Expression and Uniforms

Mike O’Hare thinks that formal school rules against clothing that is a direct affront to another student is a bad idea, because it is superior to regulate in this area through social norms, criticism and stigma. I think there’s a lot to this, but…Perhaps I’m old fashioned, or because my greatest contact with K-12 schools has been with those dealing with very poor, inner-city children. But I think one important issue here is the value of any expression like this in schools. One way to liquidate the problem that Mike and Mark are talking about is just to have a school uniform–that is, to eliminate all communication on student clothing. I think there are a lot of places where uniforms are used to conceal the fact that school authorities don’t actually know anything substantive to do to improve school performance. But at the school I know best, the Amistad School in New Haven, they seem to add to school performance by simply eliminating unnecessary distractions (like whether the kid next to you is wearing “Bong Hits for Jesus”). Where most schools are gigantic distraction machines, Amistad does all it can (including having uniforms) to keep its students from losing focus on the key academic and character-building function of schools. So—there may be contexts in which deliberation through personal attire may be valuable, but that the value of it in K-12 schools is, at best neutral, and probably negative. Get rid of it altogether.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

13 thoughts on “Expression and Uniforms”

  1. School uniforms have virtues besides eliminating communications on clothing. They give kids a sense of belonging to a group; they make invisible the differences in the kids' economic classes; they make clothes shopping easier for parents; and I imagine that they cause public school kids to feel more like prep school kids. I say this as a person of the left who values individual expression, but whose daughter attended a prep school with uniforms and who is now an adult whose wearing of a uniform did not prevent her from growing up to share my individualistic values.

  2. Is there any evidence that clothing reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" is a major distraction for anyone besides the school administrators who took issue with it?
    Look, I'm all for a focus on education in schools – but t-shirts, I suspect, will have no more impact than causing a few quick laughs in class. They certainly didn't when I was in high school, which was not all that long ago. And the problems inherent in regulating things that are "offensive" should be obvious – what's offensive in one location is totally acceptable in another, and vice versa. Why do students have the right to not be offended, but adults don't? That's both intellectually and morally incoherent.

  3. It's less a "right not to be offended" as it is opportunity owed for a chance at a decent education. Adults can change jobs, generally. Adults have a lot more control over their daily environment than do students in mandatory public education. Elementary, middle, and high school students are children, and should not be treated as though they have all of the maturity we expect from adults.

  4. Another advantage is that uniforms minimize clothing competition between students. This is in itself a massive (not to mention expensive) distraction.

  5. Try another look. There is an unobtrusive factor which is in operation. One does not get into Amistad unless one's name is available for their lottery. Folks don't submit their name for the lottery unless there's a motivation for elevated performance in the first place and a willingness to engage in the ethic of uniforms. That is, there's a self-selection process in place that filters out unmotivated students. In that case it's not surprising that Amistad students perform well, independent of uniforms. Uniforms a dependent rather than independent variable and therefor non-material.

  6. Just a point of clarification, since the "Bong Hits for Jesus" case is now going to the Supreme Court and with Kenneth Starr will be arguing for the school it'll be getting a lot of publicity…
    In this particular case, "Bong Hits for Jesus" was not on a T-Shirt, but rather on a banner held by a student at a public event not on school property.

  7. As a student, I hated school uniforms, but now that I am older, I can see the value. Without them, the difference between rich and poor are more obvious and kids tend to exploit that.

  8. 1) Sixty years ago, in the Chaplinsky case, the Supreme Court recognized that there are certain utterances that are designed purely to offend and are likely to provoke a breach of the peace. Such utterances are not protected by the First Amendment and can be prohibited. This is the "fighting words" doctrine. "Abe Bernstein is a doofus" is clearly "fighting words." "Your mother gives green stamps" is, as well. BUt as you get away from personal insults the doctrine begins to become less and less applicable. "Judaism is a gutter religion" is not clearly directed at an individual. Outside school, I would think "Judaism is a gutter religion" would be protected, on a T-shirt just as in a leaflet.
    2) But schools are not the street. The usual First Amendment rules don't apply in full. Compulsory attendance and the fact that students are minors means that the school officials have special authority to prevent offense and to keep the peace, even if what they do would offend First Amendment freedoms in a public place outside of school.

  9. JR: I don't have Chaplinsky in front of me, but I think that you are overlooking the importance of context in determining what constitute fighting words. The context that is required is, I believe, that the speech be aggressive, in your face, likely to cause a fight. "Abe Bernstein is a doofus" are not "clearly" fighting words; in fact, I would not expect that a word as mild as "doofus" would ordinarily be likely to provoke a fight. "Judaism is a gutter religion," however, might constitute fighting words in the proper context, as if said in a threatening way to a Jewish person.

  10. As I recall, the rules that apply in the context of schools are mushy, partly because school administrators are often motivated (like a lot of people) by personal pique rather than honest belief that performance is at stake. Which is to say, that justices are often presented with cases that clearly show viewpoint bias, which leads to decisions that make it harder to implement rules that are viewpoint neutral. Like mandating uniforms.
    The primary problem with attire in middle and high school, in particular, isn't that students are expressing their opinions on drug use and sex, though that can be a problem, it's that they are adopting dress as a means of displaying status — whether in the form of access to goodies or gang membership, both of which can lead to destructive group dynamics. I don't know if mandating uniforms would lead to more subtle displays, like earrings or tattoos, but it does tend to minimize using baggy pants to hide weapons and drugs.

  11. My wife, who moved from England to the US at age 13, was crushed at no longer being able to wear a school uniform, and instead having to use her clothes to signal class like all the other Americans. In my opinion, having to wear a uniform doesn't harm individuality any more than having to wear clothes does.

  12. I don't yet have a well formulated opinion on this issue but I think we should be realistic about the effects of school uniforms.
    I think they certainly make socioeconomic differences less pronounced but they by no means make them "invisible" as has been suggested above.
    Some kids will bring ipods, fancy cell phones and prada bags to school (at least they did in my school).
    In general, I think the kids who want to show off their money will do so with or without school uniforms– uniforms just restrict that effect to the kids who want to make the extra effort.

  13. Uniforms can be helpful in reducing signaling about group membership and socioeconomic status, but uniforms won't and can't eliminate it.
    Even within the confines of school uniforms, there are means of signaling SES. Our local school uniforms are khaki slacks/skirts (girls have the option) and white oxford shirts. In our schools we have the Land's End kids, the Wal-Mart kids, and Ralph Lauren kids. They can define subgroups with belts (my son's school had one group that defined themselves with braided leather belts, and it was understood that no other group would wear braided leather belts), handbags, etc.
    We're only kidding ourselves if we think uniforms are a cure for SES and in-group distinctions.

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