Friday, 24 January 2020

Vague thoughts on school dress codes

The following is a first draft of a brief position statement I wanted to write regarding the problem of overbearing high school dress codes. It's something that's been bugging me for years, and I finally wanted to congeal my thoughts.


I have two perspectives on the question of [our] dress code, one academic and one personal.

My personal perspective is simple. [It is] asserted (with no attempt at supporting this belief with evidence) that a looser dress code will inevitably lead the students into chaos and lawlessness, ruining their ability to learn. My personal experience says the exact opposite of this. What set off my teenage rebellious phase (starting around age 15) was not wanting to greedily expand my personal freedom, but rather anger and resentment at the school's frequent uniform-based harassment, despite my high academic achievements. It gave me the impression that my capacity to learn was not valued by the school, and that I was just seen as their marketing tool to draw in the next round of paying customers. Consequently, when I did begin to rebel, I also began to abandon my own learning, and my marks dropped considerably. What turned me around in the end and saved my academic career was not rules and punishment, but the efforts of the better teachers who showed that they valued my mind more than my looks. Now I would like to fill that supporting role for each of my own students.

From a more technical and objective perspective, dress codes have historically been rooted in classism, sexism, and other forms of unacceptable discrimination.

The notion that it is wrong to look "scruffy" is a direct attack on those who cannot afford to always dress "correctly", a trap for filtering out the poor. [This] may be a private school and a business, but we have taught many students whose parents could not always pay the full official fees, and we are a better school for this, functionally and ethically. Every student we lose to petty financial concerns is a deep loss, to the missing student, to the teachers, and to their fellow students. And every educational loss is of course an injury to society as a whole.

Distinctions between girls' and boys' dress codes similarly existed solely to mark and enforce outdated and harmful gender stereotypes. Our education is not aimed separately at boys vs. girls, young men vs. young women. It is aimed universally at students, those who wish to learn. No part of our dress code should pretend otherwise.

And most broadly of all, dress codes tend to be culturally exclusionary. The 'formal' and 'business casual' looks that most South African (and many international) businesses take for granted today are simply slightly modern forms of 19th century European upper class dress (particularly the obligatory but very impractical buttoned shirt, tie, and inflexible, non-gripping office shoes). This arbitrary fashion standard was imposed on the rest of the world during colonial times, and we should feel no obligation to maintain it anymore in the 21st century.

Lastly, I worry that we are doing a disservice to our students if we over-emphasize their looks and unimportant standards of outer appearance. We run the risk of encouraging them to become shallow and obsessed with a trivial facade of style over substance. If we want to teach them good standards of self-discipline and academic ambition, then we should teach these standards directly and honestly, and not couch them in a confusing and distracting mess of unrelated superficiality. Even more valuably, we can use this as an opportunity to teach them to enjoy and accept all the diversity of human culture, old and new, from all over the world. I have no doubt that most parents, presented with this perspective, will appreciate and accept our goals.

Consequently, I feel our senior dress code should tend to aim for maximum inclusion and acceptance. Only when clothing or adornment demonstrably hinders learning should it be addressed (but not punished).