The Function of School Uniforms

It’s back to school time, and that means it’s time for some serious shopping, at least in our house.  Each year our kids grow bigger and it’s new everything – shoes, pants, socks, shirts, sweaters, you name it.

At this time of year, and when the credit card bill comes due in a few weeks, I always wonder about school uniforms.

Some people love it for their children, for a variety of reasons: cost, simplicity, discipline, minimizing peer pressure when it comes to what kids wear and what is deemed cool (or not), minimizing the ways that students signal allegiances with others in a particular group (as in a gang).

Some people reject the sense of uniformity that it imparts.

I went to a private high school that had what we might call a limited dress code: no jeans, all shirts must have collars – kind of a country club feel.  It was fine and not something I thought much about.  Others I know had uniforms and didn’t mind them at all.

Both positions have some valid points, and I don’t really have a side in the fight when it comes down to it, seeing plusses and minuses on each.

I wonder about uniforms for students who are beyond high school, though.  What about dress codes for college students, or even postgraduate students?  Does the idea of a school uniform take on a different slant, in your opinion, once the students are 18 and therefore are of the age when certain rights kick in?

At my institution, a private institution, we have a professional school that instituted a policy that requires students to wear certain clothes to class (collared shirts, no jeans – something very similar to my high school). The logic of this is that the school was seeking to “professionalize” the students by demonstrating what they will be expected to do and wear once they enter the workforce in this particular profession. The dean who instituted the policy explained it to me by saying that customers will expect them to dress this way, and therefore it was the school’s responsibility as part of its preparation of the students for the profession to teach them the proper way to present themselves.

I should add that the policy also forbid men to wear earrings and for anyone (male or female) to have a visible tattoo, let alone a pierced naval.  (I don’t remember such a policy at my rather stuffy high school.)  I’m pretty sure the Dean also frowned on facial hair – especially goatees.

Now, on one level, I understand the dean’s argument – professional graduate programs are indeed designed to help students move into a profession and are focused on helping students succeed in that profession. But I wonder about institutionalizing such a policy for students who are of legal age – these aren’t children, after all, and indeed many of them are older than 21.  This isn’t the armed forces, after all.  How much uniformity is sought?  (Let alone what rights, or lack thereof, are we implying when we institute such a policy?

I also wonder about the assumptions of what customers will want and expect, and how much it matters to them how the individual is dressed, whether he has an earring, or whether she has a tattoo on her ankle or arm.  It seems to me that what customers value is competence, skill, and ability. Aren’t these what they trust far more than appearances?

Don’t get me wrong – I recognize that appearances matter, but as a requirement of the program itself, the school is privileging appearances above skill and knowledge.

Are we going too far when we say that dressing a certain way, a way that establishes a corporate uniformity on students, should be part of our curriculum?  I recognize that this is a professional school that I am referring to, but this seems like another barrier broken in the long and steady march toward the corporatization of academia.

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