Hustling to sign up for the latest gimmick, the Board of Education has voted to require grammar school children to wear uniforms. It is said that putting children in the same clothes is conducive to good order and successful learning. By the same reasoning we might suppose that, had we taken the boots and brown shirts off Hitler’s storm troopers, they would have ceased to be Nazis. Only in the most limited sense of the aphorism do clothes make the man.
The school uniform proposal is irresistible to our politicians, who make it their business to scout up sensible-seeming nonsense to an electorate with enough brains to know that if their children don’t get a better schooling than they had, we shall be completely dependent on foreign-born talent to perform any task more difficult than pushing a broom. So, President Clinton, the nation’s foremost tireless and tiresome speech maker, has added school uniforms to the collection of programettes he keeps in his sample case.
Some people, who hope that school uniforms will alleviate the need to dismantle the teachers’ unions, point to a few schools here and there where the introduction of uniforms has been followed by an uptick in test results. In all likelihood, these improvements, doubtless temporary in nature if they are real at all, are owing to what is sometimes called the Hawthorne effect. (So named after experiments conducted in the late 1920’s at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant, where social psychologist Elton Mayo showed that worker productivity increased with no more stimulus and incentive than singling out factory operatives for fuss and special attention.)
The same thing occurred in New York’s public school system with the Higher Horizons program of a generation ago, which did so well when first introduced in a few schools, and did poorly when introduced into most schools later on. This accords with Hoffman’s Law No. 7, which states that all government pilot programs will succeed at first and then will fail when duplicated systemwide. Where academic achievement has improved, those who give uniforms the credit for it have fallen afoul of the reasoning error called by logicians post hoc, ergo propter hoc . Because one event follows another, it does not follow that the first event caused the second, least of all in human affairs.
We’ve seen similar faulty reasoning about public housing. Again, President Clinton and whoever thinks up his little gimcracks have concluded that high-rise public housing is the cause of the social holocausts that have destroyed the lives and childhoods of thousands of people in the projects. Then why aren’t the high-rise buildings on Park Avenue howling slums? The height of the buildings or the number of units in them has nothing to do with what works and what doesn’t, but for some years now government has been pulling down multistory buildings in the mistaken belief that architectural design is destiny.
It’s not putting little girls in pinafores and little boys in short pants that helps them to read. It’s the concern of a vigorous and competent faculty, and a body of organized and serious parents.
School uniforms by themselves are not going to raise test scores. They might, however, serve another purpose. Children already wear uniforms, the ones prescribed by the Nike sneaker company and other business giants, who cradle-rob the nation’s children with their socially seditious advertising. Letting the parents and the schools dictate what students wear might help to redraw the line between minor and adult. If school uniforms were to become the custom for all children and young persons, say below the age of 14 or 15, it might help to establish once again that children are not yet ready to have the rights and prerogatives of grown-ups. In short, if uniforms can be used to make kids kids again, to reinvent childhood and rescue children from the mind wash inflected on them by large-scale commercial enterprises, well, so much the better.
Given a whip and a chair and 25 years of determined attacks, we might get the business elements to back off the kids, and let parents resume control. But outfits like the American Civil Liberties Union are another matter. Vide the recent incident at Killian High School, near Miami, where nine students were arrested for publishing and circulating a pamphlet described as loaded with hate speeches and cartoons directed at the Killian’s principal and staff. The joker from the A.C.L.U., which-naturally-inserted itself, was quoted as saying “They intended it to be a prank … They intended it to be a satire. It’s written in the language of juvenile angst, in terms you hear on late-night stand-up comedy. That’s not a crime anywhere in this country.”
Why the A.C.L.U. cannot distinguish between a high school and Comedy Central is past imagining. Could it be that this once-admirable organization now uses the Bill of Rights as a cute way to practice barratry, which Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines as “the criminal offense of habitually bringing about quarrels or lawsuits”? If so, we might suppose that in due course a gigantic litigation will be started against the Miami-Dade School Board, which, in the end, will be forced to fork over a large sum of money to you-guess-who because one of its principals tried to keep control of the high school he is employed to run. It might be noted that in New York the A.C.L.U. stands ready to represent the first public school child forced into the ignominy of a uniform.
If principals and teachers are stopped by the A.C.L.U. and others in the civil liberties litigation industry from controlling their institutions and their classrooms, dressing the pupils in uniforms will scarcely bring order and tranquillity to the schools. Twenty-nine years ago, the Supreme Court crippled the power of faculty and administration to keep order in the schools when it sided with four Des Moines, Iowa, students, who were disciplined after refusing to take off the black armbands they were wearing in protest of the Vietnam War.
It is of more than passing interest that Justice Hugo Black, the staunchest defender of absolute free speech in Supreme Court history, thought his colleagues on the bench had a screw loose when they found for the disobedient students. In his acerbic dissent, Black wrote that the “questions are whether students and teachers may use their platform for the exercise of free speech – ‘symbolic’ or ‘pure’ … I have never believed that any person has a right to give speeches or engage in demonstrations where he pleases and when he pleases … [One] does not need to be a prophet or the son of a prophet to know that after the Court’s holding today, some students will be ready, able and willing to defy their teachers on practically all orders. This is the more unfortunate for the schools, since groups of students all over the land are already running loose …”
Everything which Black foresaw has come to pass, plus a few things that even that prescient man did not predict. He might not have foreseen that refusing to wear the prescribed school uniform was protected by the mighty Bill of Rights. He probably would not have guessed that there would be hyena lawyers making their living by using the courts to safeguard adolescent anarchy in the classroom. He would have understood, however, that if virtually any and all student behavior is sheltered by the First Amendment, the costume students wear will not bring order out of the pedagogical chaos.