Monday, July 02, 2007

Religious Bias or Routine?

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a summary over the weekend of an article by U of Iowa post-doc Tricia Seifert. Seifert argues that the standard academic calendar reflects a "Christian bias" and discriminates against the calendars of other religions.

As is evident in the scheduling of the academic year, the nondenominational prayers offered at commencement ceremonies, and the accommodations made by dining-room meal plans, a "Christian privilege" permeates academe, argues Tricia Seifert, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Iowa.

Ms. Seifert calls Christian privilege "the conscious and subconscious advantages often afforded the Christian faith in America's colleges and universities." The design of the academic calendar is perhaps the most obvious example of this phenomenon, according to Ms. Seifert. It is no coincidence, she writes, that campuses shut down just in time for the Christmas holiday, leaving non-Christian students forced to "negotiate conflicts between their studies and their spiritual observances." In some years, for instance, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan coincides with many campuses' week of midterm exams.

Meal plans can also marginalize non-Christian students, she writes. For instance, while Christian students "are virtually certain to find meatless entrees on Fridays," it is no foregone conclusion that campus-dining halls follow kosher practices for Orthodox Jewish students.

Christian privilege hinders the development of students, she writes, because "it may forestall or foreclose Christian students' critical examination of themselves and their own traditions while simultaneously stifling non-Christian students' expression of their spiritual identity." Educating "the whole student," she adds, requires "creating a community in which all students feel safe to practice and share their spiritual beliefs, and supported in learning about the spiritual beliefs of others."

Such privilege must first be acknowledged, and then "dismantled before environments truly conducive to spiritual development for all can be created," says Ms. Seifert.

The article, "Understanding Christian Privilege," is available to subscribers or for purchase on the magazine's Web site.

I found this piece to be fairly thought provoking, especially from my own post-Christian viewpoint. Personally, the more I move away from my upbringing as a Christian, the more I feel that Christianity wields unfair leverage in our society.

But perhaps the question isn't about how can we change the academic calendar to fit the variety of religious traditions of American students today. As someone who went to a predominantly Jewish high school, I found that it was difficult for some of my teachers to reconcile the academic schedule to accommodate the necessary absences for observant Jews on the various Jewish holidays. If it was so hard to reconcile Jewish and Christian traditions, how much harder would it be to factor in Muslim, Hindu, and other religions?

This leads me to my pet theory: we should do away with summer vacation and spread the school year out for the whole year. Summer vacation is a relic of the American agrarian society, and is no longer necessary in the capitalist world. If school was spread out throughout twelve months instead of nine, it would be easier for students of varying religions to be able to take time off to observe their own holidays. Additionally, for lower-income families, it would negate the need to pay for day care or summer camps for children in the summer. It would also help to ease the problem of cramming information into each student's head for a standardized test, only to have them forget the same information over vacation and creating a "review" month at the beginning on the school year.

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