Should a university accommodate a man’s religious objection to interacting with women in class?

No. And this York University case I think was relatively poorly handled by the administration, and although I don’t fully know the reasons why the professor refused to honor the administration’s decision to accommodate the student, I think that the professor’s actions were appropriate, and I’m glad that the resolution of the case in the end seems satisfactory to both the professor and the students.

Briefly, the student requested accommodation in a hybrid class where much of the work was online, but classroom meetings required working in groups with other students, some of whom were likely going to be women. The university granted the request, and the professor refused to honor it on the grounds that it negatively impacted women in the class, and that granting this request would only open the door to increasingly disruptive demands from others. The professor’s department issued a statement supporting the professor, who continues to refuse to grant the accommodation. The student, though, is apparently satisfied with the seriousness the university debated the request, and is agreeing to comply with the requirements of the course despite his religious sensitivity to the presence of women.

Ordinarily I’m willing to give considerable sympathy to requests for accommodation, in educational situations and otherwise, that might even run against someone’s gut sense of what’s fair and appropriate. Most of these requests are coming from the conflicts between either non-Western, and chiefly Islamic, worldviews or defiantly anti-modern pockets of Christian culture and our contemporary Western, secular spaces. We tend, I think, to overreact initially and bristle at these accommodations because they seem to aggressive challenges to secular values. This is why, for instance, I’m so fascinated with the “headscarf debate” – bans and attacks on women for wearing the headscarf are clear overreactions that demonstrate an emotional engagement that exceeds any rational explanation for one’s position.

No small part of those same secular values, though, insist that we make every effort to accommodate religious requests in public spaces so that all people have equal access to those spaces and in particular no group is denied access because of deeply held convictions. And so the university’s decision to honor the request, and any such request, where there is no “substantial impact” on other students is understandable, and even commendable, since a generous gesture at accommodation should be the default attitude to counter the gut-level emotional responses to challenges.

But secular, public space isn’t entirely a vacuum: it is not merely defined by gate-keeping requirements about behaviors permitted within it. The university is a secular space with very specific cultural orientations, practices, and attitudes, ostensibly directed toward the development and dissemination of knowledge, professionalization, etc. I’m not going to get into deeper debates about the validity of the university and projects of modernity and secularization, so we’ll leave it at that.

You wouldn’t let a student object in a biology class about the teaching of evolution – and I certainly don’t accept student objections to the theory of evolution in my writing classes. If you can’t accept the theory of evolution on religious grounds, then I think you need to accept that a secular space devoted to the transmission of human-centered knowledge absent any divine revelation cannot accommodate you. Other social spaces may be made available, certainly, but the university – and educational institutions, generally – are a very specific secular space. We may wish to view society as a totality in which some accommodation must be made for everyone encompassed, but there’s no way that universities could be made so.

The same has to be the case for gender relations. The same is true for race, class, etc. Secular spaces have real, positive, particular, and, yes, contingent cultures and values. You could argue that not interacting with women is not going to affect those women, and the lack of any real harm done means that accommodation is possible, and this is clearly York’s position. But to do so would violate principle moral values of the secular space – that one does not chose to interact differently with peers in the education setting based on accidental qualities like class, race, gender, etc.

So what’s the difference between allowing headscarves, for instance, and allowing genders to segregate? Somebody could argue that allowing a woman to wear a headscarf in a public space violates the same principles of equality and fairness. Well, in part, this is where I think you need to insist on that initial impulse toward generosity, and I think that in light of that gesture, headscarves seem permissible while gender segregation does not. But I think, too, other inherent values of secularism that respect an individual and individual demands of conscience and hold those values as paramount over freedoms to interact or to chose not interact with others.

I don’t have a clear answer on it, though. And I have to admit that much of this seems rationalization of my own gut-level sense that one should permit religious observation and the dictates of conscience whenever possible but realize that acting within a specific secular space requires abiding by certain values and restrictions placed on interacting with others. And that this is as true in the marketplace as it is at the university.

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Filed under secularism/religion, teaching

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