With the ongoing advocacy of gay marriage and mandatory attendance at “sensitivity” classes, pressures on faculty at universities to avoid doing or saying anything “politically incorrect” have significantly increased.
A recent example, which has entered into national headlines, arose when a graduate student in philosophy, Cheryl Abbate, teaching a course on ethics at Marquette University, was discussing John Rawls’ “Equal Liberty” principle, which affirms individual freedom unless the rights of others are impugned.
When Abbate asked in class for examples where this principle might be employed, one student offered the example of bans on same-sex marriage as flouting the principle. After class, a student recorded a conversation with Abbate on his smartphone (legal in Wisconsin and thirty-seven other states). He complained to her that discussion of same-sex marriage had been too abruptly cut off in class, and offered some arguments he thought reasonable against same-sex marriage.
Abbate responded that the discussion of certain topics would be “inappropriate,” including “sexist” or “racist” opinions. She reminded the student that if he did not want to avoid bringing up inappropriate topics, he could withdraw from the class. He did, and expressed his disappointment about his apparent muzzling to tenured Professor of Political Science, John McAdams, who sided with the student in his conservative and independent blog, and criticized the philosophy instructor for unnecessarily restraining the free speech of her students.
Hundreds of supporting messages and condemnations ensued for both McAdams and Abbate, not only from Marquette, but from other parts of the country. Some included insults or invectives. In the aftermath, McAdams has been suspended with pay, his courses for the Spring semester have been cancelled, and he has been prohibited by administrators from setting foot on the campus.
He has received legal support, however, from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). And Ms. Abbate has gratefully accepted the invitation to finish her doctoral work at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
McAdams’ suspension was rather strange for a Catholic University, especially one at which, for example, tenured Professor Daniel Maguire, nationally famous for his pro-abortion views, regularly teaches in the theology department without any restrictions. Do faculty statutes allow blatant opposition to Catholic teachings, but fail to support the academic freedom of a tenured professor to voice an opinion about what can be said or not in class discussions?
But aside from the legal issues and the ongoing efforts of Professor McAdams for redress, I would like to add the following (but perhaps even more important) considerations:
- Marquette is a Jesuit Catholic university; but like most Catholic universities it has been affected by “affirmative action” guidelines in hiring since the 1970s. During the thirty-five years I taught there, I was occasionally on search committees selected to interview candidates for tenure-track positions in our department; members of the committees were admonished beforehand not to ask anything about the candidates’ religious beliefs or commitments. So one should not be surprised, after all these years, about the wide variety of reactions among the hundreds of individual professors there to traditional Catholic values. But it seems bizarre that in a Catholic university a student may be prohibited from bringing up in class an element of Catholic doctrine or discipline that seems to diverge from what a professor is maintaining. At the very least, this is an issue of free speech in an academic setting. An explanation or clarification should be expected to a legitimate question posed respectfully by a student.
- Cheryl Abbate, in response to challenges to her implication that discussion of gay marriage would be “inappropriate,” has answered that she was focusing in class not on natural law theory, but on John Rawls theory about “Equal Liberty” – as if Rawls theory would obviously preclude bans on gay marriage. But her interpretation of Rawls relies on the assumption that marriage should involve no restriction to male-female relations, and can’t be denied to same-sex couples. Her interpretation also implies that homosexuals are “born that way” – which would make gay marriage a civil-rights issue, even thought there’s no scientific evidence for this claim.
- But most important, a restriction of discussion on topics like gay marriage should not happen in a philosophy class. Since the time of Socrates, the task of philosophy has been the reexamination of “accepted” meanings and values. Socrates himself famously carried out this task with regard to then-prevailing ideas concerning justice, friendship, love, politics, the family, homosexuality, and other issues. Freedom to carry out such reexaminations is integral to the “mission” of philosophy. I recall a course on practical ethics I taught during the 1980s. On the first day, I asked students to bring up ethical questions on index cards – anonymously, no names. Then I organized the questions (totaling over 10,000 words) into categories, and spent the rest of the semester in class discussion of all questions, without exception. I ended the class with tests and assigned papers, which should show a student’s knowledge of pros and cons regarding ethical issues and reasons for the position they took. Interestingly, although there were numerous questions about sex – pre-marital sex, oral and anal sex, “living together,” etc., etc., there was not one question about homosexuality, although I had no restrictions on subject matter. (These were the halcyon days before the great movements towards “queerness.”) Most important: one of the questions asked in my “miscellaneous” category was, “Is it not morally wrong for a student to answer exam questions and write papers in such a way that he is merely agreeing with the instructor when the student is truly opposed to the instructor’s beliefs? It seems to me that this is hypocritical. Rather, the student should respond with whatever he believes and not worry about the ‘almighty grade’.”
Thought-control has been a hazard in the academic milieu for quite some time; but now, with the arrival of political correctness, it is becoming more pronounced and explicit, and shameful, especially at a university claiming to be Catholic.