Social Structure and the Penn State Scandal
This past week, rhetoric once again trumped structural analysis in the public discussion of social policy. That is perhaps because that is the way the media and politicians prefer it, but maybe also because people in their minds function more as rhetorical creatures than as structural analysts. Otherwise, there would be no need for people to make a profession of schooling themselves to provide structural explanations rather than a rhetoric that makes the person who delivers it and the crowd which hears it all feel good, which is, ever since Aristotle, what we know rhetoric to be. Consider a podcast discussion of poverty that was long on rhetoric and short on structural analysis, and treat that as a long set up for the much wider discussion that took place concerning the sex abuse scandal at Penn State. Sure, poverty has always been with us, and probably also sex abuse, but the public discussion of poverty has become so clichéd that it takes something like Penn State to awaken us to a perennial issue.
One speaker on the podcast on poverty did too much humpheting about how poor people are just as motivated as everybody else; the poor just don't have the opportunities the rest of us have. The other panelists congratulated her on her eloquence and I was unable to pick up whether the compliment was meant ironically: that her presentation had style but no substance. I can say, though, that everybody basked in the warmth of their mutual knowledge that poor people are good people, no matter what else is said about them. The panel was concerned with taking sides. It is so easy to get one’s jollies.
The discussion was yet another instance of the old nature versus nurture debate. Liberals naturally take the nurture side. Something other than themselves made poor people poor and kept them that way. Blame gets shifted from people to circumstances without the acknowledgement that circumstances can lead people to be lazy and not just because they see many people around them who are lazy. It is also because lazy parenting leads to listless children. But sociological arguments, I thought, had moved well past the point of filtering everything through socialization issues. Children who are dead because they are hit by stray bullets, even if they had stayed out of gangs and tried to avoid the crossfire, can’t continue to do very well at school. It has nothing to do with socialization.
Discussions of poverty that are mired in socialization issues or the denial that there is anything about motivation to get rolled up into the poverty syndrome do not seem to have caught up with the structural arguments William Julius Wilson made in the Eighties and Nineties that concern the impact of the severe residential segregation under which poor blacks live. Wilson was pointing out was that there are not enough available non-jailed men for the women and there are no cultural institutions, given that the schools are so bad, more of a premium on security than on learning. And the degree of that residential segregation, Wilson calculated, is much greater than it is even for the poor Latino community. Churches, I might add, are not cultural oasis amidst the poverty. Rather, they serve as out reach programs for youth and so make deals with local gangs so as to be left alone under the guise of trying, not too hard, to dissuade them from gang membership. Severe residential segregation makes poverty a social condition that is self-reinforcing.
So it isn’t just that ghetto communities don't have supermarkets, however burdensome that makes it for ghetto residents to get good quality produce at reasonable prices. There are more serious deprivations than that. Harlem, by the way, now does have a very good supermarket and is getting more of them, but the whole area is gentrifying. Which comes first: the middle class Blacks (and whites) who like the easy commuting distance to downtown offices, or the amenities which middle class people demand? Wilson, who was writing before the gentrification of Harlem, provided the tools whereby we can recognize when change is real. Residential integration doesn’t just mean middle class whites are taking advantage of low rents and so is just a transitional stage before blacks move out. Rather, residential integration makes lives better for both groups. That is not because white values rub off on black folk; it is because there are more opportunities for members of both groups when a neighborhood goes mainstream.
Wilson was doing real sociology: he discovered a structural condition not previously understood as clearly and he noted its behavioral consequences. Is it that people who do poverty nowadays are not aware of Wilson or is it that they prefer to be moralistic? Maybe I just missed the more insightful people, but I suspect it is one of the many cases where the need for a satisfying rhetoric that casts blame on a different party, whether an elite or a social circumstance. That makes the speaker and the crowds feel better about themselves because they are buttressed in their view that they are on the side of righteousness. They think they speak truth to power (although these are the people who are already the advisors to the people in power.) That rhetoric is more important than a sound structural argument that has no need for the category of blame itself and so does not cast aspersions. I don’t remember Wilson blaming social structure as if it were a god without feelings. He just told you what was going on.
The Penn State sexual abuse scandal is another case where rhetoric triumphs over structural analysis. Everybody gets self-righteous about how awful child abuse is, and they are certainly correct about that, though that doesn’t move the discussion of what happened very far forward. The Freeh report was more constructive than that because it was written in a lawyer-like dispassionate way. The report was comprehensive and uncovered enough about Joe Paterno to tarnish his image forever. It also had the right headline, which was that no one in the higher administration of Penn State seemed to have any concern for the welfare of the children involved, even though they were very concerned about being “humane” to Jerry Sandusky. One can well imagine some other report that centered on failures of procedure that allowed the conspiracy to protect Sandusky to continue. Procedures are quite rightly to be considered a subsidiary issue.
If you turn lawyers out to do a field study, however, which is what happens when you hire Louis Freeh’s law firm to do it for you, the best they will come up with as to cause is some invocation of culture: the culture of Penn State did people in. Not that there isn’t a great deal to support the idea that intimidation by the aura surrounding the football program did not have its impact. Janitors would not report what they had seen and an assistant football coach did not intervene to stop child abuse and checked with his father before reporting the event to Paterno. Even the new chairwoman of the Board of Trustees had to be coaxed a few days ago into saying that this was an appalling event, though I think that sort ritualistic remark allows a lot of people to get all self-righteous so as to show they are on the right side of the issue, especially journalists who have made their careers on telling us how wonderful is the world of school athletics.
Indeed, the cultural idea is so widespread that someone on television trying to defend the reputation of the university on television said that this could have happened in any major football program. Well, first, it happened at Penn State, and it is a startling admission that it could happen everywhere. Doesn’t that put into question the culture of any number of university sports programs and whether they should not all be supervised very closely if not outright suspended? It is as if the defense of clerical abuse of children in the Catholic Church was that it could happen in any diocese, not just the ones which have already been tainted. And maybe the Catholic Conference of Bishops should have said just that. But that would have left all of them with egg on their faces, and where would they have gone from there.
If football programs are the problem, however, then Freeh is using the wrong level of social structure as the basis for his report. He should not be talking about the culture of Penn State but the culture of the Penn State football program and the ways that program intimidates the rest of the university, just as football programs all over the country intimidate their universities. But Freeh did not want to take on football even in the limited form of showing how the administration was in thrall to the football program. That would be too controversial.
There is a limitation other than the selection of the culture of the university as a whole that the Freeh report imposes on itself, and here some speculation about other social structures that might be at play is in order. The child abuse cover-up was not a failure of a culture; it was a failure of an elite. The top brass were willing to report Sandusky until Joe Paterno told them not to. That is a failing of a few not of the Penn State community, just as the Church abuse scandal is a failure of the hierarchy rather than the laity or the nuns.
What structural forces were at work within the Penn State elite? The members of the elite consulted about the matter at the time when the cover-up became policy did not include the Vice President for Academic Affairs. Is that such a specialized and overlooked position over there that he is not part of the unofficial cabinet? Moreover, there were no Jews or Asians, who are the new Jews of academia, in the Penn State hierarchy, nor are there any Latinos, who are the new Blacks. Can you imagine many other state institutions where that is the case? The only guy at the press conference two days ago who seemed really perturbed was a black guy now on the Board of Trustees. The importance of the ethnic composition of elites is a well recognized feature of organizational life, reaching back to a time when it was observed that members of the Knights of Columbus had a leg up on promotions in some industrial organizations which considered themselves as not engaged in discrimination.
Sure, it is about time that we consider any number of detrimental effects of major football programs on university life. It is also about time that we go back to those arguments about diversity by noting the good results of diversity rather than by engaging in a rhetoric which allows us to pat ourselves on the back because there are some black faces walking around campus, never mind if they are taking courses at the same level of difficulty as the other kids on campus. It is also way past the time to drop the nature versus nurture controversy and consider why kids from inner city backgrounds have difficulty making the leap from word recognition to reading with understanding when they reach the fourth grade. Don’t tell me their parents don’t converse at the dinner table about the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. That is a socialization argument. Tell me why it has always been the practice that there is a disjunction between the third and fourth grade. Are the teachers trained differently? Do the curricula, such as they are, spell out different procedures and goals? Can you spot the kids who will have trouble in the fourth grade in the first grade? Then you can do something about it. It is no wonder people prefer rhetoric to social structural analysis. It is easier to do both emotionally and intellectually.