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School Uniforms and Pride, Envy, Responsibility

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To the Editor:

During a recent visit to the United States, I read with interest your correspondence and articles on school uniforms ("Dressing for Success," Feb. 14, 1996; "School Uniforms," Commentary, April 3, 1996). My colleagues and I have carried out extensive studies of the effect of uniforms in England which, as you will know, has had a tradition of school uniforms going back to the very earliest days of the introduction of schooling.

After World War I, every effort was made by the Labor government to try to bring the state (public) schools up to the standard of long-established private schools. Many state schools decided that they would introduce uniforms in an attempt to "iron out" the differences between various types of schools. This proved to be successful, as it gave all pupils a sense of identity and of pride in their own schools.

However, it must be said that as the years have passed, the sense of pride has diminished in many school communities and, in spite of the insistence on the maintenance of rigid rules on the wearing of uniforms, it has not proved to be the guarantee against the increase of violence, indiscipline, truancy, and disruption that was the case in earlier days.

In your country, where there does not appear to be the same intense competition between state and private schools, it does not seem to us that the introduction of school uniforms can play any significant part in changing student attitudes or in inducing a more serious learning environment.

As with us, Americans will probably discover that it is not possible to divorce the problems in schools from those in society in general, and that, therefore, we must all look to the wider community to accept its responsibility in cooperating and working with students, parents, and teachers to identify and address problems as they arise.

Derek C. Wilde
European Director
International Association for Gifted and Able Children
West Midlands, England

To the Editor:

The reason for having school uniforms is obvious: They remove envy, that most corrosive of the Seven Deadly Sins. This is reason enough, but there are others: time and money saved that was once spent on shopping, school pride promoted, the morning "what to wear" controversy ended, time not wasted thinking about clothes. The benefits of uniforms are so numerous that the constant controversy over them makes one suspicious of motives.

When I was a scholarship (read: charity) student at Lincoln School of Teachers College long ago, I went to school in homemade dresses and hand-me-downs. Most of the students wore clothes from Best's--a few had clothes from London--and one girl had clothes from Paris, which was actually considered nouveau riche for children. My interest in clothes, then as now, was minimal, but my pitiful wardrobe was a gnawing sorrow to my mother. My father, a graduate student/instructor, had an income of $4,500, of which one-third went toward rent. We were poor.

Uniforms emancipate students and their families not only from snobbery on the part of classmates, but also from snobbery--be it said to their shame--on the part of teachers. The university town in which I live is riddled with snobbery; every school board meeting makes it all too clear. Uniforms would be a blessing here; not expensive private school blazers, and so forth, but cotton blouses and jumpers or skirts for the girls, cotton shirts or T-shirts and cotton (not denim) trousers for the boys. Inventory problems for merchants would be cut enormously, with lower prices as a result. Outgrown items--if any--could be exchanged (like Scout uniforms), and local charities could provide quiet subsidies where needed.

In some schools, teachers themselves wear uniforms: robes. These lend dignity and authority. An item in the Veray, Ind., Reveille of Oct. 12, 1915, recorded that "the lady teachers of the Patriot town schools have recently adopted a plan of wearing uniforms. Their costumes are made of blue percale with white collars and cuffs." How wise.

Uniforms? Yes. One does suspect the opposition of a brokenwing ploy to distract us from academic deficiencies.

--Jean Patton

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