July-August 1996By Robert Coles
We have been hearing a good deal of late about the value of uniforms in schools as a means of encouraging young people to be more disciplined, law-abiding. The rationale goes like this: Children and young people need a sense of order; need firm rules with respect to how they look and behave; need to feel themselves very much part of a particular institution whose educational and ethical principles are meant to strengthen a community, and by extension our nation -- and uniforms help address that necessary psychological and moral aspect of child-rearing. Not that clothes in and of themselves possess magical transformative powers. A child (or adult) bent on being rowdy, mean, hurtful, or criminal can do so wearing a coat and tie, and shoes polished to a sparkle, whereas youngsters who appear to certain fastidious and formal adults as slobs and worse (their pants wrinkled, their shirts sloppily worn) can be conscientious, decent, considerate, kindly -- respectful of others, if not respectful of the notion some of us have as to how they ought to be attired. Moreover, for some young people, such casual, laid-back garb is itself a uniform -- to appear relaxed and "cool" is felt to be a mandatory manner of self-presentation.
For years, actually, I have heard the word "uniform" used by certain Harvard college students of mine, who have arrived in Cambridge from small towns in the South or Midwest, and aren't familiar with a kind of constraint that is imposed by indirection: "I went to a Catholic school in Minnesota, and we were told we didn't all have to wear the same kind of blouse and skirt and socks and shoes, the way it used to be -- but, you know, we did have to wear some kind of blouse and skirt: I mean, no jeans, and no tee-shirts. So, when I came here I wasn't as uptight as some people I met here [during the first days of orientation] who came from schools where there really were uniforms and everyone had to wear them, be dressed the same. But, it doesn't take long to discover that there's a uniform' here too -- and if you don't wear it, you'll pay a price. I mean [I had obviously asked] here, if you wear a skirt and blouse to class, you can feel out of it: too formal. Here, the scruffier the better, that's what you learn right off, boy or girl! There's a way to dress when you go to class, just as there was when I was in high school, only the clothes are different -- and Lord help you, at breakfast, if you come into the dining room looking neat and tidy, and your hair is combed and you're wearing a dress (a dress!) and some jewelry, a bracelet or a necklace: People will think you're on your way to a job interview, or something has happened -- you have to go to a hospital or a funeral or church, something unusual! You'll hear, Is everything all right?' Now, I hear myself thinking those words -- if I get the urge to wear clothes that are just the slightest bit formal,' the way I used to all the time! If I told my roommates or others in the [freshman] dorm what I've just said, they'd think I was odd -- making a case out of nothing, as one guy put it when I got into a discussion with him about all this, and made the mistake of pointing out that all the boys here wear khakis or jeans and sneakers, the dirtier the better, and open shirts, work shirts, a lot of them, as if we're in a logging camp out West!"
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