Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"What happened to this generation?"

I've been watching Fringe on Hulu.com.  I've been enjoying it--interesting premise, good enough stories, and characterization the way characterization is supposed to be done:  varying complexity and occasional moral ambiguity without relying too heavily on the "bad people arbitrarily designated protagonists" crutch.  Sometimes there are quantum leaps of deduction used to keep the plot moving in the right direction, but considering they're usually made by the resident lobotomized psychotropic-drug-using genius on a show where such insights can even be plausible, I'm willing to overlook the flashbacks to the early days of sf television.

I didn't mean to dwell on the show.  I just wanted to comment on a scene in an episode from a couple months ago.  The aforementioned genius, Walter, was taking a break from whatever work he was doing in his Harvard lab, and was sitting outside watching students go by and smoking pot with a colleague, Nina.  The following exchange takes place:

Nina:  "I forgot how serious this campus has become.  I remember my time here quite differently."
Walter:  "We did have fun, didn't we?  I don't know what happened to this generation."
Walter:  "Look at all these students.  When did they become so afraid?  We had the courage to think against the grain of what we were told; we let our curiosity be our guide."

What happened to this generation?  Walter and Nina did.  Walter's generation looked at the one that invented the bomb, decided to live for today (how that constitutes letting curiosity be their guide, and how what Archimedes and Galileo and da Vinci and Tesla and Einstein was something else, I can't imagine), and he himself went down a path that broke this universe, and the one next to it.  Maybe this generation finally learned that some caution is appropriate in this life, after all.

Here's the problem I see.  The "courageous" generation that preceded a "serious, afraid" one rejected what they were told, instead of simply playing devil's advocate like an honorable curious skeptic; but then they turned around and tried to teach their successors that this parochial truth of relativism was the One True Way.  Nina at least seems to be truer to her principles:  if the truest thing you can do is throw off Truth, then you shouldn't be scandalized when the  people you try to teach would not scruple to question, doubt, and reject the things you turned out to be taking as absolute after all.

Never mind about what Walter considers to be courageous.  Maybe our apparent seriousness and fear is just what prudence looks like to him.  Prudence is a virtue.  Too bad the consequences of his lapses in prudence were being shared with everyone--with the fearful and serious students he was watching with Nina, and with everyone and everything else known to exist.

But it's just a TV show.  Maybe I shouldn't think too much about the words that the writers are putting in the characters' mouths.  But that's begging a question.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Doctor Howell's dismissal (II)--followup and corrections

First, thanks to Gary at Goodwrites for links to the e-mail Dr. Howell wrote, the e-mail written by the aggrieved student, and e-mail addresses for various university officials who would be in a position to do something about the situation. The American Papist also has more detailed and clearheaded information than I have been able to muck up since Saturday, so check thou him out if I haven't entirely burned you out on the subject; then contact UIUC and the Diocese of Peoria.

Second, it was not a gay student group to which the student complained, it was the LGBT Resource Center. I stand corrected; my analogy to the Star Trek club is not accurate.

Third, it was not a student in the class who caused the uproar, but a friend of the student. The student in the class apparently described the lectures as preaching rather than teaching and allegedly found the subject to be inflammatory (I'm not entirely clear whether the person in the class was constantly complaining to his friend, or the friend was merely scandalized at what the person in the class was passing along). Either way, the friend who was agitating on behalf of the student has a loose enough grip on the facts to be unsure if Dr. Howell was a priest or not.

The behalfist pointed out that he and his friend in the class were both Catholic, and that he "didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason." If so, I must wonder why he would be shocked to hear something he should already have known, and if he didn't want a Catholic education, well, I don't see what taking actions he could predict would have a reasonable chance of resulting in the dismissal of someone else's instructor, has to do with him getting the best secular pluralist education he could hope for.

Fourth, I found it very rich that the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ann Mester, saw fit to justify the university's decision by saying "The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards ofinclusivity." (hat tip to Dave Armstrong of Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. By "rich" I mean "ironic" or "hypocritical." I am somewhat alarmed that a public university, especially one in the vicinity of Peoria, would have "standards of inclusivity" that go beyond honoring the sacred trust of the teaching office, honoring the trust of each student, but are this explicit and binding, on pain of breaking of contract.

I would be skeptical that this code of inclusivity is so explicit that Mestercould point to chapter and verse; I could be wrong, but I find it more likely that vague platitudes would be preferred in that they are easier to twist and easier to slip past the casual, trusting reader.

Perhaps Mester refers to these inclusivity standards that include not only race, age, and the various things commonly lumped under sexual orientation, but actually spell out religion, yet still suffice to get Dr. Howell dismissed on the grounds that he conveyed information about a religious institution.

These inclusivity police are either cowards, trying to "disappear" salient members of the would-be opposition, or they are very patient, working carefully and slowly to make average people afraid to make a wrong move or speak a wrong word, and then act with impunity against people who not only talk about things that some people don't like, but actually believe them openly. Why else would they tolerate Dr. Howell's presence, yet get upset when he tried to resolve a disagreement in class after hours by presenting information that an honest progressive atheist could just as easily have presented?

The university's pledge to inclusiveness goes on to say "In an environment ofinclusivity, there is no place for acts of hatred, intolerance, insensitivity...." Insensitivity and intolerance next to acts of hatred? Are they talking about acts of hatred, acts of intolerance (whatever that would be), and acts of insensitivity (which "there is no room for that here" would seem to demand as a response even to diplomatic differences of opinion and misunderstandings, if they're going to be consistent), or just talking about how attitudes of intolerance and insensitivity are right up there with posting "Irish need not apply" signs and lynching black people? Either way, how do they cope with a difference of opinion? How can they cope with a misunderstanding? Where do they find room to enlighten well-meaning rednecks who show up completely blind to the depths of their latent bigotry?

Okay, speed bump. Sorry. More a theoretical question than a practical one; it's still more common for politically correct people to behave as normal human beings than not, so there's obviously some tolerance of intolerance "in the field." Back on track....

To anyone who is having trouble sorting "conveying facts about Catholicism" from "pushing Catholicism," if Dr. Howell started this class like he did the one I took, he would have pointed out that he was a Catholic and believed what he was teaching, and he would be teaching from that perspective in order that students may get a better understanding of the Church "from the inside," but that he expected and accepted disagreement (UIUC being a state school and all) and would not hold any differences of opinion or belief against any student, either in class or in the gradebook. His job was to rectify misunderstanding and clear away ignorance, not abuse his position and the teacher-student trust.

Dr. Howell is not an unapproachable guy. It's possible a student might be too timid even to approach him over a concern or disagreement, but there's no rational way a friend of such a student, either acting on the timid student's request or taking it upon himself to take up the timid student's banner, would up and...not go confront the professor, instead going first to the LGBT office and notifying the campus media before informing the department head that he's really not a gay activist. Sorry, pal, but you are now; welcome to the club. Dues are 20c a week and you have to bring doughnuts on Tuesdays.

In case any apologists missed the low-hanging fruit in the combox over there:

Don't confuse "nature" with "natural law," or "nature" in the sense of "plants and animals doing their thing unimpeded in the wilderness" with "nature" in the sense of "essential qualities of being." This is a basic distinction, and someone arguing that animals exhibit homosexual behavior, or that straight couples sometimes engage in sodomy, in the fact of that is like being told in a physics class that relativistic effects on time and motion are immeasurable at pedestrian speeds and then complaining that you can clearly see that when two people approach each other at the same speed, they close the distance in half the time it would take for one to walk all the way to the other. You're ignoring the underlying idea to show that you don't grasp the means to challenge the assertion that Newtonian motion is merely an approximation.

Referring to "natural law" is not just making a religious argument while swapping out "God" for "nature." "Nature" doesn't will or intend, in the human sense, anything. If I point out that humans tend to eat meat because the nature of their bodies does not include the ability to synthesize all the necessary amino acids, a reasonable argument would be "that's cruel to animals; complete protein in the diet can be achieved by eating this and that combination of vegetable proteins." An unreasonable argument would be "you're just saying God wants you to eat meat so you don't have to give up your backyard barbecues or stop looking down on us hairy-legged granola types!"

On occasion, rare enough that I'm not inclined to put much stock in the unsupported claims, it's argued that the "gay sex is unhealthy; that's evidence for a natural law position" claim is disproven by this or that anonymous corpus of sociological or biological research. It was brought up in the comboxes I mentioned (where the messages are posted, in case I've allowed myself to ramble into obscurity; not at Goodwrites), but a preponderance of evidence was only referred to in passing.
To anyone who thinks that's good enough reason not to think we could do well to discourage anal sex on the grounds of its dangers, I ask: What's so great about rectal prolapse?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

University of Illinois religion professor fired for doing his job

I encourage all of you to read the article at Catholic Online, but let me summarize.

Professor Kenneth Howell has, since the late 1990s, been teaching courses on Catholicism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Being associated with the vibrant Newman Center on campus, it seemed logical to Professor Howell and then-head chaplain of the Newman Center, Msgr. Swetland, to offer the courses both to edify the Catholic students and to provide an opportunity to the student body as a whole to clear up misconceptions on basic Catholic principles (in Howell's Introduction to Catholicism course) and on the application of these principles to more timely matters (the upper-division Modern Catholic Thought).

Professor Howell is--I can assure you personally--an honorable and faithful man. He made no secret about being a member of the faith he was teaching about, that he believed it was objectively true, and that any differences in belief or opinion between him and his students would be respected--his job was to instruct, not to proselytize.

Until the spring semester of 2010, this was good enough. Then, during a discussion on natural law, one or more students made a disproportionate display of outrage at his example of the Church's position on homosexuality. Hoping to clarify and settle things, Dr. Howell e-mailed the class explaining the differences between a philosophy of natural law and a philosophy of utilitarianism. Somehow this was also inflammatory, and was brought to the campus gay/lesbian/etc. student group, who took it to the head of the Department of Religion.

As an aside, I'm trying to imagine a modern lit/media professor saying something critical about the portrayal of Klingons on the small screen, and having it even occur to the campus Star Trek fan club to formally protest that professor's actions to the department, let alone having the department chair do anything but write a curt yet polite dismissal.

To bring a long story to a short end, the outrage of the student or students in class, the pressure from the homosexual group, and what I can only assume is the e-mail being treated as a confession to causing confusion and discomfort in class; summed up, led to the decision that Dr. Howell's services would no longer be required at the university.

Apparently UIUC did a good job covering its butt legally, that there's little room for a breach of contract suit from the Diocese of Peoria or Dr. Howell personally, but I can't wrap my head around the idea that an instructor can legally be penalized for providing accurate information about what some people believe that other people happen not to like.

It's not like it was a secret. Dr. Howell taught openly for years, and it is a joke so cliched that it's virtually taken as fact that Rome is doctrinally hard on gays because it's so conflicted about its plethora of pedophile priests. Now someone expresses outrage, and that--not the years of sober and fair instruction--is grounds for dismissal.

Sorry, Illinois. The customer is not always right. The vast majority of his students obviously did not feel offended or oppressed or unsafe (or whatever other "hostile classroom environment" words you want to use)--fearing either beratement in class or low grades after the fact--or Dr. Howell's reputation, not to mention his published teacher evaluation scores, would have reflected it. The outlier here is the aggrieved student or group of students, not the behavior of Dr. Howell.

Can you see this happening in other circumstances? Imagine he were teaching an anthro class instead, and brought up some tribe of cannibals back in some equatorial jungle somewhere. Now imagine him talking about their belief that green-eyed people taste better than anyone else. Having green eyes, what grounds would I have for being upset? He's just stating facts. Should I be afraid that one of these cannibals might find me and eat me? Only if I visited their part of the world. Should I be upset that the professor told me they exist? If I were, maybe I shouldn't have taken the class in the first place, because that hypothetical tribe would exist whether I knew about it, wanted to know about it, or not.

Perhaps that's an absurd example. Imagine me, a practicing Catholic, living as a student in the suburbs of Moscow during the Cold War. I go about my business but I keep my head down where it's expedient, and so far I haven't come to any trouble. In a social studies class I'm taking, the teacher spends some time discussing the relationship between religion and the state and society at large. He happens to mention that the Church has been persecuted for being the Church, with burnings at the stake and confiscation of property during the early days of the Reformation, and nowadays with more subtle oppression, to the point where in some parts of the southern US, such as eastern Texas, it's safer to be black than to be Catholic.

What possible rational, lucid motivation would I have for flipping out in class and trying to get my instructor fired? He's not persecuting me. Even if he's a good Party member with some residual Protestant attitudes from his parents from before the Revolution, he's only stating facts. That's his job.

He doesn't have to like what the truth is. I don't have to like what the truth is. I can even think that persecuting the Church is wrong and that my teacher is in error for thinking that religion is a national poison. But he's only saying what happens to be documentedly true and already widely known. I can't honestly be mad at him for that.

I have some angrier words for the people who cost Dr Howell his job in their pursuit of justice or comfort, but it may be best that I don't share them at this time.