Education in Dress-Up
It’s been a passionate, sometimes vicious controversy. Here where I live in Florida, the Flagler County Board of Education last month proposed a policy that would, for the first time in the district’s history, base coursework at every level on a firmly defined literary canon. By the end of fifth grade, students would be reciting Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in their sleep. In middle school they’d be agonizing over Faulkner’s moss-chocked sentences one week and Richard Wright’s white-hot angers the next. In high school they’ll be forgiven for mistaking Edward Gibbon, Montaigne and Henry Adams for contemporary columnists (their themes being so familiar).
Naturally, the policy triggered debates never witnessed up here. It wasn’t that parents objected to the new rigors. They’d apparently been craving an end to academic coddling and obsessive test-drilling that did nothing to open their kids’ minds. No, in town meeting after town meeting, in Internet chat rooms, in letters to the editor and in endless comment threads on the News-Journal’s education blog, the debates focused on the nature of the canon itself. So-called “progressives” defended its Eurocentric approach. “Traditionalists” complained that Americans are under-represented (the superintendent’s promise of free counseling for students assigned Rousseau and James Joyce didn’t help). An odd assortment of immigrants charged bias against Asian and African literature, while the local Muslim association — of all people — sent a discreet letter to the superintendent complaining about Salman Rushdie’s absence from reading lists (“an oversight,” the superintendent explained, “not political correctness”). One school board member threatened to read “Moby Dick” cover to cover, filibuster-style, at the next board meeting, if her colleagues didn't agree to move the book from eighth-grade reading lists to tenth grade. “Torture,” she said, “isn't constructive in literature.”
I am, of course, making all that up.
Parents would sooner debate the aesthetic differences between Romaine and Boston lettuce than engage in a meaningful debate over the demands of a curriculum (unless, that is, the curriculum happens to crimp children’s social activities and synchronized swimming lessons). Which explains the latest “education controversy” in Flagler County over school uniforms. It’s raging. It’s also pointless. First, the School Board already approved a uniform policy, joining about half the state’s school districts imposing uniforms. It did so before listening to its constituents. That’s not the first time this board has been intentionally deaf to public sentiment. Then again, public sentiment in this regard wouldn’t have made a difference: The board, with next year’s election season approaching, needed an artificial issue to make it look decisive. Uniforms are it. Second, it wouldn’t make a whit of difference if students went to school wearing burkhas or Birkenstocks (or both, as may now be the fashion in certain parts of Afghanistan). What students wear to school has about as much effect on their academic achievement as the weather, or whether their classrooms’ walls or off-white or a tad blue. Studies about school uniforms are like Bible verses. You can always find one to support your cause no matter how outlandish.
That’s not to say that there aren’t fine arguments on both sides. Children’s and adolescent’s fashions these days are an homage to the fantasies of bored and depraved Roman emperors: the sluttier the cooler (and that goes for both sexes). What parent isn’t tired of despairing trips to the local department store or of attrition warfare over clothes with one’s children? Uniforms end those anxieties. But they’re also the easy way out. Masking society’s inequalities and prejudices, instead of confronting them head on, teaches children deception and evasion as much as it may give them a break from feeling superior or inferior. It’s trading one vice for another. Maybe it makes it easier on parents and teachers. But why should parents and teachers have it easier? This isn’t camp we’re talking about. It’s education. If something as silly as clothing is defining its quality, the battle for academic achievement is long lost.
My objection to uniforms isn’t that they’re irrelevant, but that they give schools an added presumption of authority and regimentation that schools aren’t entitled to, and students don’t deserve — legal and academic fad in favor of treating students like wards of their schools notwithstanding: “Not only do students not have first amendment rights,” the Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish wrote (in defense of Clarence Thomas’ recent concurring opinion against a student’s right to make fun of drugs outside the schoolhouse doors), “they do not have any rights: they don’t have the right to express themselves, or have their opinions considered, or have a voice in the evaluation of their teachers, or have their views of what should happen in the classroom taken into account. (And I intend this as a statement about college students as well as high-school students.)” Schools, Fish says, aren’t democracies. “They are pedagogical contexts” with one mission: “the mastery of materials and the acquiring of analytical skills.”
I’d gladly agree, if that’s what schools, in fact, are (although the notion that any educational environment denied a free flow of ideas sounds awfully like the kind of schools the Taliban might run). But uniform wars give the lie to that mission. When was the last time teachers, parents and school boards filled meeting times and comment threads with debates over mastery of materials and analytical skills, let alone the meaning of a literary canon? Students aren’t dumb. They know skewed priorities when they see them. They have every right to ridicule authoritarian policies in dress-up. Unlike their parents and their school board, they probably have better things to do.