Unless they're prepping for that extra-credit question on a philosophy midterm, most college students don't do a whole lot of thinking about morality.
Maintaining a decent grade point average while navigating the more libidinous temptations of college life is about as deep as it gets. It has been books-versus-bacchanalia ever since the days of Socrates.
Students usually learn a university's definition of morality sometime near the end of first semester of their freshman year. That's when bills are sent to their parents warning that their young scholars won't be allowed to enroll the following semester unless the next installment of the shakedown known as college tuition is remitted before sundown.
At least colleges and universities are honest about being cash-hungry businesses. The extent that they are also idea factories and molders of morality ranks far down on their hierarchy of values.
Contrary to society's most sentimental myths about higher education, colleges aren't set up to instill students with a conscience. Those who arrive on campus without fully functioning empathy chips aren't likely to develop a taste for moral inquiry by sitting in a lecture hall or by playing beer pong.
That's why no one should be shocked by what happened at State College when news spread Wednesday night that longtime head football coach Joe Paterno had been fired. Up to 5,000 young people took to the streets around Penn State University for several hours to protest the sacking of their beloved "JoePa" and to vent their rage at the trustees who denied their hero the dignity of going out on his own terms.
After flipping over a TV news van, the students made it clear that larger questions of morality in what is easily the biggest scandal in the school's history were beside the point.
Petulant chants of "One more game" and "We want JoePa" united the crowd in a bond of youthful stupidity and shortsightedness that is only possible when mom and dad are paying the bills.
The only thing more naive than the misplaced chants of support for an 84-year-old football coach is the question indignant viewers asked while watching the riot footage on cable news: What exactly are they teaching those kids at Penn State?
Isn't it obvious? Penn State isn't teaching the kids anything they didn't already learn at home. It isn't the university's job to inculcate kids with values such as empathy for young rape victims. That's a moral blind spot that represents the absence of good parenting, not bad teaching at Penn State.
Those protesters arrived at the school fully formed and with the capacity for uncritical worship of a football coach whose two-syllable nickname invokes the same assumptions of omnipotence as Yahweh.
Although the thousands in the streets were an impressive turnout, they represented a minority of the school's student body. The majority of students stayed in their cubicles and dorm rooms, perhaps embarrassed by the lemming-like behavior of their classmates chanting the name of a man who enabled former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky by not reporting what he knew or suspected of sexual abuse allegations to police a decade ago.
The kids who marched through the night at State College confronting pepper spray-wielding police in riot gear didn't ask themselves the nature of what they were marching for. They didn't engage in dorm room rap sessions about the morality of their protest. No one wondered if any of the alleged victims of their beloved coach's former assistant was within earshot.
What would the eight victims of child sex abuse described in the grand jury's presentment think of the crowd if they saw it? Would they feel like scapegoats, or would they realize, sadly, that their pain is a non-issue to those who cried over JoePa's firing? Where do these eight victims fit in the morality of the crowd that turned out to protest?
If one tries to imagine other issues that could drive thousands of Penn State students to the street, you would probably come up empty. A decade of war abroad doesn't generate such passions, nor would a threat of tuition hikes.
In Happy Valley, it only takes the outcome of a football game, or the dethroning of the campus' resident god to get those kind of numbers. That's the only incontestable morality the university has cultivated over the four decades of Mr. Paterno's reign.
Lately, I've been thinking about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. He served nearly two years in prison for running a dog-fighting ring and was only grudgingly allowed back in the NFL. Among the Penn State protesters, there was probably more sympathy for Mr. Vick's dogs than for the children victimized in this case.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631.