Much attention was given to the fact that Rosh Hashanah fell during the first week of classes. But students of all faiths — including Christians, Jews and Muslims — at one time or another must choose between religion and academia when religious holidays fall on the school calendar. College senior Eric Banecker, leader of the Newman Center, wrote in an e-mail that in this case “the question becomes, then: which is the greater good?” Is it better to attend an important lecture and spend time on your studies, or to observe your religion?
Penn only grants time off for secular holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. However, in a school that prides itself on being diverse and accepting, I feel that not granting the whole student body time off for major religious holidays — such as Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha — could be problematic.
Every religious leader interviewed felt that the current policy was the fairest possible option. Nevertheless, they concur that catching up after missing a class is not as simple in college as it was in high school. College senior and Hillel President Naomi Kaplan wrote in an e-mail that “whenever you miss class … it’s always hard to catch up.” Additionally, Banecker “would make an effort to educate the University community on all of the religious holidays that students are taking off for.” Lastly, College sophomore Mohammed Hussain, a member of the Muslim Student Association board, added that the administration “should assist in facilitating communication between students and professors on such matters.”
And here lies a paradox: If Penn gave time off for some religious holidays, then students wouldn’t feel uncomfortable observing their religions. However, such a policy might leave other religions in the dust. Can we afford to grant every (or almost every) religion its own space on the academic calendar?
Rob Nelson, director of education in the Provost’s Office, does not believe this is a feasible option since the school is required to have 65 to 70 days of instruction per semester, as well as time for reading days and exams. “The only way to add additional holidays to the calendar would be to begin classes in August or to hold exams after January 1st, or both,” he wrote in an e-mail. Nelson, along with input from members of the Undergraduate Assembly, Student Committee on Undergraduate Education and the Council of Undergraduate Deans creates the academic calendars three years in advance.
I’m sure no one wants to start school in August, and even less so extend the fall semester past New Year’s. But in order to accommodate the main holidays of all the major religions, we would need to squeeze an extra week to a week-and-a-half onto the semester. Many U.S. schools start in August, so I don’t feel that this would be a major problem. Kaplan agrees, saying “many of our peer institutions started class a week earlier than we did, and it would be nice, especially for freshmen, to be able to attend class at least once before missing it for religious observance.”
Lastly, we must consider what Penn’s being secular means. According to TheFreeDictionary, being secular only means that the University is not affiliated with a specific religion. It has nothing to do with not granting the entire student body time off for religious holidays. Many people, including multiple religious leaders, agree that the meanings of the major religious holidays are lost on the student population. As Banecker told me in an e-mail, we should “elevate all the religious traditions of the students.”
After all, Penn isn’t religiously ambivalent. It’s religiously diverse. And I think I speak for all religions when I say that all any of us really wants is to feel accepted.
Laura Cofsky is a College sophomore from New York. Her e-mail address is cofsky@theDP.com. Penn Name appears on Fridays.Comments powered by Disqus
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