Amid the fallout from the scandal over Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach convicted of child abuse, how could one possibly associate the university with utopia, the supposedly perfect society? Better, surely, to invoke utopia’s opposite: dystopia.
Nowadays the traditional references to the school’s area as “Happy Valley” seem a form of black humor. Sandusky was the longtime primary assistant to legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. Sandusky’s molestation of young boys, including incidents in Penn State’s locker rooms, was covered up by the late Paterno, some argue.
True, Penn State’s current president, Rodney Erickson, recently removed Paterno’s statue from the football stadium. Yet he declined to remove Paterno’s name from the main library. In a politically astute balancing act, Erickson noted that Paterno and his wife had helped raise enough money in the 1980s for a large library addition and had donated substantial sums themselves.
Missing from the media coverage, however, was the ironic presence within the Paterno Library of the world’s foremost collection of utopian materials. It includes manuscripts, rare books and correspondence — around 4,500 items in all. Besides literary visions, there are writings on actual utopian communities, world fairs, architecture, gender, travel, post-colonial societies and utopian theory. Penn State has generously funded the collection’s continuing expansion.
Last autumn, just before the Sandusky scandal unfolded, the scholarly Society for Utopian Studies held its annual meeting at Penn State. As conference participants enjoyed a reception amid treasures from the collection — named after Arthur O. Lewis, the English professor who established it — the community known as “Happy Valley” seemed less fanciful than real.
The most famous literary association of the phrase “Happy Valley” is Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas” (1759) — and that is hardly so upbeat. Happy Valley is a perfect community, which the unhappy young Rasselas leaves out of boredom, only to return after learning that “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”
Johnson’s tale is akin to Voltaire’s classic “Candide” (also 1759). Voltaire’s famous conclusion opposing excessive optimism about the world and embracing the more realistic tending of one’s own garden is almost identical with Johnson’s rejection of similarly utopian expectations. If not quite dystopias, both works offer hard-won lessons about the real world that, in a different context, might be imparted to the Penn State community as it struggles to regain its moral footing.
The Lewis Collection contains numerous cautionary tales — from literature and history alike — of failed top-down leadership ignoring others’ immoral behavior and of once-charismatic leaders staying on too long. The parallels to Paterno’s decades of coaching are painfully clear.
Still, the principal purpose of most utopias is not to predict the future but to criticize existing society, to play back upon the real world what distinguishes the envisioned better future from the problematic present. Students of utopias who keep scorecards — like those who, in 1984, analyzed the accuracy of “1984” — miss the point. Orwell was trying to avoid the nightmare future he described, not to predict it.
Finally, the very term “utopia” means both “good place” and “no place,” as Thomas More coined it in his “Utopia” of 1516, as a play on words in Greek. For Penn State’s sake, let us hope that the future brings it closer to the former meaning than to the latter.
Howard P. Segal is Bird and Bird professor of history at the University of Maine and author of “Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Cyberspace Communities” (2012). This piece was first printed in London’s Times Higher Education.