Monday, August 13, 2007

Uniforms are for teams and gangs

With new school years starting across the country in the coming weeks, I thought I'd take these next few days to share some of my own thoughts about the educational system. I'm no teacher (thanks, NCLB!), but I was a student from 1984 to 2005, a time span that itself is old enough to graduate from college (and drink). So I like to think I know a little about what I'm going to discuss.

Today's topic is school uniforms. I don't like them and never have. Not that I wouldn't ever wear clothes that look like them (I often do), but the ideas behind them are so flawed that it's a wonder anybody supports them as a serious solution to educational problems.

When I was in high school, our local school board began to seriously consider uniforms. Conversely, I was seriously ready to boycott school if that ever happened. Fortunately, I never had to find out how strong my principles were, because uniforms weren't adopted until I was in college. They were first introduced among the youngest kids in our school system, and eventually adopted in the high schools once the teenagers who knew freedom had shipped out.

Freedom. It's an interesting choice of words, one that is used by both anti- and pro-uniform camps - the former earnestly, the latter derisively. Proponents of uniforms say that students don't have the right to express themselves in school. These are often the same folks who think that a school newspaper must be line-read by the school principal to make sure no one writes anything too edgy. They argue that kids are in school strictly to learn, as if choosing clothes and learning about the ultimate superficiality of appearance isn't an education unto itself.

Another angle, regularly put forth by a teacher at my former high school, is that wearing a uniform prepares one for the workplace. Where do I begin with that? First off, tying success to conformity does little justice to most fields outside of the corporate sphere (and even many within). Second, students aren't mini-adults going to their job every day; that attitude does little justice to the majesty of education. Third, why not install a water cooler, cubicles and office supplies if we're going to take the Steve Carell route? Given the way schools are increasingly teaching to the test and pushing students toward being good office drones, it's the next logical step.

But why go the expression route when there so many more practical reasons to dismiss mandatory uniforms?

--Uniforms introduce avenues for discipline where none existed before. Depending on a teacher's mood, a straight-A student could be busted for not having their collar in the right place. I presume that's supposed to make up for the fact that that street clothes are, um, a distraction from class. This is the sort of thing that belongs in the military or juvenile center, not your average school campus.

(A parallel: Though we didn't have uniforms in high school, they did force us to start wearing our IDs. In 10th grade, I was nearly sent to the office by a very mean vice principal who didn't like that I was wearing my ID off of my belt loop, as opposed to on my shirt, where the clip would have torn it. She yanked it off my belt loop and shoved it painfully onto my shirt. Oh was my fault for trying to get into the LIBRARY, so I could LEARN on my lunch break!)

--For teachers who disagree with the policy - and there are many - enforcement becomes a crisis of conscience. I saw enough of that in high school without a uniform policy. Hearing teachers say, "I personally don't care, but I have to follow the rules," is the quickest way to corrupt a student's sense of ethics. Though it does sound like perfect training for the business world.

--At most schools, uniforms have to be tucked in. And while uniforms are meant to diminish appearance stereotypes, they do offer much opportunity to pick on a self-conscious chubby (or skinny, or nerdy...) student. Which, in turn, makes the chubby (or skinny, or nerdy...) student dread school. Which then perpetuates the very problem that uniforms are meant to prevent.

--In some districts, students are often given the opportunity (on "spirit days" or other themed days) to pay a few dollars to wear whatever they want. In addition to being a naked opportunity for extortion, the very existence of these days undermines every argument for school uniforms. If street clothes are such a dire threat to the student community, then why allow them on any day?

--Uniforms do not save money on least for those who would benefit most from saving that money. Sure, you might save a few bucks by buying uniforms if your entire wardrobe comes from Hollister or the Limited, Too (not that they would, because rich kids are getting those clothes anyway). But what about the kid who wears hand-me-downs, donated clothes or otherwise non-designer apparel? They have to go an "official" uniform provider (lest they be accused of having the wrong tiny emblem on their shirt), which is often in a pricey part of town and is inevitably expensive. Donated uniforms don't help, because they tend to look used, which opens up the kid for teasing anyway. Kids always tease with whatever's at their disposal. Even when every child is exactly alike and no distinction can be made, they still have zits.

--Unless the student owns five uniforms, they are likely to repeat without washing or rinsing. And that's just unhygienic. I always found it convenient to be able to wear any shirt at my disposal, none of which showed any belly button (aside from my school-issued football tops).

--If there's such an epidemic with fashion-related teasing (though I wasn't aware that anyone had been shot for Reebok Pumps since 1990 or so), then maybe the problem is with the adults. After all, the kids aren't bombarding themselves with ads from minute one telling them they have to wear this or that to be accepted. And, in most cases, the parents buy into the same lies. Forcing uniforms to be high-end designer labels can't possibly help. Neither can (in many cases) not regulating shoes, coats or jewelry. For a uniform to be effective in the fashion-equalizing regard, it would have to be exactly the same for everyone from head to toe. Kim Jong-Il could probably recommend a good tailor.

--No matter what the superficial cause, bullying will happen. It's part of growing up (and, believe me, I know). If children are being bullied over clothing, it will happen whether or not we remove that factor from schools. And, at least at school, someone can do something about it.

Uniforms are but a distraction from solving the real problems with education. With such a highly visible measure at their disposal, school boards can appear to take action without actually having to do anything. Much like building prisons is seen as being tough on crime, when the real deterrent would be to figure out so many crimes are being committed in the first place. But that's more homework than anyone seems to want to do.

(Oh, and Karl Rove resigned. Who will be the next brown shirt?)


Donnie McDaniel said...

Great take on it Ian. The mother in the story I covered, spent $260 on five sets. That may not come off as a lot to some, but for many on a fixed or low income, it means a lot.

Imagine being a single parent and having the school take you from work to go see about your kid's socks or shirts. The woman with the honor roll kid had to leave work. An only parent can ill afford to miss work to play fashion games with a nutty principal at school.

The threat to keep those kids out of class till the alleged violations were corrected, was the prime example of why uniforms don't tend to stop what it was meant to.

The 100+ students kept from class that day, made up 1/10 of the student population. It's just plain stupid. Get this, the email listing for the principal on the school web site, does not work! I wonder why?

Katie said...

"[Rove] said the first thing he'll do after leaving the White House is 'go dove hunting in West Texas.'"

It seems Rove is fond of the metaphor. Go figure.

Cajun Tiger said... conservatives are nothing but a bunch of nazis so it should be easy to replace Rove.

Mykeal said...

Im a 17 year old guy living on my own and going to school and working to pay all my bills, my school tried to implement uniforms and I almost had to drop out because I couldnt afford them. what with gas prices, grocery bills, car insurance, rent, I can barely get by as it is, its just disgustingly insane that they would consider it.

Anonymous said...

The next brown shirt will be in the next administration, in the same role, no matter who wins in 2008.

Anonymous said...

I think School Uniform should be band becuse it doest make us individuals;)