Class Notes

The Vocation of Teaching and the Penn State Scandal

By Paula Marantz Cohen | November 22, 2011


My husband and I were on our way to Paris for our honeymoon when there was a commotion toward the front of the plane. It filtered back to us that someone was sick, and my husband, who had just finished his residency in internal medicine, immediately went forward and spent the rest of the trip ministering to a young woman who had gone into diabetic shock. I will always remember my Paris honeymoon for that plane trip, when I was left for seven hours at the back of the plane while my husband saved someone’s life.

My husband’s action was not simply a function of his morally upright character, morally upright though I think he is. It was also a function of his training as a physician. A doctor is supposed to step forward when someone is in distress. In recent years we hear reports of physicians, fearful of litigation, who shirk this duty, but they are exceptions. Doctors who don’t provide aid when the occasion demands it violate the sacred code of their profession.

Let us turn now to the Penn State scandal. Educators in this case failed to intervene where many people were apparently in distress. This failure has been explained in moral terms, and, certainly, one cannot discount the moral element. We assume that any morally upright person who knew about what is reported to have been going on in that locker room would have intervened on behalf of the abused child, just as we assume that anyone on that airplane to Paris would have tried to help the sick woman. But there is an additional responsibility that comes with being a teacher—an understanding of moral duty not in absolute terms but in vocational ones.

The university president, athletic director, head coach, and graduate assistant coach (a confusing appellation, if ever there was one) apparently failed in their moral duty to alert the police that young people were being abused. But the emphasis on morality misses part of the point. Teaching–of which coaching and college administration should be a subset—are professions that are supposed to support learning, much the way that medicine is a profession supporting health. As part of this mandate, teachers have a responsibility to intervene when learning is inhibited or under attack. Doctors not only support good health, they also intervene to alleviate sickness. Why isn’t the mission of teaching (and coaching and the administration of education) seen in the same terms?

Part of the reason is that education is a less clear-cut vocation than medicine. We are not speaking of physical calamities like cardiac arrest or diabetic shock, but more amorphous ones involving child welfare (though sexual abuse, in the case in question, is clear-cut enough). More to the point, however, medicine is a vocation that has traditionally garnered more respect than teaching, and as a result, it has been able to hold its practitioners to a higher standard. This standard extends beyond the patients who visit doctors’ offices to people in general. As members of their profession, they feel obliged to intervene and help whenever and wherever a medical emergency arises. You might say that any decent person would intervene, but that misses the degree to which we learn our sense of appropriate behavior within vocational parameters and are abetted or inhibited in this behavior by the institutions that employ us.

Joe Paterno took a holier-than-thou attitude with respect to his vocation, but this was not what gained him respect. He wasn’t revered because he was an educator but because he won football games. (We can put aside for the moment what role athletics should play in an educational curriculum—that is a topic for another column.) That Paterno made more money than the president of Penn State—and, more tellingly, far more than the most effective and devoted teacher there—says something about the values of that institution and, beyond that, about the values of the society in which that institution is a part. We don’t respect teachers as much as we respect doctors. Perhaps that is a factor in those instances when they don’t look beyond the narrow purviews of teaching, scholarship, and coaching football to something larger: the protection and promotion of the well-being of those being taught.

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