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Volume 8, Issue 4: Repairing the Ruins

Comfortable Dress

Douglas Wilson

Our casual age wants to insist that how a student dresses will surely have no effect on the operations of that student's brain. Surely a student can learn and study and memorize, without his wearing of sweat pants or jeans or shorts interfering with the operation. At least this is the way it seems, seeming quite obvious, to many.

But there are good reasons for challenging the assumption, and we need to challenge it soon. The standards of our broader culture are not static, and can be expected to deteriorate further; we must think through the issues carefully. If we do not, a common pattern followed by Christian schools will continueanything the world does, we can do five years later and worse.
Is school dress an academic issue? The government schools of a generation ago had stricter standards of dress than many private schools of today. And if a school today tries to tighten up the standards of dress (e.g. "Boys, tuck in your shirts."), the uproar can be considerable, and not all of it from the students. Many times parents will get into the act, writing off those hapless conservatives and traditionalists who want the kids to look nice at school as sartorial gnat-stranglers. "Why don't they just concentrate on teaching? What do torn jeans have to do with math?"
If our modern and casual approach to student dress is seriously questioned, the response invariably will appeal to personal ease and comfort. Jeans and t-shirts are easier and more comfortable than button-down shirts, ties and slacks. So the solution is obvious, right? Not exactly. In the first place, take another look at how casual dress is defendedthe standard is ease and comfort, with the supposition being that a person's reasons for dressing in a particular way are, of course, subjective; they are to be found within himself. Whenever a person is asked to justify how he dresses, the criteria produced are expected to be a matter of what he wants to do. But where did we get this idea that our clothing is to be justified by how it makes us feel? Why is self-centeredness simply assumed as the only possible court in which we are to try such cases?
Suppose we accepted the criterion of comfort, but rather pointed first to the comfort of others? Certainly a shirt and tie are less comfortable to wear than a baggy T-shirt, but the shirt and tie are certainly more comfortable for others to view. So the issue is not really comfort, but whose comfort. In our casual, it-must-be-comfortable-for-me-to-wear orientation, we have certainly inflicted far more eyesores on the passersby than previous generations ever did. Sometimes the assault is deliberate, with the wearer trying to be rude. In other cases, it is simply thoughtless. But in a school which has stricter dress standards, the comfort of the broader culture is served, and greatly increased.
On the one hand is an appeal to ease and pleasure. On the other is an appeal to duty. In the former, the student is told that his first responsibility of every day (in getting dressed) is to suit himself. In the latter situation, the student is taught to put the interests of the larger community ahead of his own. And, because we frequently dress without giving a tremendous amount of thought to it on any given morning, these two differing orientations actually come to reflect two completely different habits of mind.
Now when two different students with these two different habits of mind come to their studies, what will be the result? Before the question is answered, we have to digress for a moment in order to defend the legitimacy of generalizations. No doubt a clean and starched collar can prop up a blockhead, and unquestionably we have all met zealous and industrious students in blue jeans. But generally, does discipline of dress carry over into other areas? Really, to ask the question is to answer it.
Still, objections crowd into our minds. Strict dress codes, or uniforms, are caricatured as some form of tyrannical mind-control. "We don't want to suppress our child's individuality." But why do we raise this objection over dress, but not over spelling and math? Why not say, as the government schools are saying, that we should just let the kids be personally creative in all these areas? The answer is that to discipline a mind is not to be equated with destroying a mind, and further, that to let a student teach and discipline himself "creatively" is tantamount to expelling him from school. A swifter and more honest means of accomplishing this would be to defenestrate the student at the first opportunity. A disciple is a student. An undisciplined student is, therefore, a nonstudent.
We cannot return in education to a culture of the mind without that training having a cultural impact. We cannot isolate how our students dress from how our students think. Neither can we detach how they learn to dress in their calling as students from how they learn to think as students.
People who insist upon dressing casually also want to think casually. And in a fallen world, thinking casually means being wrong more often than not.

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