SCHOOL UNIFORMS: Seeing Schoolchildren as Canned Sardines
by Jordan Riak
As the students of Sydney Grammar paraded onto the field, a mother standing next to me gushed: "Ah! Don't they look splendid!" All were smartly uniformed of course -- these sparkling university-bound professionals-to-be, future leaders of government and captains of industry. All were white. All were male.

My first impulse upon seeing my sons smartly outfitted in their first school uniforms was to photograph them and send the picture home to New Jersey for their grandparents' pride and pleasure. We were new arrivals in Australia where uniforms for schoolchildren were, and I suppose still are, standard.

But the novelty and the charm of it quickly faded.

On one occasion, my eldest son, then in his teens, was challenged and threatened by a teacher because of the trinket he was wearing on the chain around his neck. "What's this? You know jewelry is against the rules here. Get rid of it. If I see that thing again, you know what you'll be getting."

On another occasion, my middle son was ridiculed in front of his class because of a violation of the dress code. His teacher, referring to his shoes, announced: "We don't need grubs in this school." That morning, I had suggested he wear his sneakers because his school shoes were still wet from the previous day's rain.

I don't remember if my youngest son ever experienced a problem regarding the uniform. What was happening to him at that time overshadowed other concerns. He was receiving the standard treatment for dyslexia: a daily regimen of public humiliation.

There is a universal belief among parents that by controlling their children's lives down to the smaller details, they can help determine their destiny, or at least steer them past the worst pitfalls. In these rapidly-changing times, the illusion is comforting, and frightened parents are apt to seize upon any strategy, including look-alike packaging of their offspring, that seems to assure their safety and success.

Perhaps a more accurate, though less flattering, interpretation of parents' compulsion to micromanage their children, is that they are acting, not out of a desire to protect and nurture, but rather out of their own morbid fear of freedom derived from their own overcontrolled upbringing. Such parents' first impulse is to thwart the natural freedom-striving of their children. They respond with punishments such as rigid feeding schedules for their infants, then spankings, uniforms, curfews etc. When warmth and encouragement are most needed, they apply strictures and ice -- anything to immobilize, stymie growth and forestall emancipation. The prospect that any child should have a more joyful start in life than they had drives them up the wall. "You can't just let kids run wild," they fume.

Having experienced two cultures, one where school uniforms are ubiquitous and the other were their use is limited mainly to Catholic schools and military academies, I now believe that school uniforms are educationally counterproductive and that the usual reasons given in support of their use are folkloric and contrary to the evidence. I believe that the regimentation of children's dress is a vestige of the sumptuary laws of the middle ages. Today, anyone attempting to promote a return to that standard for adults would be considered crazy.

The real but unspoken reason for school uniforms is that they establish in the child's mind a constant reminder, as well as create a visible symbol recognizable to everyone, of his or her inferior status. Additionally, the use of school uniforms provides the least competent teachers -- the ones who constantly need to shore up their own fragile status -- a ready-made excuse for asserting their authority and inflicting punishments. By these means, they create the illusion that they are engaged in useful work. Schools that require uniforms typically waste much valuable time on inspections and imposition of punishments for dress-code infractions. During my stay in New South Wales, prior to the abolition of the cane there, I found that one of the most common justifications for beating students was their being out of uniform. Schools that abandon uniforms usually show an immediate boost in student morale and a lessening of tension between students and authority figures.

The reasons most frequently given for the use of school uniforms are:

1) They reduce fashion-related competition between students thus freeing them to focus their attention on their studies.

2) They eliminate or reduce resentments between students of higher and lower socioeconomic classes by making them appear equal.

3) They eliminate or reduce gang-related violence by denying students the opportunity to display tribal colors.

4) They are economical because the well-made garments last for years, can be used in turn by younger siblings and are not subject to obsolescence due of changing fads.

Now let's take a closer look. Taken in order, I contend that:

1) Fashion-related competition among youth derives from fashion-related competition among the adults who provide the model for that behavior. While children temporarily can be forcibly excluded from such competition, the likely consequence will be a heightened desire to evade the restriction. This desire is powerfully stimulated by advertising directed at the youth market from the makers and sellers of clothing. The first thing that uniformed schoolchildren do upon their return home from school is to change out of the clothes that denote low status and submission to authority and into clothes of their own choosing. Many will tell you they feel an instant uplift upon changing out of school clothes.

2) Class discrimination, i.e., snobbery, amongst students derives from class discrimination in the adult society. Students in, say, Australia or England, are acutely aware of each other's economic and social status, uniformity of school attire notwithstanding. They know who lives in a "good neighborhood" and who doesn't and whose family drives what kind of car. They are quicker than their mufti-clad American counterparts to discriminate against classmates whose station in life is less privileged than their own. I am not claiming that the absence of school uniforms promotes tolerance, but rather that there is no evidence to show that their use curbs prejudice.

Furthermore, since schools select distinctive uniforms, students attending a school serving an economically deprived neighborhood are instantly distinguishable from their more fortunate counterparts at the other end of town. Within a given school, uniform styles often denote a student's grade level, thus are more likely to promote, rather than reduce, rank-based bullying such as hazing and fagging.

3) The assumption that clothing is a factor contributing to gang violence is based on a naive notion of what motivates people to violent acts and to gang affiliation. The forcible substitution of officially-approved colors for gang colors during school hours does not address the root causes of youth violence nor does anything to impede the violence itself. In fact, the uniform may facilitate violence because its wearer's individual identity is subsumed by the group identity. Aren't the most dangerous mobs of all the ones that wear uniforms?

4) School uniforms are not economical. Students require two distinct, non-interchangeable sets of clothes. Manufacturers of school uniforms typically cooperate closely with the schools that use their product. This relationship, founded on a captive market, invites corruption. Not surprisingly, school uniforms, relative to mufti of equivalent quality, are more expensive. This is due in part to the relatively low production runs of a particular design. In response to the cost factor, some schools have a clothing pool consisting of donated old uniforms. However, a shabby, third-hand, illfitting uniform received gratis from the school clothing pool is an advertisement of its wearer's dependence on charity -- the very thing uniforms are supposed to conceal.

In the United States, any attempt by public school authorities to require parents to obtain special clothing for their children will be perceived by at least a few people as an unwarranted intrusion by an agent of the government into areas of taste, personal choice and how free citizens spend, or don't spend, their dollars. It's hard to imagine that politicians would fail to anticipate the legal fall-out. Nevertheless, many of them, following the lead of President Clinton, persist in touting the imaginary benefits of school uniforms -- a placebo, cynically prescribed for the gullible.

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