Penrose tiling at the Andrew Wiles Building, Oxford

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

One thought on “The secular university?”

  1. Very interesting. I guess this supports the theory that secularism is a distinctly post-Christian concept, at least as it works in practice – ie, one that encodes Christian values while claiming total neutrality.
    (But let’s not encourage universities to start teaching on Sundays!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × three =