What We Can Learn from the Dress Code

As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons.  Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms?  I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.

I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:

  1. Uniforms instill a sense of professionalism, imitating the business-dress of their possible futures.
  2. They eliminate the hassle of trying to find outfits that meet the dress code and are also in style.
  3. They are cheaper in the long run.
  4. They act as a socioeconomic equalizer.
  5. They eliminate dress codes, that can, given the sexualization of women in our culture, unfairly target girls.

The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.

Let Freedom Reign

Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.

  • We celebrate it at our sporting events.
  • Our television shows explore themes surrounding freedom, often presenting negative caricatures of traditional authorities, limiters of freedom.
  • Most television talk shows take every possible freedom as an absolute good.
  • The TV news is full of stories about conflicts about freedom, and it is obvious that if you are not on the side of freedom, you are going to lose the argument.
  • In popular movies, one of the defining qualities of the bad guy is often that he/she is a suppressor of freedom.
  • Politicians can win majorities to their positions if they can ground them in Freedom.
  • Remembrance Day used to commemorate the Armistice that brought WWI to a close, but now it seems it is all about the Freedom that was won in that war.
  • Originally established to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, the language of Freedom dominates Memorial Day celebrations.
  • The internet, in its very form, perpetuates the values of unrestricted freedom.

It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire.  They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate.  Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil.  Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents.  This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school.  Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.

I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom.  They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.

What’s Wrong With Wearing A Hat?

Some students want to wear a hat to school.  We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code.  When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?”  There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat.  The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety.  Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.  It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.

Standards of propriety are relative.  They change according to place or time.  In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors.  Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building.  Students naturally counter this argument saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.  I respond that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.

There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats.  It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard.  The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist.  They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).

The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.  This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture.  Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large.  If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.  Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself.  This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude.  Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.

These students point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors.  Yes, there are some adults who wear a hat outdoors all day and don’t take them off when they come indoors.  This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day indoors.  Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate.  These are not a justification for wearing hats; they are, rather, the very things we are trying to counter.  In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students.  We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.

You can tell students things, and they might learn a little.  You can show them something, and they will learn a little better.  Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something.  But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity.  In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom.  They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.  This is becoming a heresy in our culture.

We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing.    Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God.  The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well.  A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.

Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement usually is the result of a typical adolescent emphasis on personal freedom.  By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms.  Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.

 

2 Comments

  1. Well written, my friend.

    Having spent four years in a uniform-school, I can tell you that there are daily reminders that shirts need to be tucked in, ties done up to the neck, and skirts not rolled up to move them above the knee. Uniforms shift the conversation, definitely, but the dress code still needs reinforcing.

    I am grateful for your words.

    • I was waiting for someone who was familiar with school uniforms to make that point. Because of my familiarity with students, I suspected that dress code issues didn’t evaporate with the uniform. Perhaps the same important conversations can occur in these contexts as well, Thanks for reading, Mark.

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