Tuesday, April 04, 2006

This Season's Scholastic Fashions

Congratulations to the District 186 school board committee that suggested that pajama pants and slippers may not be proper school attire. Allowing students to wear lounge ware and bedclothes* to school sends the wrong message as to what is expected of them in the classroom. And if you think that clothing doesn’t convey meaning, you aren’t a very astute observer of human behavior

Like it or not, clothing is a fundamental form of cultural communication and has a profound effect on our attitudes and behaviors. Ever since the Paleolithic man first donned a loincloth, our species has placed great significance on what people are wearing (Saber-tooth tiger fur before Labor Day? Taaackky!) Clothing has the ability to instantly alter our moods and influence both our expectations for ourselves, and those that others have for us.**

Put a young man in a set of dress blues and he stands tall. Put him in orange coveralls and he feels cast out. A woman who earns the honor of wearing a black robe will feel proud that she has further disproved the notion that females are intellectually inferior to men. Put Sandra Day O’Connor in a black French maid’s outfit and, well, let’s just leave that between her and Mr. Day O’Connor.

I’ve always been a proponent of school uniforms and dress codes, even if it does go against some of more liberal views in this area (I have no problem with green hair as long as it isn’t slimy.) I have the venerable television news magazine 60 Minutes to thank for my strict views on school attire.

Several years ago, Dan or Morley or Ed, I can’t remember which, was visiting a Marine boot camp. Immediately after a clip showing a young cadet being verbally berated for not attaining the proper shine on his belt buckle, the host asked the sergeant what was so damned important about a shiny belt buckle. I wondered the same thing.

The sergeant’s answer was both reasonable and enlightening. He stated that if they could train these cadets to give their full concentration to something as insignificant as a belt buckle, then they would know that they could be counted on to carry out more important tasks where their safety or that of others may be on the line.

From an opposite direction, if a teacher can get kids to understand that the same t-shirt and shorts they wear while playing on the Xbox aren’t appropriate for school, then maybe these kids will learn that the same vacuous mind-set that allows them to waste-away the hours in such a manner isn’t conducive to learning Algebra.

Yes, some students will excel in school no matter what they are wearing. But in schools we are not dealing with individuals most of the time, therefore the issue must be addressed considering a group dynamic.

A single teacher who is tasked with teaching a group of twenty or more students must instill discipline in her class so that all of her time isn’t spent dealing with behavioral issues. Discipline requires a significant degree of conformity from the group. And the necessary conformity can be achieved, at least in part, by a student body that looks as if they are all there to do the same thing. Preferably get an education, not fall asleep.

Many decry the lemming-like state they fear is produced when students are forced to all dress alike. This is a very superficial position to take for anyone espousing the importance of selfhood.

There are many more meaningful ways for a student to express his individuality at school then through sagging trousers. Such things as art, music, and poetry come immediately to mind, but really, anytime students are asked to think freely they have an opportunity to express their uniqueness in a way that speaks more to their creativity than does the slogan on their t-shirt. And unless a student is designing her clothes herself, she’s not really expressing her individuality; she is simply following the fashion trends set by the marketers at Abercrombie and Fitch. So who is the real lemming?

There is plenty time for students to show up for class looking as if they are still in bed, or never went to bed, once they get to college. By that time, most kids are in school because they want to be, or at least because they know it is in their best interest to be. Discipline isn’t a problem in college classrooms, at least in my experience. But students should have to earn a high school diploma, or at least their first million, before they start dressing like Hef.

*I suppose that in today’s topsy-turvy, down-is-up adolescent world, it is possible that these kids are wearing plaid jumpers and collared shirts to bed, but I have to believe that the appeal of pajamas at school is that it replicates the feeling of impending slumber.

**Clothing can sometimes deceive. I remember one time walking from the parking lot at White Oaks Mall towards the entrance as I pushed my daughter in her stroller. Before me were two teenage African Americans wearing what television had taught me was classic gangsta attire. When the pair reached the door, one of them turned around, saw me approaching with the stroller, and then stepped aside to hold the door for me. I admit I was surprised by this gesture. I didn’t suspect at anytime before that they poised a danger, but I also didn’t expect a random act of kindness. My bad.


Mikey 57 said...

I must concur with your opinion. But for an entirely different reason. I think it is a good idea because kids can be cruel little creatures. While this has always been a true statement, I think it is a million times worse than ever before. The short fat kid already has enough on his plate (no pun intened) than to be made fun of just because calvin klien doesn't make a husky size pair of jeans with a 36 waste and 28 inch inseem.
Dress codes elminate another reason for a kid to be labled different, weird, dorky, ugly, stupid etc... While dress codes do build "discpline", I would say that applies more to High school students....How much displine are you really going to instill in a 4th grader? But a dress code on a 4th grader removes what can be a huge obstacle for learning...
Self-consciences....one large reason for ridicule equals one huge block in concentration and retention.
But I do agree with you, no matter how conservative a practice it is.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...


I agree with you on the ridicule factor, although I have no firsthand experience in this regard. There is also an economic benefit to be had through uniforms and dress codes.

But I do think that even a fourth grader behaves differently depending on what they are wearing. If they are taught to be quiet and respectful in church, then they will probably exhibit that same learned behavior when wearing their Sunday best, but not at church. It's just a theory, but it sounds reasonable.

Thanks for commenting,

Monkey Boy said...

A little side-note to the SJ-R article.

Did you catch the part about the District #186 official who had to call his son to find out what an I-Pod was? Where has his head been buried for the last 3 years?

Someone let that hip Cat know we landed on the moon.

ThirtyWhat said...

I went to a Catholic school with the standard dress code. Plaid skirts ... white shirts ... and (gasp) of COURSE shorts underneath. LOL

I think a dress code is a great idea ... but for the record, the ridicule factor will be there whether the kids wear uniforms or not.

Even in our school, kids FOUND reasons to pick on the weak. Her Nike shoes didn't have the right color swoosh ... or ... her socks were the "fold over kind" instead of the "scrunchie kind."

Seriously ... kids can be cruel little bastards. And, while there are a hundred good reasons to have our kids wear uniforms ... I guarantee you that somebody will be left out because their khakis are the "lighter" shade ...

Just my two cents ...