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. At its best, the university, including the public university, has a noble mission - to help students find truth, including the truth about the human person. The very presence of departments of religion in public universities is a reflection of this high aspiration, resting as it does on recognition of the simple fact that genuine insights are derived from systems of thought we tend to categorize as religious nowadays. So too, the commitment to academic freedom is rooted in the search for truth, not the mere desire of academics to pursue their fancies - although one may be excused for thinking so when we read about “queer studies” and the like.
The university’s willingness to offer the course taught by Mr. Howell reflects a profound commitment to academic freedom and true education - not mere indoctrination. Mr. Howell’s willingness to address forthrightly controversial issues from a perspective that he knew would be unpopular reflects a profound commitment to the academic calling at its best, one of service to students who seek truth. The effort to purge Mr. Howell from the university is a betrayal of these profound commitments.
So the university’s ultimate decision about Mr. Howell will speak volumes about whether it is - or merely seems to be - an institution devoted to academic freedom and the liberal education of its students. If the university reverses course, its treatment of Mr. Howell will demonstrate a commitment to academic freedom that is profound because it is designed to serve the search for truth. If not, its treatment of Mr. Howell will give the lie, revealing that the university’s commitment to academic freedom is just a pretense - that the university is content with merely seeming to have such a commitment. And if that happens, we will have to ask the question: What is the purpose of the public university and of academic freedom? Let us hope, then, that it is not Mr. Howell’s bitter fate to give the lie about the University of Illinois.
Patrick T. Gillen is an assistant professor at the Ave Maria School of Law and counsel for CatholicVote.org.