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My 5-year-old daughters were very excited. My wife had taken them to the craft store to buy T-shirts with sketches on them that they could color themselves with special markers. They couldn’t wait to wear them to nursery school to show their friends!
But many schools still look not only to dress codes but even school uniforms to meet a number of serious problems in the education system. Is this an assault on individuality? What would Ayn Rand do? Would she wear a uniform? Or would she say, “My dress is none of your business”?
Private schools can set their own standards, and some—Catholic ones, most notably—require standard garb. But such requirements are more problematic in government schools. (Let’s grant that government shouldn’t even be running schools.) Still, the question here is, what are the pros and cons of uniforms?
The problem is well known. In spite of increased spending, academic achievement by most semi-objective measures like SAT scores is flat at best. Worse, teachers often aren’t allowed to discipline or expel disruptive students, and administrators aren’t allowed to fire subpar teachers.
Worse still, many schools are plagued by violence. Some, with metal detectors, security guards, and barbed wire, look more like prisons!
Many see dress as part of the problem.
Kids often judge one other by what they wear. Not sporting the latest fashion for 15-year-olds? Loser! Bullying is a serious problem in most schools, and the frumpy or unstylish are most often the target of insults. And kids are assaulted and even killed for their overpriced Air Jordans. Then there are the kids who wear their pants down, exposing their rear ends, or who otherwise resemble circus freaks in part of the gangsta culture.
School uniforms could remove dress as a source of superficial judgment and much of the associated social dysfunction. Students would be encouraged to judge one another by the content of their character. And uniforms can give many kids a sense of order and personal discipline.
So who could object? Well, I could, when I was a baby-boomer high school activist many decades ago. My dress was conservative, but I didn’t like seeing The Man hunting down my peers in the hallways for too-short skirts or too-long hair. Let’s grant that the boomers turned out to be a problematic generation.
Still, my little girls like choosing the outfits they will wear each morning to school. They have a sense of how they want to look. So far they haven’t wanted to dress like pole dancers or hookers. They are more concerned about who wears the owl and who wears the mermaid T-shirt!
And when kids progress to adolescence, they are finding their own identity and experimenting with their appearance and much else. Seriously, is a little bit of purple hair and a few tattoos really such a problem? Does forcing them to conform really help them mature? Or does it simply instill in them a hatred for all authority and standards?
This brings us back to Rand, specifically the Objectivist ethics she espoused. Education isn’t simply pouring facts into the heads of students; it is about moral education.
It is about teaching and training students to think, to value reason above all, and to cultivate the virtue of rationality. It is teaching them to value productive work as the central purpose of their lives. It is teaching them to value honesty—always facing objective reality. It is about teaching them to value independence—judging with their own minds. It is about teaching them to value integrity—living in accordance with their values. It is about teaching them to value justice—to give others what they have earned, not only in a commercial sense but a spiritual one as well.
Today’s schools and culture have failed to instill these values. This failure, in addition to the normal challenges of growing to adulthood, is why some parents find school uniforms, in some contexts, to provide something of a substitute. Many choose to homeschool to cut through the entire mess of schools as institutions.
But all parents rightly concerned about their children’s education should focus first on instilling in them the values and virtues they’ll need to live flourishing and prosperous lives, and to defend those values in the culture and to every teacher, school administrator, and politician to create a society worthy of virtuous individuals.
Sara Pentz, “Education for a New Enlightenment.” June 1, 2007.
“Schools for Individualists: TNI's Interview with Marsha Familaro Enright.” February 4, 2011.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.