University Faces a Test of Academic Freedom

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

University Faces a Test of Academic Freedom


Byline: Patrick T. Gillen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The recent discharge of Kenneth J. Howell for teaching the Catholic perspective on same-sex attraction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign raises important questions about the existence and purpose of public universities - about the truth and the lie - of public education.

Reports have it that Mr. Howell was employed to teach a course titled Introduction to Catholicism for the Department of Religion. In connection with that duty, Mr. Howell explained the distinction between same-sex attraction and homosexual conduct in Catholic thought. In time, Mr. Howell's statements, now labeled hate speech, were brought to the attention of university authorities, and he was relieved of his duties.

Set aside the obvious absurdity (and injustice) of firing a man for teaching about the subject he was supposed to teach in order to ask an even more fundamental question. How did we get to the point where Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion at a major public university and founder of its queer studies major to boot, can relieve a man of his duties for teaching about a perspective that merits discussion in any department of religion worthy of its name?

I think Mr. Howell has been treated so unjustly because he is caught up in a larger struggle over the very purpose of public universities during a period many academics call postmodern. The treatment of Mr. Howell compels us to ask this question: What is the purpose of the public university and academic freedom in our present day?

I say we must ask this question because when I read about Mr. Howell's predicament, it called to mind a poem titled The Lie that I read as a student years ago. In it, the author, on the brink of death, sends his soul on a thankless errand, to give the world the lie. The errand consists in conveying to the powers of his day messages that give the lie to their pretensions.

Among the messages sent is this one: [T]ell schools they want profoundness, and stand too much on seeming.

Mr. Howell's deplorable situation reflects a crisis in public education, a crisis that threatens to replace something profound with a counterfeit. …

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