Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Is Academic Freedom Merely Academic?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 12, 2010

Earlier this Summer, Kenneth Howell was fired from his teaching position at the University of Illinois because, in comparing utilitarian theory with natural law theory, he taught his class that the natural law requires that sexual relations take place between those who are sexually complementary (i.e., males and females). Meanwhile, in Israel, Professor Yeruham Leavitt was fired by Ben Gurion University because, in an ethics seminar on artificial insemination for lesbians, he affirmed a student’s concern about children being raised by same-sex parents. In both cases, the alleged reason for the firings is that faculty may not express opinions that violate inclusivity by offending some students.

While it is not surprising that the homosexual thought control movement which is steamrolling the world should be particularly evident amid the intellectual bankruptcy of the modern university, the reasoning (or lack thereof) is telling. For example, the student who complained at the University of Illinois was upheld in his argument that “The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.” But it is nonsensical to argue that independent thought can be promoted without reaching conclusions, or by permitting only one sort of conclusion to be reached. Thought is useless if it doesn’t lead to a greater understanding of reality, that is, to an understanding which holds some descriptions of reality to be true and others to be false. Moreover, independent thought is at the very least extremely difficult without a willingness to consider the merits of opposing points of view.

One must seriously question the notion—apparently endorsed at both universities—that a professor can contribute to public discourse only by affirming whatever his students wish to hear. But even worse is the idea that a professor must never teach things that a student might find offensive. Surely this robs the university of any possibility of moral seriousness. Insofar as higher education is intended only to serve the purposes of socialization and career advancement, one can understand the desire to make the process as easy and as vapid as possible. But if higher education is to retain even the slightest claim to fostering a serious exploration of what is, then it must recognize that man is a moral actor, and that the greatest questions of life are moral questions. It is quite simply impossible to explore moral questions without deeply challenging those—students included—who have based their lives partially or fully on facile conclusions which may not bear rigorous examination.

But of course the controversy here is not really about the need to avoid giving offense to all students. When heterosexual students are offended by pronouncements on the essential goodness of homosexuality, the modern university does not much care. When students who are deeply committed to the importance of each human life are offended by professorial advocacy of abortion, nobody gets fired. All of this is merely a smoke-screen calculated to conceal an entrenched orthodoxy which will brook no opposition, and which is now unafraid to exercise a brutal power over the thought of others. Intellectually dishonest faculty have treated students this way for years. Now that the intellectually dishonest are in control, they do not hesitate to treat dissenters among their own in exactly the same high-handed fashion.

At the core of the unassailable orthodoxy of the contemporary university is, as Pope Benedict put it, a dictatorship of relativism. Relativism typically gains sway when those who are supposed to be thinking are so blinded by their own desires that they prefer an imaginary world to reality. In our particular culture, this blindness is firmly rooted in sexual passion. The result is a desperate insistence that sexual urges are invariably good, and that their fulfillment is essential to that happiness to which each of us has an inalienable right. While a few taboos (for example, against the sexual exploitation of children) prevent modern sexual theory from being entirely consistent, the trend is virtually complete for consenting adults, and there is already strong pressure to lower the age of consent for just about everything. What began with the separation of sexuality from nature in contraception has led inexorably to the moral approval of homosexuality. The process will also ensure a continuing increase in child pornography and the sexual exploitation of the weak by the strong, and will inevitably drag bestiality and even greater perversions along in its enormous wake.

The modern university will remain at the center of these developments because, again, the modern university is built on relativism, and relativism is that philosophy of life which alone allows intellectual fashion to become orthodoxy. And what is intellectual fashion? It is the ever-shifting epitome of a culture which demands relativism to protect passion. Higher education is so dominated by fashion that to predict what will be espoused next among our professorial elite one need only predict what will next be fashionable. This has nothing to do with reality, with truth, with close investigation, or with rigorous analysis. Consequently it has nothing to do with freedom of inquiry or independence of thought. But it has everything to do with personal willfulness, social elitism and the raw exercise of power. There is no surprise here: It takes either an undisciplined mind or a game-playing personality to flourish in most university settings today.

For better or worse, ideas have consequences—very personal consequences. Kenneth Howell and Yeruham Leavitt have now joined thousands of other deeply reflective and well-educated men and women who have already found this out by way of resistance. But what of the millions of students who will find this out only by way of acceptance? Academic freedom is not merely academic. Wrongly understood, it ruins lives.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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