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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Penn State's System is Not Broken

Penn State's system is not broken. It's system works just the way it is supposed to work.

What is a "system"?* A system is an interconnected set of elements that are organized in such a way as to achieve a certain purpose or function.  Systems have flows of information, feedback loops, stocks, and outputs.

What is a system's function or purpose or output? Well, this is where it gets tricky -- the system's function or purpose is not always obvious, because you have to know where to look.

If you don't know where to look, you can misunderstand the system's function and purpose. The function and purpose of the system drives everything else in the system

I think it's more accurate to say that a system is not broken; rather, the system is not producing the output or results that we want. So if the system isn't providing the function or output we want or expect, we probably don't understand the system.

Here's a few common examples of systems that we either fail to understand, or forget what we knew about them:

Corporations - The Occupy Wall Street crowd is continually gnashing their teeth that corporations refuse to willingly act as a government jobs program or an environmental patrol agency. (Interestingly, they disagree with both the Supreme Court and Mitt Romney that corporations are people, but still expect them to act like actual people). Corporations are a system to increase the value of the investment made by the corporation's owners. Good jobs, great products, and cool commercials are all side effects of that purpose, and may act as inputs into it, but they are not the goal or function of the system.

Sex -  Sexual intercourse is a biological system to make a baby. This perpetuates the species, allowing genes to be transmitted to the next generation.  The fact that it can result in a deepening emotional bond between the participants, the fact that despite heaps of puritanical preaching and readily available contraception we still have unplanned pregnancies, the fact that we have, shall we say, discovered and developed a varied repertoire of engaging activities and options in the lead-up to the baby-making part, are side effects of this function or purpose, but not the goal.

Democracy - As practiced today, democracy is not a system for developing the best laws or policies. Its a system for the non-violent selection and replacement of political leaders. Those attempting to become, or remain, leaders in a democracy understand this system.  Laws and polices passed and proposed are done to keep leaders in power. If the policy that results is good and beneficial and popular, that is a side effect of the system, not its goal or purpose.

As for Penn State, we all had a grave misunderstanding of the function and purpose of this system.

We all thought this was a system, led by a humble and self-sacrificing coach,  set up to produce excellent athletes, encourage self discipline, respect for education, and personal responsibility, without the neanderthal behavior that plagues big time college football. And examples of these positive outputs are legion.

But it turns out these outputs were just side effects of the system's actual function and purpose.

Thanks to former FBI Director Louis Freeh's report- we now have a clearer understanding.

The actual function and purpose of Penn State was the perpetuation of a myth at a center of which was a hero figure whose incorruptibility and purity justified any and all actions. Additionally, growing out of the halo around this hero myth was a system that benefited not only those at the top like Paterno and Curley, but also professors, alumni, businesses, fans, and, of course, athletes. All had a stake in this system being perpetuated, and shared in its glory. Anything that threatened that purpose was processed in such a way as to align with the purpose of the system.

Sandusky, unfortunately for his victims, was one of the few who understood the function and purpose of this system perfectly.

*They say to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My latest hammer is derived from an excellent I book I am reading, Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.

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