What to wear to the commons


“Nobody washes a rental car,” runs an oft-repeated conservative lament.

“Farmers don’t prevent their cattle from overgrazing and killing the commons” runs an oft-repeated liberal lament.

You can’t exactly say either of these is false, but I think we can say that neither is true all the time.  The rental car companies do, in fact, wash rental cars and they do that so they can rent them out again.  Farmers do, in fact, prevent their cattle from overgrazing if they will be caught and punished for not doing it.  We might wish for loftier motives, but most of us say “good enough” and let it go.

I am going to wind up talking about public school dress codes, but I want to go back and dress code 5lay in a little background on the commons first.  Garret Hardin proposed the dilemma by picturing a common grazing area and a bunch of dairy farmers.  The commons will support only so much grazing, but each farmer thinks it might support just a little more—just enough for him to add a few of his own cows, provided that no one else follows the same logic.  The others do follow the same logic—how could they not?—and the commons is overgrazed and crashes and all the farmers go through a very hard time until it recovers.

The “commons” I want to think about today is common value commitments.  There are some outcomes that everyone wants in the same way that every farmer wants to graze his herd on the common pasture land.  Even the students in the schools we are going to look at want to “decrease violence and theft” (E, below) and to “aid in the recognition of [potentially lethal] intruders (J, below).  Many of these students also want to “enhance the schools’ ability to achieve their basic academic purposes” (A, below) and even to “diminish differences among socioeconomic levels” (B, below).

But even if they wanted all those values to be achieved, they would desire them impersonally and abstractly.  They would desire those goods the way the farmers desire “sustainable use of the common grazing lands.”  But, it turns out, there are things that each member wants in a more immediate and more individual way.  For the farmers, it’s “extra grazing land for my (not your) cattle.  For the students, it is “pushing the uniform code just enough to call attention to myself (not you).

dress code 3So lets think about public school dress codes.  Nearly half the states explicitly allow schools to formulate and enforce dress codes and in all the other states, except Massachusetts, where it is forbidden, it is presumed that schools have good reasons for having them.  Here is more information about states and dress codes than you ever wanted, courtesy of the Education Commission of the States.  There are lots of good reasons why schools might want a uniform style of dress.  Here, for instance, is a collection

 While no long-term empirical studies have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of school uniforms or dress codes in improving student or school performance, proponents argue that the use of such policies (A)can enhance schools’ ability to achieve their basic academic purposes. Uniforms, they say: (B)diminish differences among socioeconomic levels,  (C) promote school spirit and (D) improve student self-confidence and behavior. Similar positive effects from implementing a school uniform policy were cited in the U.S. Department of Education Manual of School Uniforms, disseminated in 1996 to all of the nation’s 16,000 school districts. Among the potential benefits cited were: (1) (E) decreasing violence and theft, (2) (F) preventing students from wearing gang-related colors to school, (3) (G) instilling student discipline, (4) (H) helping to resist peer pressure, (5) (I) helping students to concentrate on academics, and (6) (J) aiding in the recognition of intruders.

My lettering goes, as you see, from A to J, so there are 10 good reasons, allowing for a little overlap here and there, for making and enforcing dress codes in public schools.[1]   These public goals and rationales are “the commons” to which I referred in the title.  How could anyone be against such things?  Is there a pro-gang clothing faction among educators?  Does anyone want to sponsor a form of dress that has the goal of diminishing the self-esteem of some students?  Doesn’t everyone understand that some kinds of clothing are going to make the effective conduct of class very difficult?

The answers are all obvious.  It is hardly worth the trouble to formulate the answers.  Schools have great difficulty with their dress codes, however, so something is going on.  Here are some possibilities and here is the full New York Times article.

Let’s consider Andie Alexander, pictured below.

 Lincoln Middle School in Indianapolis has started to allow leggings beneath skirts— and Andie Alexander, in eighth grade, has already gotten into trouble over it. “When I realized we were going to be able to wear leggings, I went and bought a bunch in wild colors — neon purple, violet, bright green, turquoise, red and yellow,” said Andie, 13.

Let’s pause for one moment and consider Common Values A—J.  Now take another dress code 2moment and try to think which of these Andie was trying to overthrow.  If nothing comes to mind, you might take one additional moment…or you might just say that there is no relationship between Andie’s choices and the school’s goals.  None at all.

These kids don’t oppose the Common Values.  They don’t connect with them at all.  The school administration is trying to explain why they are important and—with one exception, which we will get to in a moment—the kids don’t care.  The students aren’t connected to the values; they are connected to the enforcers of the values.  They want to wear clothes that distinguish them; clothes that are maybe a little daring; clothes that push the edge just a little.  They said leggings—it does get cold in northern cities in the winter—and Andie said, “Woohoo!  Neon purple!  Violet!  Mrs. Thompson will hate these!”

dress code 4There is a little bit of the jailhouse lawyer in 13-year-old kids.[2]  And then there are the peer subversion networks.  And then there is the heroic status achieved by finding something “they” are going to hate, but that they didn’t clearly forbid.

None of those very common traits considers the commons at all.  The substantial educational and social values that are supposed to be attained by this program are just ignored.

And where do the kids get these just-barely-permitted clothes?  Oddly enough, they are manufactured precisely for this market.

Retailers have been happily catering to the changes. For the first time this year, the Lands’ End uniform catalog is offering girls’ khakis in pencil and boot-cut silhouettes. There are also shawl-collar cardigans, fleece peacoats, leggings and yoga pants. French Toast, another large uniform company, has made its girls’ polos and blouses tighter-fitting, and has added items like a boyfriend cardigan.

“Schools really do adjust to fashion,” said Matt Buesing, school marketing coordinator at French Toast. If a girl wears a polo that’s a little form-fitting, for instance, “it may not fit their code exactly, but the administrators in the school say, ‘That’s an acceptable shirt — we should allow it.’ ”

Part of the natural resistance kids have to school uniforms is that the uniforms are forced on them by adults.  The easy way to solve that particular dilemma is to give the students a role in deciding what is to be permitted.

At Martin Luther King Jr. middle school in Charlotte, N.C., administrators asked students to help create the uniforms when they were first introduced in 2006 to minimize resistance. “If the people who are going to have to follow the rules are involved in establishing the rules, you have a lot more buy-in and a lot more cooperation than if it’s forced upon them,” said Janet Moss, an assistant principal at the school. “Of course, it was a much more popular thing for the students who created it than it was for the students who are there now.”

And that’s the problem Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said there should be a revolution every twenty years.  A revolution is a democratic achievement for the generation that pulls it off successfully.  But keeping the regime the revolution devised is just more rules passed down for the next generation.  It’s fine to say the “the students” should participate, but then you have to say that the next generation of students is free to throw out a dress code that is working very well, thank you very much.  We just solved the “cargo shorts” definitions and the “winter leggings” definitions, and now you guys want to change the rules again!

There is a formal solution.  Don’t get your hopes up.  There are two, actually.  The first is that the students trust the adults to have instituted the dress code for good reasons and their compliance with it displays that trust.  In this solution, the students don’t have to understand the relationship between how they dress and social values A—J.  I’m not putting a lot of faith in that one.

The second one if for the students to be instructed in how their behavior relates to the values.  This will require that the students be willing to sacrifice a little fashion one-up-manship so that other values, like banning gang colors, can be achieved.  I’m not putting a lot of faith in that one either.

I think that means that the dress code public schools “movement” will always be small and we are going to have to figure out another approach to protecting the commons.





[1] In private schools, of course, it is even easier because you can just throw students out if they don’t conform.

[2] Jailhouse lawyer is a colloquial term in North American English to refer to an inmate in a jail or other prison who, though usually never having practiced law nor having any formal legal training, informally assists other inmates in legal matters relating to their sentence (e.g. appeal of their sentence, pardons, stays of execution, etc.) or to their conditions in prison. Sometimes, he or she also assists other inmates in civil matters of a legal nature.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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