Happy Valley – The Documentary- Part 1.

Happy Valley – The Documentary- Part 1.

Happy Valley, the documentary (not to be confused with the television series) reprises events surrounding the indictment in 2011 and conviction in 2012 of Jerry Sandusky on forty-five counts of sexual abuse of young boys while associated with Penn State University and its football program. Sandusky, a Penn State graduate, worked as assistant coach for eight years and as defensive coordinator for twenty-two more from 1969 to 1999, when he retired to emeritus professor status with a thank you check for $168.000. He founded The Second Mile, a non-profit program for troubled children, in 1977. Sandusky has been convicted of crimes that date from 1994 to 2008 and involve both university and Second Mile facilities. Written and produced by acclaimed filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter – 2000, My Kid Could Paint That – 2007, The Tillman Story – 2010.) Happy Valley is a powerful and disturbing film.

Most everyone knows the basic facts of the case, has discussed them with family and friends, and has probably come to conclusions on such key issues as Sandusky’s guilt, the firing of Head Coach Joe Paterno, the complicity of the football program, the accuracy of the Louis Freeh report, and the fairness of the NCAA sanctions. Bar-Lev’s documentary gives everyone a second chance to consider their conclusions.

The fireworks haven’t ended. Since the events portrayed in the documentary, State Senator Jake Corman and Pennsylvania’s Treasurer Rob McCord filed a lawsuit against the NCAA to insure that the $60 million fine imposed in the Consent Decree be spent within the state. Subsequently, 16 members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation signed a letter demanding that the NCAA release all documents relating to the Consent Decree. The suit subsequently transformed into a challenge of all aspects of the decree, with the result that the original decree was thrown out in January, 2015 and replaced with a new one. Penn State got its 112 football wins back, returning Joe Paterno to the winningest coach in college football with 409 career victories. The football program is bowl eligible again and gets backs its full complement of scholarships.The new Consent Decree focuses on the implementation of rules and safeguards to prevent a recurrence of child abuse. Jerry Sandusky is in prison. He and his wife Dottie continue to defend his innocence. The cases against Curley, Schultz, and Spanier have not yet come to trial. These trials could be the source of new material, and perhaps the impetus for a second documentary, but resolution of these chapters will most likely close the book on the case.

The documentary is much too rich and nuanced to attempt a summary or digest. You will benefit more from watching the film first before reading comments of mine. I’d also recommend reading the Grand Jury Presentment, the Louis Freeh report to the Board of Trustees, the NCAA Consent Degree, and the report commissioned by the Paterno family entitled Child Sexual Victimization, written by Jim Clemente. You might also want to consult the timeline of events compiled by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

My observations will be presented in two blog entries. This one offers four fundamental conclusions that anchor the case and simplify the analysis of the documentary for me. Given these conclusions, quotations and events in the film are examined in a second blog entry from an adult learning perspective. What did participants learn from the experience compared to what could be learned? All of this is as much an examination of the Sandusky scandal itself as it is a review of the documentary. I recommend watching the documentary before reading the second blog entry.

Four Conclusions

While I have been an admirer of Joe Paterno for decades, and that won’t change, I side with the Board of Trustees in their decision to remove him and President Graham Spanier from their positions two days after the indictment and Grand Jury Presentment against Sandusky were read by Attorney General Linda Kelly on November 7, 2011. I find the indictment and presentment that compelling.

I would argue that officials have a legal obligation, and citizen-adults a moral duty, to immediately report any credible instance of child abuse to law enforcement and child protection authorities. Mike McQueary, a Penn State graduate assistant, entered the locker room at the Lasch Football Building on a day in early February, 2001. He sees a naked boy—about 10 years of age, and referred to in the indictment as Victim 2— being subjected to anal intercourse in the shower by a naked Sandusky. McQueary, on the advice of his father, and after a week’s delay, informs Coach Joe Paterno, who fulfills his legal obligation by reporting the incident the next day to his superior, Athletic Director Tim Curley, who in turn notifies Vice President of Finance and Administration, Gary Shultz. Curley, Schultz and President Graham Spanier meet to discuss the matter. Schultz makes contact with university counsel Wendell Courtney “re: reporting of suspected child abuse.” A plan is developed to talk to Sandusky and bring the Pennsylvania Department of Social Welfare in on the case if Sandusky doesn’t confess. But the plan isn’t carried through, partly because, as a Curley email reports, Paterno had some concerns with it. Professional help will be offered to Sandusky instead. Sandusky is to be told that he can’t any longer bring Second Mile children to the football facility. But nothing happens. That’s the bottom line. There is no report, no professional intervention, no attention to the victim and his health, and no withdrawal of Lasch building privileges for Sandusky. For their failure to report, and also for perjury, Curley and Shultz are later indicted. For this same case, Spanier is later indicted on eight charges after the Freeh Report confirms the conclusions of the Presentment. Paterno is not indicted. He had reported what McQueary told him. He had fulfilled his legal obligation. But he didn’t report the abuse to the people who could have protected the child. All of them should have gone to the authorities: McQueary, McQueary’s father, Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier, but none did. Sandusky went on to abuse four more boys over almost a decade until caught and indicted in 2011.

The situation is liken to the O-ring contribution to the Challenger disaster. NASA engineers failed to scrub the mission even though they knew the O-rings that would cause the explosion could fail at low temperatures. Penn State administrators didn’t intervene to protect an abused and endangered boy when they knew a young boy had been victimized. That can’t be undone or explained away.

We can therefore can be certain of the following:

1. Sandusky is a convicted serial child abuser (45 counts against eight victims over 14 years.) He had the opportunity to abuse dozens more over several decades, by some estimates as many as 100.

2. Sandusky’s modus operandi involved selecting vulnerable Second Mile boys, ten or eleven years of age, for special friendship and substitute parenting, grooming them with gifts, trips, visits to the Lasch football building and football games, and violating them in the shower or in the basement of his own home during overnight visits.

3. Four Penn State administrators, Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier, discuss and fail to report a case of known child abuse. Three of them are charged with criminal acts as a result of their failure to protect a child and for lying about their actions, All four are for good reason removed from their official positions within two days of Sandusky’s indictment. Directly relevant to the firings of Spanier and Paterno is the incredible fact that the Board of Trustees had not been told anything about the investigation and Grand Jury proceedings until right before the indictments were announced.

There is a fourth basic conclusion for the viewer of the documentary to consider, an obvious yet controversial fact to people quoted in the film: the Penn State football program, with its powerful presence, pervasive culture, and paternal ethos, made Sandusky famous, employed him, enabled his establishment of Second Mile, supported his access to the university and football facility after retirement, and abetted, if only unknowingly, his pedophilia over decades. Sandusky couldn’t have done it without the football program. The football program gave birth to the monster.

All of this, as far as I have been able to ascertain, is supported by the facts.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 24, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Atheism: Its Existential Problem

Atheism: Its Existential Problem

After reading the description of my recently published book, Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, people occasionally inquire whether I’m an atheist. I tell them that I’m basically agnostic and a hopeful theist. It would be wonderful, to my way of thinking, if a convivial, non-dictatorial God existed. It’s a lonely world out there in the universe if we’re all alone. Yet, I haven’t found evidence that any god actually does exist. So to my knowledge, we’re alone with other living things. I also admit that I’m willing to be strategically atheistic when that helps in making a case, as it does in the book. My larger ambition is to get the hellish dictator and martial god other people worship out of the war business and bedroom, and attract folks toward an appreciation of science and love of nature. So I’m supportive of atheists when I share their goals, which is often, but I don’t identify myself as an atheist.

While rarely a real problem for anyone, it’s interesting to realize that people who identify themselves as atheists day in and night out face a possible identity problem. Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you are an atheist plunked into a world where no one believes or has ever believed in God, a place where deities never existed. Who would you be in this world? How would you identify yourself? “I’m an atheist” would immediately turn into a meaningless, ridiculous answer. You would be forced by circumstances to retire the atheist identity altogether and select some other statuses to identify yourself by in public. That’s the atheist’s existential dilemma. The identity is meaningless without deists and theists to contrast oneself against and push around. The identity is fundamentally negative and basically confrontational. You are against another’s belief. You bother yourself and others with what doesn’t exist.

Surely the disappearance of atheist identity wouldn’t be a big deal to all or even most atheists. But it would affect people who have made atheism part of their essential core, their personal identity. They would have built their history and life story around their atheism. The potential for identity disappearance might be a concern to them, and cause, do I dare suggest it, actual soul-searching.

Attention. Listen up! Serious, dedicated, confirmed atheists, arise! Prepare for the future. Ready yourself for the day no one believes in God and you will be free to rejoin your brethren as something else! Until that day, use your atheism wisely and sympathetically to introduce believers to a better, more hopeful world. And, to you personally, good luck!

Will Callender, Jr. ©

August 18,  2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Small Boost for “Big History”

Small Boost for “Big History”

When earthlings begin high school, it would be great if a credible, straightforward master narrative of our species were available for parents and teachers to tell in launching and guiding the children on their way toward mature adulthood and enlightened citizenship. There are, I know, innumerable stories available for this general purpose in world literature. Then, too, parents and teachers already have origin stories to tell. They naturally tell the stories they have been taught, know well, and fervently believe. Yet, childhood stories rarely produce a thoughtful, wise, caring, and just adult citizen; childhood education eventually fails most of us in this regard. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it pessimistically in his essay, The American Scholar, commenting I suppose on the disappointments of specialization, we:

strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. (The American Scholar, 1837, p.2)

Problems are many with the origin stories humans tell themselves to substantiate their fragile identities. Such histories tend to be ancient, tribal, religious, protective, martial, nationalistic, confounding, self-glorifying, ethnocentric, sanctioned by divine authority, and unsupported by evidence. Multitudes of believers nevertheless claim certainty for their beliefs and a willingness to die for them. The brevity of human history is evident when viewed against the backdrop of earth’s origin 4.5 billion years ago, and the beginning of life on the planet four billion years ago. Hominids presaging us arrived a mere two hundred thousand years ago. Physical history dwarfs biologic history and biologic history dwarfs hominid history. The refrigerator magnets of geologic and evolutionary time scales recommended in the Prompts to Planetary Consciousness essay were meant to be gentle reminders of our newcomer, late to the party status.

Our species could benefit from a reformulated concept of history that accurately describes, inspires, and orients all of its members. In this regard, I have an exciting discovery to relate. After several years working on Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, and in the process coming to the conclusion that a reformulated concept of history is needed, I learned just this summer—thanks to a paper given to me by my friend Jim Tierney—that my problem had already been solved, and solved beautifully! The concept, the curriculum, and the program for such a new history already exists! Isn’t that remarkable? I now have the privilege of learning about a grand solution to a problem I had just come to understand and appreciate.

The man who did the work is David Christian. Christian is a Professor of Russian history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has been working on the problem of a “Big History” since the 1980s, published a book on the subject called Maps of Time: Introduction to Big History in 2005, and founded an organization and website to advance the idea and make a curriculum available directly to high school teachers and students. Equally exciting, he has presented his work in an astonishing 18 minute TED talk available on YouTube. That’s right, by double-clicking on the hypertext of his TED talk HERE and NOW, you too can see what he created. His approach to history is available for use at this very hour by teachers, students, and schools worldwide. Here also is the link to the David Christian Interview in Edge that my friend Jim Tierney gave me. In truth, while the “Big History” idea is new to me, it is well-established in the world already, with backing from the likes of Bill Gates. Look at the Wikipedia page on “Big History” to see what I mean. If I had been a more diligent researcher, I could have found this work before I began my book!

You now know all I know about “Big History,” but I would like to explain why I think the approach is important. As you’ve seen, if you listened to the TED talk, “Big History” refers to a history of the universe as it evolved from simplicity to complexity in a physical and natural world that eventually generated us. This history is represented in “threshold moments” on scales of universe, geologic, and evolutionary time. The six thresholds discussed in the TED talk, each representing a jump in complexity, are: “Threshold 1. The Big Bang;” “Threshold 2. The Stars Light Up;” “Threshold 3. New Chemical Elements;” “Threshold 4. Earth and The Solar System;” “Threshold 5. Life on Earth;” and, “Threshold 6. Arrival of Homo Sapiens.” Each threshold names a jump in complexity at a moment in time when narrow “Goldilocks conditions” were met allowing that transformation of energy, mass, and form to happen. In short, Christian actually took the advice of Carl Sagan, and Sagan’s protege and successor, Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘admit it earthlings, you’re made of star dust, let’s start from there.’

This framework provides a powerful way to organize, present, and teach history. Questions are framed so as to draw upon the knowledge of all the disciplines simultaneously. People can more easily understand and directly apply knowledge that way. For example, if the extinction of dinosaurs by an astroid 65 million years ago opened up space for species like ours to thrive in the world, then areas of inquiry like asteroids, dinosaurs, extinctions, migrations, evolution and species attract inquiring minds to physics, astrophysics, chemistry, geology, biology, history, archaeology and the other disciplines. The idea that ‘overcoming’ the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, is central to the story—because narrow, just right, “goldilocks conditions” must be met for jumps in complexity to occur—is wonderful, clever, engaging, and frankly fiendish, not only because the claim is absolutely true but also because it’s an an ongoing puzzle! That problem is one of many that can and should engage and nurture a human mind over a lifetime.

The “Big History” framework locates “mankind” back in the natural world as an evolved and evolving species, a product of forces and processes begun 13.7 billion years ago with the “Big Bang,” and continuing today. With one swipe, our arrogant presumed status as chosen, special, superior, self-creating, dominating, sui generis deities—masters of the universe in Tom Wolfe’s apt phrase —is gone. We are allowed to see ourselves humbly again. This in no way diminishes us or our rich, albeit brief and confounding history. Rather it allows us to consider and learn from all human history, now framed properly within its physical and biological context. As Christian points out, this collective history frames and organizes tribal and national histories. The story can be told with equal zeal, truth, and utility in Brisbane, Buenos Aires, Toledo, Lagos, Beijing, and Timbuktu. It is the big picture of history for everyone, wherever people live.

As for the adult education revelation in Christian’s talk, that collective learning is what really counts in evolutionary terms about our species, I respond “Bravo!” I only wish we could get our collective heads around that idea. Sadly, our collective work as knowledge gatherers/transmitters appears to be as unconscious to us as are the primary functions of fish, bees or ants to them. This reminds me of a playful friend who took occasional pleasure in comparing my intelligence to a fish: ”you’re as dumb as a hake.” Aren’t we all at times? It doesn’t have to be forever, though, does it? Can we learn that we are learners? I think we can. But perhaps this problem is best left unaddressed, a nice problem for another day. It is enough to know that humans are learners and have the availability of the “Big History” framework as a foundation for the education of children and for lifelong learners of all ages. Thanks David Christian. Thanks “Big History.”

Will Callender, Jr.

© August 14, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good