys over several years while he was employed at the university.  It has come out that a graduate assistant witnessed one case as it happened on campus.  That person told the head coach, the head coach then disclosed the incident to the university and the matter then went unaddressed for years when it should have been brought to the police.  That’s essentially the scandal, correct?  It is bad, certainly, but does this tarnish Pennsylvania State University in toto?

I think there is a dissertation here for someone who wants to study how we relate to institutions and embody them with characteristics of personhood.

People would not be “scandalized” so much by the “fall” of a great university if they did not think of large institutions as people.  We might better direct our energy toward those actually involved and let the innocent majority free from scandal.

So it strikes me as absurd to question the overall university reputation as this scandal plays out even as I understand why it is happening.  Are the guys in the physics lab any less competent?  Will next year’s freshman class enroll in a lesser university?  Of course not and people are talking about the distinction between big time athletics and big time academics as this scandal unfolds.  And that is good, but things won’t change.

We need this big and influential “people.”  We identify with them.  Locally news reporters talked with Penn State alumni who talked of being in tears when they heard the news, they talked with high school students accepted to Penn State and asked if they still intended to enroll in the next year.  Can the reputation of three of four people destroy the reputation of an institution of thousands?  Apparently it can.

So I stretch my thinking on this a little and I start to wonder about Citizens United, the supreme court decision that essentially gave corporations first amendment rights on par with individual citizens.  Associations of citizens are people too.  And isn’t that kind of what is happening when we identify with something like a university?  Doesn’t Alma Mater translate to Dear Mother, after all?

I don’t support the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, but you can kind of see where it is consistent with the way we relate to the institutions we create.

Just my random musings.  Now scroll down through this blog and find something better to read and let me know when you find it.  Tell your friends and family to do the same.


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