A newly released movie, God’s Not Dead, begins with a philosophy professor telling his students that they must deny the existence of God in order to earn a passing grade, according to a movie synopsis.
“That’s so unrealistic,” some are claiming. But the inspiration for the movie was drawn from real First Amendment court cases, according to Pure Flix CEO Russell Wolfe, as reported by The Blaze.
“The underlying message of secularism vs. religion is a real issue on campus,” Dr. Kenneth Howell told The Cardinal Newman Society in an interview on March 31—and he would know.
In the spring of 2010, Dr. Howell was teaching for his ninth year at the University of Illinois. Dr. Howell had been hired to teach at the University through the Catholic Newman Center by its Chaplain, Monsignor Stuart Swetland, now The Cardinal Newman Society’s director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.
Dr. Howell and Msgr. Swetland taught Catholic-themed courses that counted as credits in the University’s religious studies department. One of Dr. Howell’s courses, “Introduction to Catholicism,” always included two lectures on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.
In the second of these lectures Dr. Howell illustrated the difference between natural law and utilitarianism, and used Catholic teaching on homosexual acts as an example. Dr. Howell received much more of a negative reaction from the class that year than he ever had before. After the class, he sent an email to the students to further clarify these issues.
“All true learning is discovery – it’s a student coming to his or her own conclusion, with the professor, like Socrates, as a facilitator and fellow learner,” Dr. Howell said. “I never graded anyone based on their beliefs, but rather on mastery of the material.”
Over the years, dozens of Dr. Howell’s students have claimed that his courses were one of the few where they “really engaged in thinking.”
That’s why large numbers of students responded when Dr. Howell was fired. Dr. Howell was told by his department head that his teaching was “dangerous for the department.” Dr. Howell contended that he “had a right to teach it” and that it was a “matter of free speech,” but it was to no avail.
Dr. Howell’s email to his class had been forwarded by a friend of a student in the class to the LGBTQ center and other departments on campus.
“Because I addressed a viewpoint that they consider taboo, then that viewpoint had to be excluded,” Dr. Howell explained.
The outpouring of support from Catholic students at the University and concerned citizens nationwide, however, was tremendous. Students inundated the University, news reporters, and others with letters.
Dr. Howell asked friends for their advice, and one of them suggested that he contact Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Once ADF got involved and contacted the University, Dr. Howell was reinstated to teach during the next school year.
“If this was about me, I wouldn’t have pursued this at all—it was about a much bigger issue,” Dr. Howell stated.
The year after Dr. Howell was reinstated, however, the department put in a request to have a one-year visiting position to teach Catholicism, which Dr. Howell had been teaching. The University planned to conduct a nation-wide search to hire for the position. Dr. Howell could have applied for the job, but he said that he knew he would not have been offered it. The University had, in Dr. Howell’s opinion, “engineered” a situation that left him without a position and the University free from any possible ramifications.
Dr. Howell eventually moved on to his current position as Director of Pastoral Care for the Coming Home Network International, which “was established to help inquiring clergy as well as laity of other traditions to return home and then to be at home in the Catholic Church,” according to its website.
When asked about what he hopes others will take away from stories like his, Dr. Howell responded, “Take courage in the fact that the Christian religion and Christian history, especially as preserved in the Catholic Church, has a marvelous history of the engagement of faith and reason. Christians do not need to feel intimidated, at all, by alternative worldviews.”
At the University, “[Monsignor Swetland] had an incredibly dynamic ministry when he was here precisely because he was not only doing the pastoral, sacramental ministry, but he was also engaged in the intellectual life of the University,” Dr. Howell stated.
“That’s what’s missing from [many] Newman Centers… they don’t engage the intellectual issues,” Dr. Howell explained. He continued:
There are hopeful signs out there like at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Kansas, but unless Newman Centers are spaces of intellectual engagement about the Faith, then the Newman ministries are going to basically be resigned to the sacraments and doing pastoral ministry… The vision of JPII in Ex corde Ecclesiae is missing from many Newman ministries.
“This question of freedom of speech and suppression of Christian speech is particularly a problem on American campuses today,” Dr. Howell stated.
“The other issue too is I feel strongly that the imposition of a gay philosophy on American society is one of the biggest threats to American welfare that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Dr. Howell said. “It has to do with the foundation of what a marriage is and what a family is, and that has to do with the future of America.”
Dr. Howell attributes the struggle for freedom of speech on college campuses, in part, to what he describes as the “radicalization of the professoriate.” He explained further:
Beginning in the1960s, there was a rapid expansion of universities… Many more people got doctoral degrees than ever before. And at the same time, the job of the professor turned from being primarily teaching to being primarily research…
In the late 1970s, only 6% of all professors in the United States had ever published anything. By the mid-1980s, the whole culture had changed, and now it’s all about publication. In order to publish academically, you have to descend into smaller and smaller areas of knowledge… you know more and more about less and less.
Consequently, professors are not broadly educated in the liberal arts the way they used to be. What that means is that they often try to evaluate everything according to the specific knowledge that they have of a particular field. The radicalization in that way has become ‘radically research oriented’… Even Catholic universities have succumbed to this.
[There is also the] growth of departments of “isms” like “women’s studies”…. Even if they weren’t separate departments, they are becoming to be recognized tendencies within departments… Many of them do not hold anything close to a Judeo-Christian worldview… Now they’ve become a cultural elite who are influencing the young people. The really deplorable thing about it is that they don’t really engage the argument. They just repeat phrases and mottos and themes over and over again.
Classical, liberal arts education that forms the whole person, “engages the big questions of life,” and studies the “best ideas passed down through Western history,” can help solve some of the problems in education, Dr. Howell deemed.
“What a University has now become is a sophisticated, vocational, technical-training school,” Dr. Howell lamented. “I think that Classical education will be the salvation of American education.”
Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.