Observant students may have noticed smaller, more sparsely attended classes last week, on Wednesday in particular. That is, of course, assuming they were there at all.
The drop in class attendance was precipitated by the calendar, as we currently find ourselves in the season of Jewish holidays. Jewish students across campus enjoyed services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and many went a day without food. Some even went home to celebrate the holidays with their families.
About 25 percent of Harvard undergraduates profess Jewish beliefs, making the school 14th highest in Jewish population. This means that as much as a quarter of students could find themselves suddenly behind in course material after missing class on a high holy day. For the number of students vexed by this problem, it is unfortunate that Harvard is not more accommodating in this regard.
Harvard is quite obviously a secular institution, so it is in no way obligated to factor religious calendars into the academic one. That said, the University should be more empathetic about religious occasions by working with students who choose to celebrate their faith. Class is invariably held on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and Ramadan when these events occur during the school year. Students of various traditions would surely appreciate the consideration of the University administration and staff.
In lieu of actually structuring the academic calendar around religious holidays, there are various steps the University could take to make days on which many students are absent for religious reasons less difficult for those involved. Given that a quarter of the population of our school is of the Jewish faith, it does not seem unreasonable for the University to suggest that classes hold an additional section during religious weeks to accommodate affected students. Additionally, it doesn’t seem like it would be an untoward burden on the University to expand the number of courses that it videotapes in order to make these (and other) absences less costly. In fact, Harvard now records many of its lectures for Extension School students. It should extend the same courtesy to the students of the College.
Harvard needs to keep the interests of its student body at heart. This means ensuring that academic life does not put a burden on religious life and vice versa. The school should have a policy of understanding, and the administration should notify professors that some students might need an extra day to complete assignments. Luckily, many professors and teaching fellows are already empathetic when it comes to religious holidays, but the fate of one’s transcript should not rely on whether or not he has a friendly teaching fellow.
All of these things aside, it is important to remember that those who miss classes are not the only ones who lose something when a section is underattended or a seminar lacks a sizable portion of its students—the missing students’ peers are worse for their absence, and Harvard should do everything it can to make these events as rare as possible.
Harvard should be particularly aware of these conflicts when making the administrative calendar for study card day and other such deadlines. In establishing the most efficient system, it does not make sense to force students turn in their study cards when up to a quarter of them may not even be on campus, as has been the case in the past. Harvard knows the demographics of its students better than anyone and it would behoove administrators to use that information for the benefit of all.