So long as everyone is madly improving the schools, here's a modest suggestion: Let's improve the way the children dress. The notion may sound frivolous -- what's a pair of blue jeans, after all, when the nation's SAT scores are on the line? -- but in fact it is not. The decline in standards of dress is not an isolated phenomenon but a reflection of a broader, more general decline; requiring children to dress properly for the most important public occasion of their daily lives would send them a powerful message that other changes are expected as well.
The slovenliness that is now the order of the day in the schools will come as no surprise to the parents of younger children; but since my own children's elementary and high school days are well in the past, I was taken aback on two recent occasions to find myself in schoolrooms populated by children all of whom looked like something the cat, or Tama Janowitz, had dragged in. No doubt I was the victim of culture shock, but it nonetheless struck me as wondrous strange that the schools, which in my own day were citadels of sartorial regimentation, now allow their charges full freedom to go from punk to junk.
Interestingly enough, both of the schools I visited recently are private and both were once noted for the rigor of their dress codes. One, a girls' boarding school with exceptionally high academic standards, has gone full circle from strict and specific dress requirements to virtually no requirements at all; the other, a day school for boys and girls, abandoned uniforms several years ago and now has a loose code that seems to be honored almost entirely in the breach. At both schools, the old requirements were abandoned in response to the pressure for "liberalization" that arose in the '60s and '70s; the relaxed codes have been maintained despite the return during the '80s to more traditional expectations of education.
That both of these schools are private strikes me as interesting because in the past private schools were associated with rigid codes that the public schools could not hope to enforce; there are still some private schools, both day and boarding, that expect their students to dress more or less like miniature adults. But private schools are also the preserves of the privileged, and these days it is among the rich rather than the less fortunate that standards of appearance and decorum have been allowed to deteriorate; experience has shown that parents of spoiled and willful children can be vigorous opponents of whatever measures might require those children to do anything except what they want to do.
What all children want to do, whether they be rich or poor, is to dress however they jolly well please; a child's natural inclination is to resist adult discipline in any form, and few ways of expressing that inclination are more immediate or visible than dress. As a boy of 17 I made it a point, when my turn came to read the daily lesson from the lectern in the school chapel, to wear a pink sports jacket; it was my way of telling the school specifically and adults generally to go to hell, though none of them had the courtesy to follow my instructions.
But my little rebellion, puerile though it was, at least had the virtue of being directed against something clear and identifiable: the stern dress code of the institution at which, to the regret of all, I was enrolled. What genuine rebellion, by contrast, can there be in wearing outlandish clothing at a school that either has no rules or rules so lenient as to be nonexistent? This is not youthful defiance, which is healthy, but self-indulgence countenanced by adults and, even less healthy, a form of conformity that is worse than adult-imposed homogeneity because it is enforced by peer pressure and advertising.
The worth of dress regulations lies not in the conformity that they may seem to impose but in the lessons they teach. The first is that clothes do not make the man; dress codes, uniforms in particular, blur the economic distinctions between students and thus provide a breath of egalitarianism that is as instructive for the prosperous as for the poor. The second is that there are, in a civilized world, proper and improper forms of conduct, whether they involve clothes or language or etiquette. The third is that the adult world these children eventually will enter has its own rules and regulations, many unpublished but all rigorously implemented, and the sooner children learn to live within this ordered society the happier and more productive they will be.
Yes, there is an element of old-fogeyism to this and I stand guilty as charged. But quite apart from taking offense at the sight of schoolchildren attired in overpriced designer rags and tatters, I am of the view that children should adapt to the expectations of school, rather than vice versa. This admittedly old-fashioned view lost currency during the unbuttoned years now mercifully behind us, but it is beginning to regain respect so far as the academic end of education is concerned; I can see no good reason why it should not be revived at the disciplinary end as well.
In one small school it already has been. It is called Cherry Hill Elementary School, and it is near a part of Baltimore's harbor to which tourists never venture. The parents of its students are black, and many of them are poor. Yet this year they have instituted a clothing policy that is quite literally uniform. Seamstresses in the neighborhood are making neat, handsome uniforms that are being sold to boys and girls for $30 apiece; for families too poor to afford even that, the school is arranging financial assistance.
The parents of Cherry Hill are doing this for a couple of reasons. One is that they want to encourage their children to learn how to dress and conduct themselves in the white-collar society that they hope the children will have the opportunity to enter; the other is that they want to discourage the pointless, expensive clothing competition that drains family budgets and diverts attention from the real purposes of school. Though the uniform policy has the active encouragement of the Cherry Hill administration, it is in the truest sense of the term a community effort; the people of Cherry Hill are supporting it because they believe it will be good for all their children.
They are right. Not merely do their kids look terrific in their uniforms, but they have developed a new pride in themselves and their school that already has won wide and admiring notice in the press. The betting here is that other schools are watching the Cherry Hill experiment and soon will be emulating it; discipline is coming back in fashion, and the example is being set not by the pampered sons and daughters of privilege but by the children of Cherry Hill.