It is an axiom of consultants who advise independent schools that if you want to distract the entire community – staff, students, parents, and alumni- then establish a committee to review the uniform. In my experience, at several schools, this is true: little is easier to hold an opinion on than the place of the uniform in a school, and my experience is also that these opinions tend to be deeply fixed. On the one hand, the issue of clothing is trivial and superficial; on the other hand it is symbolic and deep.
For those of you who are holding your breath, we are not going to strike a committee on the uniform.
Nevertheless: few thoughts, based on a career-full of “positions” on uniform and dress code that have run the full gamut. Most independent schools in Canada have a uniform, as do most independent schools in the rest of the world. The exception is the United States, where uniforms were largely eliminated in the late sixties and early seventies. The rationale in these cases – and it holds a lot of water- is that if a young person cannot learn the navigate the rocks and currents of what to wear, then heaven help the other decisions one must make in life.
One of the objections to uniforms is precisely that: uniformity. In more words: the same uniform day in and day out may end up eroding the very independence of mind we want to encourage, and produce a bland though polished conformity of values, prejudices and perspectives on the world. In the garden of our school, where these students are preparing for higher learning and for life, observers might expect more random blossoms and their resilient stems, but instead they see the cultivation of subtle shades and differences. That aesthetic impulse to see everyone turned out the same, acting and behaving according to a charming pattern, is more of a curse than a blessing, in my experience. However, also in my experience, this expectation arises more in the mind of the beholders than in the minds of the students themselves. The students, frankly, couldn’t care less what is going on in the minds of the beholders; they are going to be themselves, and fully themselves, regardless. When I do hear the occasional parent advocate a stricter compliance with the dress code, I tend to encourage them to observe and reflect on what their sons and daughters wear on weekends, on outings with friends, or shopping expeditions. One can learn little truths from their outward appearance on these occasions.
What decided me strongly in favour of uniforms was the set of visits I made to schools in other, considerably poorer contexts, when I had my sabbatical three years ago. For some affluent students, the decision of what to wear can transform nuances into sledge hammers: the judgement that another student or adult might wield, intended or not, can release a flood of insecurities that can sweep away an adolescent who is already wrestling with the question of exactly who she is, or who he will become. For the student who is not so affluent, and who can’t begin to compete in this marathon of stresses that adolescence can become, these pressures can be worse. We have a broad range of economic backgrounds in our school: over 20% of our student body is on financial aid, and over a handful have full or nearly full financial assistance. So we must think these thoughts. On my visits to these poorer schools in places like Morocco, or Nepal, or Thailand, or Laos, the message of the democratizing or levelling effect of uniform was powerful and convincing.
At some of these schools, such as the King Mahendra School in Kathmandu [read about it in an earlier blog entry ] the uniform was the best piece of clothing a student owned, even if it had been passed down from one or two previous brothers or sisters. It was their best piece of clothing, and they were proud of it.
The pride they felt may not be universal, and I know that many students affect a distaste for uniform. Perhaps it depends on whether you are in Grade Twelve or Grade Two. Such is life in schools. However the uniform at its best feeds an important sense of belonging, and a sense of identity that is as much rootedness as it is pride. In the fluid world where our students live, with its mobility and global technological access, rootedness is deeply important.
It might be that you are a student reading this. If so, these are some of the thoughts that make us ask you to tuck in your shirt or pull up your tie. We just want you to have good roots.