Penn State and exceptionalism.

A problem with a belief system such as Penn State Exceptionalism is that myth can become more important than reality. A status that was the result over time of the consistent application of certain core principles of human conduct becomes an article of faith, accepted at face value without further analysis or effort. Eventually, it becomes not only an article of faith but also a matter of pride, and that is when trouble is likely.

The belief by the students and alumni of Penn State University that their school is exceptional because of an institutional commitment to higher social values than some other schools may have a sound basis in history. If so, it is important to understand what it took to achieve that exceptionalism. On the other hand, nothing is gained by treating exceptionalism as if it is a status that, once earned, simply may be enjoyed and exploited.

Nor is it reasonable to act as if exceptionalism can be lost forever through the behavior of a few individuals. In judging whether exceptionalism exists it is the present, not the past nor any reputation earned in the past, which counts.

The parallel is to the theory of American Exceptionalism. To listen to contemporary discussion, one might conclude that it is purely of mystical or perhaps divine origin. To the contrary, and putting aside the question of whether or not divinely-inspired, American Exceptionalism was the product of some very specific characteristics of American society.

Those characteristics encouraged adaptation to change, and included an attitude that problems could be overcome by the application of personal initiative and hard work. As described by de Tocqueville, Americans perceived themselves limited neither by class origin nor by other artifacts from a past left behind in Europe.

Our success as a nation has been the result of an application of these principles to the challenges that we faced, not the consequence of some mystical ideal. The tendency of some politicians to equate American Exceptionalism with moral supremacy grounded in religion is harmful because it encourages the idea that we are exceptional just because we are. That attitude is unlikely to restore American Exceptionalism and to result in the actions necessary to reverse America’s educational, industrial, and general economic decline. At its worst, that attitude is mere hubris.

Polls indicate that most Americans now believe that we have lost our way. It will not be easy, but American Exceptionalism can be restored by a recommitment to its constituent principles.

Restoration of Penn State Exceptionalism is not as complicated. It is obvious that for certain leaders of the institution the appearance of and reputation for morality became much more important than morality itself. Nothing new there in the human experience. Get rid of those leaders, grieve, and get over it. Any prior thought that Penn State somehow was immune from the recent events was hubris indeed; stated another way, simply foolish.

Students and alumni of Penn State should not repeat the mistakes of their failed leaders by preoccupation with appearances. They need to put aside concerns about (and become less infatuated with) the school’s reputation. It is just another artifact from the past that fails to inform future action. Instead, they need to demonstrate their commitment to higher social values by how this crisis is overcome and by how they act now and in the future. That is what counts, and that is how their exceptionalism can be restored.

To have any social value whatsoever, Penn State Exceptionalism, if it exists, can be neither a myth nor a reputation. It has to be a lifestyle practiced on a daily basis.

November 11, 2011