This article is being cross-posted, with permission, from StudentActivism.net, an invaluable chronicler of progressive student movements.
Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor of religion at the University of Illinois, has been let go after sending his students an email about Catholic moral theories of homosexuality that one student described as “hate speech.”
Debate on the firing has proceeded along two lines of dispute — firstly whether Howell’s perceived bigotry places him outside the protections of academic freedom, and secondly whether the concept of academic freedom can even be properly applied to an adjunct faculty member with a semester-by-semester contract.
But I don’t want to talk about either of those issues today.
What I want to talk about is this defense of Howell’s email, posted at National Review’s “Phi Beta Cons” blog:
The university is making a conscious decision to enforce ignorance on its students. The university would rather see its students remain ignorant of one of the world’s most common moral theories than have their delicate feelings damaged. This is not education; it’s indoctrination in its purest form.
The charge that UI is “making a conscious decision to enforce ignorance” proceeds from the assumption that Howell is competent to teach moral philosophy.
At least, I hope it’s an assumption. Because by the evidence of the email, Howell is utterly ignorant of the subject he was hired to teach:
- He badly bungles his discussion of utilitarianism, as when he asserts that any utilitarian would necessarily regard children and animals as capable of consenting to sex.
- Despite cautioning students against drawing conclusions about human sexual morality unless they “have done extensive research into homosexuality,” he bases his own conclusions on a conversation with “a physician” who told him that gay men “have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted.”
- He contends that “what lies behind the idea of sex change operations” is the belief “that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning.”
This isn’t serious philosophical or theological instruction. It’s not a scholarly discussion of human sexuality. It’s what we in the academy refer to as “talking out of your ass.”
Faculty are entitled to considerable latitude in their classroom approach. But students are entitled to be taught by faculty who have engaged in serious study of the subjects they teach, and by faculty who understand the difference between scholarly analysis and uninformed opinion.
This is not a matter of politics or of political correctness. It’s a matter of taking the role of a professor seriously, of acquainting yourself with the basic facts of a subject under discussion before you present yourself to students as an authority. It is wrong for a professor to suggest that transgenderism is grounded in beliefs about how we may “use our bodies sexually” not because that statement is offensive, but because it is ignorant.
By the available evidence, Howell has been scrupulous about declaring his students’ right to disagree with his assertions. But academic freedom doesn’t protect a math professor’s right to misstate the Pythagorean theorem, or an economist’s ignorance of the Laffer curve, even if he’s willing to allow students to disagree with his misstatements.
Similarly, academics at all points on the ideological spectrum share an obligation to accurately present the views of those with whom they differ. If you cannot accurately describe the views of those with whom you disagree, then you do not — in a very real sense — understand your own position.
Howell’s biggest defect as a professor isn’t his ideology, it’s his ineptitude.