Mastering the art of compromise

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

February 8, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Several Muslim students in Western’s visual arts program face a conflict of interest between their religious beliefs and some art-course requirements.

Particularly, “life drawing” " drawing live nude models " flies in the face of these students’ devotion to Islam. In the past, students could negotiate alternative arrangements with their professors. But a year and a half ago the arts department added a note to course descriptions warning students about courses that include life drawing. Anyone enrolling in a course featuring life drawing is expected to participate in all assignments and will fail if they refuse.

Nine classes in the arts department added the disclaimer to their syllabi, creating restrictions within the program for some devoutly religious Muslim students.

In a post-secondary setting, it’s a professor’s choice to determine the learning trajectory. If arts professors feel nude drawing and painting are intrinsic parts of a course, it’s their decision to make participation mandatory.

If a lecturer specializes in these kind of subjects, the requirement of nude drawing assignments is understandable. That said, this particular issue is unique in that it involves students directly engaging in something they don’t believe in. Studying a topic that makes a student uncomfortable is one thing, but participating in it is different. Interacting with a nude person isn’t the same as viewing pictures of one.

Arts professors clearly aren’t intentionally being closed-minded or discriminatory; if they consider life drawing an essential component of their courses, it should be in the curriculum for all students’ benefit. But failing the course on the grounds of religious complications seems absurd.

While artists and art professors might contend life drawing is an engaging process and crucial to supplement other requisite skills, there must be a way to develop such skills without infringing on students’ religious beliefs.

Regardless, the students " all students, not just Muslims " should’ve been consulted on the departmental policy change to factor differing viewpoints in the decision.

Respecting religious beliefs is obviously a top priority in the university’s mandate; all students deserve to feel comfortable in their learning environments. However, university is about broadening one’s horizons and keeping an open mind to all cultures and all disciplines, including those reflected in visual art. That’s what makes university education special.

This is an extremely muddy issue, as is often the case when discussing organized religion. However, a compromise should be reachable, especially since the topic profoundly affects certain students’ education.

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