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Greetings from Zombie Nation!

by on October 01, 2014 6:05 AM

Among the results of the Penn State Values and Culture Survey that were made public last week was a finding that 85 percent of respondents either strongly agreed (52 percent) or agreed (33 percent) that they were proud to be members of the Penn State community.

That's an impressive number, but what does it mean? What is everyone so proud of?

This, the survey did not probe. It's enough that we all want to slosh around in this nice warm bath of Penn State Pride together.

It's similarly impossible to decipher the meaning of Penn State Pride from the comments of students and alumni who were interviewed for one of the many Homecoming stories that appeared in local news media last week. Some examples:

According to one attendee, the purpose of the carnival on the Old Main lawn — inflatable hamster ball, mechanical bull, etc. — was to "celebrate our Penn State pride."

An alumnus at the Homecoming Parade said, "I'm very proud of this school. I'm very proud to be a part of it."

An alumna at the Homecoming game, who cries when the drum major takes the field, described "an overwhelming sense of family and pride." Her daughter said the sense of pride had been evident all over campus during Homecoming Week.

That last comment, in particular, cries out for a follow-up question: Evident? How? What did you see, aside from T-shirts? What did you hear, aside from "We Are ... Penn State!"?

Not to go all academic jargon on you, but scholars who are interested in how we use language might regard this thing called Penn State Pride as a floating (or empty) signifier: It's not attached to anything in particular.

At this point I'm sure some of you readers are muttering, maybe even sputtering, that Frank just doesn't get it. Penn State Pride is a rich complex of feelings. It can't be put into words.

Maybe not. I'd like to see us try, though. We're a university, after all – a place devoted to questioning, examining, analyzing. Those who want to believe (or in the O'Brien "era," to "Billieve") should join a cult.

As near as I can figure, there are two kinds of pride. One is pride of identification or association: I'm proud to say I was born in Brooklyn simply because Brooklyn is cool (or was cool – its coolness seems to be fading).

When out-of-town guests admire the beauty of the Penn State campus, I feel proud of the place though I've not planted a single tree or designed a single building. I also feel proud to work at the same university as some of my brilliant colleagues.

Notice that I deserve no credit for any of these things.

The second kind of pride is connected to our own achievements: I'm proud when I do something good, like write something worth reading (some of you are probably saying, "Give it up, dude"), or when I stop procrastinating and do something I find difficult, like complete an application for financial aid or fix a leaky sink.

There's a lot to be said for the first kind of pride. It's communal, insofar as it connects me to my fellow Brooklynites. It's generous, insofar as it appreciates the contributions of my co-workers. It's custodial, insofar as it makes me less likely to litter and more inclined to pick up someone else's litter.

Above all, the second kind of pride should not be a pre-condition for the first kind: Only the strictest Puritan would say that I have no right to feel proud of myself unless I do something to be proud of. Indeed, I probably have to feel proud of who I am to have the confidence to do the hard stuff that leads to my feeling proud of what I've done.

That said, there's something inane, not to mention immodest about all the quacking about Penn State Pride that goes on around here.

A wise friend of mine believes that the qualities we tout about ourselves are qualities that we actually lack. I'm inclined to agree. When, some years back, the leaders of Penn State's Black Caucus received racist death threats, buttons sprouted on lapels that said, "No Hate at Penn State," which meant, of course, that there was hate at Penn State.

Consider, in that light, the comments of a student at the Northwestern game who told a reporter that Penn State's pride has only grown stronger since the Sandusky scandal. "Nothing has changed," he said. "Things are back to normal."

Perhaps he's ashamed. And he doesn't want to feel like he has anything to be ashamed of. That's why the easing of the NCAA sanctions felt like an absolution.

But another wise friend thinks being absolved of blame for the Sandusky scandal does not absolve us of responsibility. We may not be to blame for what happened in the past but we're all responsible for what happens in the future. Perhaps we have learned, for example, that if we are ever in the position that Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno were in, we can't just hope the problem goes away. We have to do the right thing, however uncomfortable doing the right thing might be.

That would be something to be proud of.

Putting it another way, we should be proud of what we contribute to Penn State, not just that We Are Penn State.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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