Sunday, February 04, 2007

The loss of a cross

People are arguing about whether or not the College of William & Mary should keep its big brass cross in the Wren Chapel, which used to be the main building of the college back in the 1700s, and is still the oldest original university building in the United States (even though, honestly, there are probably only three original bricks in the thing!). The university is unique in that large sections of it are treated as public museums and toured along with the rest of Colonial Williamsburg.

Some want the cross to go and others want it to stay. To be honest, I see the merits of both positions; probably a bad stance for blogging!

Anyway, it seems to me that the debate is over the relative merits of religious diversity and collective history. If you see the Wren building as a historical space, it's important to keep the cross. If you see it as a public space, it's important to make it open to all faiths.

On the one hand, I do tend to see the building as a historical space and am quite skeptical about the increasing public use, and ultimately distortion, of history. So, I'm fine with the cross.

Also, I graduated from William & Mary, and to be honest, it never bugged my heathen athiest self when I was there. Students don't spend a lot of time in the Wren building. It's treated as a museum, or a chapel, and rarely used for classes. And there's something reassuring about how old fashioned William & Mary still is. I found the W&M emphasis on traditions, no matter how silly, to be quite charming really. It's about the closest you can get to a classic English university in American university life. What was preferable about W&M to Mall University was that W&M has a core idea of what a university is, and they stick to it with dogged self-assurance. I'm quite skeptical of the increasing tendency of universities, public or private, to let the public at large make their decisions for them. Culture needs elites- and a cultural institution like a university needs to be able to tell the public: "You don't know as much as we do, so shut-up!" It's particuarly strange to let the public at large decide what history will be remembered and what will be forgotten. But, more than this, William & Mary is one of the world's leading liberal arts universities, and a big reason for that is that they don't see the University-as-such as something that can be shaped by public opinion.

On the other hand, the Wren Building can be seen as a public space already. Some people really do use the building as a place to go and think. Some people get married there, and some people pray there, and I understand that some members of other faiths want to be able to pray there without seeing a big cross. And there are plenty of people who would argue that Thomas Jefferson, an alumni of the school, probably would have prefered that public spaces remain religiously neutral. Besides, the school will allow the cross to be used for appropriate religious services in the building. And, once again, people are probably getting riled up about nothing. I've read articles by conservatives who see this as another step in our cultural decline, and eventual conquest by the Mongols, and it's hard to keep my eyes from rolling. It is supposed to be a public space, after all. And the public does fund the college, although if you know about Virginia public education, you know that they don't give a hell of a lot.

The most logical solution would be to make the Wren Chapel an independent museum, separate from the university, and therefore not publically funded. Treat it as a historical building and not as a university building. Again, this is pretty much how it's used anyway. Also, the cross is already removed when people ask for it to be, which makes this issue even less pressing than it already is.

Ultimately, however, I don't think it's a big deal that they're removing the cross. I'd like to see W&M stay separate from public pressures, frankly, but it could be worse. Mall University, with it's de facto grade inflation and weekly entertainment events, is much, much worse. Compared to that, the loss of a cross isn't worth a toss.

Update: The more I think about it, the less I think this matters anyway. Previously, they had the cross out, but were willing to remove it if people requested that they do so. Therefore, it really shouldn't have upset the non-Christians too much. Now, they don't have it out, but will bring it out for appropriate religious ceremonies. So it really shouldn't upset the Christians too much. In other words, it was much ado about nothing before, and it's much ado about nothing now.

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