Illiberal Education

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: Jul 30, 2010 6:09 PM
Illiberal Education

Kenneth Howell was booted from his job at the University of Illinois for teaching Catholicism. His job at the University of Illinois, as it happens, was teaching Catholicism.

After more than two months of controversy over a firing that should have never have happened, he has been offered his job back. The turnaround underscores the scandal that continues at core institutions of our Western culture. The incident exposes, once again, the lie that is the popular conception of "tolerance," so conventionally in vogue and by no coincidence a tenet of left-wing ideology.

Howell, who teaches an introductory survey of Catholic thought, was "removed from teaching classes" as he told me recently, "for teaching that the Catholic faith teaches that homosexual acts are immoral." In an e-mail to students that laid out Catholic beliefs on homosexuality in preparation for an exam, he wrote: "Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

What Howell was teaching, of course, goes against the grain of an institution that focuses on indoctrination rather than education, on rhetoric rather than reason, on crafting feel-good bromides rather than the search for or even existence of any kind of truth.

And, when asked, Howell, a Catholic, has confessed that he even believes these things he teaches. This was all too much for one student, well-schooled in the faux tolerance of the day, to take, who then complained labeled Howell's e-mail "hate speech."

Howell started teaching at the university in the fall of 2001, when "They needed a teacher who was versed in Catholic history, philosophy, and theology," he recalls. So much for that.

His initial firing "represents an egregious violation of my academic freedom and first amendment rights to free speech." He was blindsided by the change in status: "I have never had any student complaints that I've known about, and I've been privileged to be recognized by the university for the quality of my teaching for each of the last four years." Students and faculty rallying to "Save Dr. Ken" on Facebook and campus attest to his popularity.

"All religion is an essential part of the human story," he tells me, explaining why he became a religion professor in the first place. "The humanities are about humanity, and so everyone should study religion to understand humanity. No one's education can be considered complete without the study of religion, whether one is personally religious or not. Further, the three great Abrahamic religions have been major forces in the history of the world and are still vibrant forces across the globe. To be ignorant of religion is to be ignorant of humanity."

This, of course, is what university life should be about. After this fight, perhaps, the University of Illinois's campus will be a little more aware of its own tendencies toward ignorance. That's a campus awareness trend that could afford to catch on.

David French, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing Howell, underscores an important point. "Dr. Howell's case illustrates the absolute intolerance that's long been emerging on campus towards any kind of dissent or disagreement against the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. It's as if the university community views traditional Christian ethics as the moral equivalent of racism and treats Christians in the same way they would treat a white-sheeted bigot," he says.

It leads to a simplistic, wrongheaded view of faith. "Christianity is boxed in," French argues. According to the caricature, dictated from the ivory tower, "the 'good' Christian serves the poor, is always nice to everybody, and -- above all -- never offers any form of moral judgment. The 'bad' Christian may also serve the poor, and may also be exceedingly kind, but if he or she upholds a biblical standard of sexual morality, then they run the risk of punitive actions."

French argues, "The university has become a religious sculptor, chipping away at the elements of Christianity it doesn't like ... until we are left with an image that no longer looks much like Jesus."

In the face of this reality and battle scars, Howell will not shy away from what has been maligned as "hate speech." Students need to know "natural moral law," he tells me, because it "provides common ground for ethical reasoning and decision making. Not everyone will embrace the specifics of a religion, but everyone has access to nature, to human experience and to conscience. We desperately need common ground to debate ethical issues today."

Cries of "hate speech," just keep us in intellectual chains of our own forging.

Howell's reinstatement is a great victory for him, his students, and academic freedom, but he could have very easily been "a casualty of campus tolerance," as French points out. "It shouldn't take lawyers, roughly 9,000 Facebook fans, and an avalanche of media coverage to guarantee the most basic academic freedom rights."