Over the last week, millions of Nittany Lions worldwide have faced the profound disillusionment that so many Americans have experienced over the last two generations. Most historians trace this creeping sense of despair back to the Watergate scandal and the fall of President Nixon in 1973 and 1974. However, the distrust of large institutions and their corruption at least stretches back to the Populist movements of the decades following the Civil War and possibly back to the establishment of colonies in the New World as the settlers fled religious and economic persecution in western Europe. Still, the scandal about the sexual abuse of young boys possesses a uniquely bilious nature that poisons one of the last bastions of idealism in a world that bombards us with horrors daily. People try to tell us that it was not always this way. Somehow, the last fifty years are worse than any earlier time. These assertions are grossly ahistorical.
In the face of a new generation of bad news and downright evil, it is more important than ever to reflect on the powerful narratives of justice, perseverance, and equality that distinguish human civilization now. Part of the shock of an incident like the Penn State investigation is that humanity is more accustomed to peace, prosperity, and life than at any point previously known. Our everyday experiences fundamentally oppose the television and internet messages about victimization, violence, starvation, and disease. We have internalized deep fears about the next possible threat to our safety and stability. Even as the global economy contracted in 2009 and 2010, the consequences of high unemployment did not lead to the gas rationing of the 1970s or the piles of dead bodies in the streets commonplace in the 1930s. The need to tell the optimistic stories of how we survive, adapt, and succeed has never been greater than right now.
At Villanova University, less than five per cent of the student body was African American, Latino, or Asian in 1990. In 2010, that number is approximately twenty per cent. In twenty years, a committed group of faculty, students, and administrators dedicated themselves to the everyday struggle to integrate a racially segregated campus. Dr. Edward Collymore held the line in establishing scholarships and recruiting students of color when no one else thought they could achieve academically there. University Vice-President Helen Lafferty brought a fresh voice and new intellect to an administration that needed to adapt to women’s leadership at the senior level. Professors Maghan Keita and Terry Nance (now, Vice President for Multicultural Affairs) redesigned the core curriculum to affirm new approaches to the study of human experience and new conclusions about the composition of important knowledge. Student innovators like Walidah Justice, Sneha Patel, Raj Chablani, and Alan Kennedy reimagined the role of young people in the creation and implementation of programs across all colleges of the university. The result was a civil rights movement of the last generation which realized the ideals of family and community that the Penn State football program mythologized. Telling the stories of recent history makers can reinvigorate a global belief in human ingenuity and compassion. We can resist the tide of negative media by learning more about the trailblazers who have transformed our world in quiet, steady ways in the last half century.