I recently received an email from a young lady, a high school sophomore, asking for help in assembling a timeless, classic wardrobe. I was impressed with her foresight, and with her family’s intelligent choices: she implied that they lived modestly among middle class families, in spite of having a substantial net worth.
She was weary of chasing fashion trends, and, more interestingly, was hoping that dressing in a more classic style might help her ‘not be picked on by other students’.
I found the comment disturbing, but not surprising. High school is a notorious breeding ground for peer pressure and ridicule. Most of us never forget real or perceived slights or persecution inflicted upon us by our classmates. As teenagers, we are immature, emotionally vulnerable, prone to due and undue anxiety, and often very dependent upon and influenced by the opinions of others. (High school, and high school reunions, are the things movies are made of for a reason.)
Private schools can, and often do, mandate that their students wear uniforms. The reasons for this requirement may be obvious to some, but warrant repeating.
First, the uniform removes a lot of ammunition some students may have to make fun of other students, especially students from less affluent backgrounds. Everybody’s wearing a button-down shirt and khakis. This eliminates the divisiveness that often occurs when some students can afford to wear designer labels and other students can only afford to wear their siblings hand-me-downs.
Second, the uniforms make it clear to students that they are students. They are not members of a gang. They are not their parents’ money. They are members of a school’s student body. Uniforms also make this clear to the public, and make it much easier to identify someone who’s on campus without authorization. They also subtly communicate who’s in charge. (Hint: it’s not the students.)
Third, some research has shown that school uniforms have no effect on academic performance, attendance, a reduction in gang violence, and graduation rates. On the other hand, some studies have shown that uniforms do positively impact overall student behavior. Personally, if there was a chance that public education results could be improved by implementing mandatory uniform requirements, I’d be a parent in favor of it.
Why? First, it will save a lot of arguments between parents and children about what a child is or is not going to wear to school each morning. “You’re wearing the uniform.” Not a skirt that’s misdemeanor-high-up- the-thigh.
Second, it will save parents money when shopping for back to school clothes. “You’re wearing the uniform.” Not two-hundred dollar sneakers advertised on television.
Third, it will, as previously mentioned, save a lot of angst and tears about Jenny having a nicer dress than your daughter or Johnny having a fancier jacket than your son. “You’re wearing a uniform.”
Fourth, several studies have shown a reduced level of overall violence on and around schools when uniforms are worn by students. I’d want to make every effort to keep my child safer at school.
Opponents of the school uniform argue that it is a hardship on less affluent parents. My reply is that your child is wearing clothes to school every day right now. Next year, your child will be wearing clothes to school. You will pay for those clothes. The only difference will be that you will buy clothes that the school requires, rather than clothes retailers persuade you to buy through advertising. And, please note, research shows parents spend less money buying school uniforms than buying back to school clothes that are not uniforms.
Another argument is that school uniforms violate a student’s right to self expression. If by this someone means that school uniforms prevent a young adolescent girl from dressing like a prostitute, then yes, that is absolutely true. (Side note: if parents can’t stop their children from dressing like rock stars or the groupies who follow them, then school uniforms can. Another plus.)
Furthermore, I think we’ve confused education with art. Students go to school to learn. After receiving a good education, and even in the process of it, they can express themselves with work, words, ideas, essays, extracurricular activities, and protests…all while wearing a uniform. They will, of course, express themselves more effectively after receiving a good education. Uniforms will, most likely, contribute to providing the environment for this to happen.
I think we must also limit how much input high school students have into their own learning environments. They’re teenagers. They don’t know anything, candidly speaking. That’s why they’re in school. We don’t let them vote. We don’t send them off to war. We don’t sell them guns.
If we were honest, we’d feel more comfortable if they didn’t have the right to drive cars or legally spend money. (Wink, nod.) We try our best to keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
If we’re smart, we try to teach them morals and caution them about early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and a myriad of other dangerous issues. If they’re even remotely trying to do their job, parents worry like hell about their teenage children. School uniforms can help.
School uniforms can help remove the petty and emphasize the important: it doesn’t matter how you dress but what you learn that counts. School uniforms can reinforce equality in an increasingly unequal society: you’re all students here, not reflections of your families’ backgrounds. School uniforms can contribute to a safer school environment: drug pushers and child molesters aren’t likely to invest in school uniforms.
Old Money families often send their children to private schools that enforce a uniform policy for many of the same reasons that I’ve detailed here. Many of these same advantages and benefits could be available to parents and students who attend public schools.
Parents just have to demand it.