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Education Opinion

Fashion Statement

By Harold Howe II — August 01, 1996 5 min read
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President Clinton has come out for uniforms in public schools. I admire President Clinton. I will surely vote for him. But I can’t help wondering if it’s a good idea to have our president beating the drum for putting uniforms on 45 million kids. I am certainly going to find out which companies make such items and buy stock in them.

Bill Clinton is adroit at covering his tail. He didn’t directly support uniforms. Instead, he said, “If student uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline, and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that try them.’' As the saying goes, that’s a big “if.’'

According to Education Week, the president “ordered the Department of Education to distribute manuals [six pages long] to 15,000 school districts in the United States’’ to tell them how to “usher in legal and usable programs.’' Although it has never occurred to me before that there might be a uniform that is illegal, on second thought, I realize that uniforms can come in many shapes and colors--bikinis, for example, or those made by cutting up the American flag; and what about that Confederate flag or an embroidered prayer? Clearly there are large issues that will offer new opportunities for eager lawyers, as the new garb, presumably required by the local school district, works its way to acceptance.

My experience with school uniforms is limited. I have been the principal of three public high schools and two junior highs in two states, but no one even mentioned the possibility. In general, there was more concern about haircuts, or the lack of them, than about clothes. I did have to deal with one issue--how short should girls’ skirts and shorts be? The only other institution I know with an interest in this matter is St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. At the head of the waiting line for visitors to that church is a male official who decides what garments are acceptable. I asked him what rules he applied, and he said, “None. I just decide.’' My own take on this subject is that the best response to it is to keep talking about it; eventually, everyone involved will get bored and give up.

For four years, I attended a private boarding school for boys, which would never admit that it required a uniform, but it did. Students could not go into the dining room or a classroom without a necktie, shirt, and jacket. Probably because no student was brave enough to try it, there was no rule against going barefoot. But students were quite inventive about what they sometimes called the “above-the-waist rules.’'

Many students acquired a garment known as a “dickey.’' It is defined in my dictionary as “a man’s removable shirt front.’' It had a collar with a tie sewed into it but no sleeves or shirttails. Its top button was replaced by an elastic strip that allowed it to be slipped on over the head. If your jacket was buttoned, you were dressed; if not, you were naked above the belt. Eventually the school banished dickeys; it would have had to anyway when it went coeducational. Still, this is a nice example of the perils of requiring uniforms.

Denied the dickey, some of the students tried rolling up their trousers--first just one or two folds above their shoes and then halfway up the calf. It took the faculty about two weeks to banish this effort. Apparently some faculty members took the position: “Why bother? They will just think of something else.’'

I mention these experiences to suggest that uniforms may not be the best way to promote discipline and learning. A student with his pants rolled up to his knees (even on only one leg) is sending a subtle message. Today’s kids have worked hard at gaining the upper hand with such strategies, but many teachers have won the game by simply not noticing that their shoes are purposefully untied, that they are wearing hats, or other peculiarities. I wonder what we will say as uniforms are adopted and boys show up wearing skirts. Will we suspend them?

Required uniforms present a real dilemma. If the junior or senior high school is a place students genuinely like--a place where they are respected, where they are proud of their achievements and those of others, and where they are consulted about the value of uniforms--they may well accept them. In the earlier years, little children, who haven’t yet learned to question adults, will almost certainly accept them. But students in secondary schools without the aforementioned characteristics are likely to find ways to embarrass the enforcers of required uniforms. Legislated uniforms, like “legislated learning,’' constitute a highly questionable practice in democratic schools.

The bottom line in this situation is that schools with commitments to the strengths mentioned above can probably get away with uniforms, while those without such characteristics will have troubles with them.

Of course, there are plenty of people in this country who don’t want democratic schools. Some states still allow physical punishment. Maybe principals and teachers who whack little kids should have special uniforms to wear when they are administering discipline. The theory behind their carefully planned and recorded beatings is fundamentally the same as that of officials who administer the death penalty.

Like it or not, the uniform carries a burden of negative messages along with its positive implications of pride in performance. It suggests authority from above at a time when we are trying to free schools from a long overdose of such medicine; it emphasizes commonality in a fashion that can oversell its importance at a time when we are trying to help children understand and honor diversity in a changing society; as a general proposition, it leans in the direction of the Spartans and away from the Athenians. Is that where we want to go?

In light of these considerations, maybe the president of the United States should consider another, or at least a parallel, project for improving the schools. Many schools are being forced by budget cuts to follow the pattern of corporations--downsizing.

In schools, this means reducing the teaching staff. Two major victims of this retreat from learning in the lives of children are teachers of art and music. They are seen as “frills’’ by some administrators and many school board members. These worthies, in turn, are diligently caught up in the national mania for a utilitarian view of schooling that fails to recognize something called “civilization.’' This word seldom occurs in their cries for excellence.

It would be both refreshing and useful to have the president pick up art and music and give them a push. My guess is that he would find even more enthusiastic supporters in those realms than he will in the call for uniforms.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Fashion Statement

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