Rudolph Giuliani, that gleeful upsetter of precedent and custom (the two of which, having been established before his ascension into the mayoralty, are by definition dubious and silly-very, very silly), once again has demolished the wisdom cherished by those who cling to the conventional. By embracing the notion that public school students should put aside their civvies in exchange for uniforms, Mr. Giuliani has defied the soothsayers, sages and other wizards who keep the rules of politics locked securely in their heads, to be dispensed only when engaged in $500-an-hour consulting jobs.
Mr. Giuliani’s stance is a violation of the Nixon-in-China syndrome-the notion that politicians must play against type to achieve great, sweeping changes. It took a refugee from the who-lost-China camp, Richard Nixon, to shake hands with Mao Zedong. It took a born-in-segregationist-Texas Lyndon Johnson to champion the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. And it took a man with five stars on his broad shoulders, Dwight Eisenhower, to warn us about the military-industrial complex-do you think we’d have paid attention if Michael Dukakis had been the first to use the phrase?
If our Mayor were a subscriber to this school of thought, he wouldn’t have agitated for school uniforms, nor would he be hectoring us about jaywalking, speeding and talking during fire drills. It’s all too predictable. Instead, he’d be delivering sappy sermons about the dignity of humankind, even those humans who have no home or no job. He’d be encouraging City University students to pursue their studies even in the face of the many obstacles they face. Instead, in utter disregard of the Nixon-in-China syndrome, he is acting exactly as we might have expected. Indeed, even more so. If you were satirizing Rudolph Giuliani, you’d have him poised on a street corner, ready to pounce on lawless pedestrians. The Mayor, however, provides the parody himself, leaving the irreverent commentator with little material. What next, the irreverent commentator might ask: an ordinance mandating that pedestrians walk in single file? Gender segregation on the sidewalks-one sidewalk for boys and another for girls? A ban on patent-leather shoes?
Guffaw if you will-and if you will, just remember that guffawing at the Mayor’s expense is considered a sign of nonconformity and may be subject to penalties at some future date. But in Mr. Giuliani’s determination to re-create the Brooklyn of his Bishop Loughlin High School days, nothing ought to be ruled out.
And so we will have uniforms in the public schools. This, it is said, will help enforce discipline (which would be no mean achievement) and will put an end to the pressures of pre-adolescent fashion. The latter concern is related to the former; schoolyard rumbles these days are as likely as not to be rooted in sneaker envy or some variation on that theme.
Indeed, there is much to be said about the leveling effect of school uniforms. When I wore them, and when I taught in a classroom filled with uniformed students, the affluent kids looked just like the poor kids. (We are talking about Catholic schools on Staten Island, where classes contained this sort of peculiar socioeconomic diversity unheard of today. That issue is irrelevant in most New York City public schools, as the rich do not attend them.)
The notion of fashion competition didn’t exist in those days of uniform blue, white and gold. Times being what they are today, students find themselves competing with each other not over grades, but over brand names.
If the Mayor wishes to dismiss this sort of distraction from the city’s public school classrooms-and he apparently does-he should skip the school uniform business and take a page out of the old-fashioned Nixon-in-China handbook. The Mayor and certain sections of the media have spent endless energy hailing the fashion industry, which instructs children that humans are only as valuable as the make of their clothes, as one of the new New York’s great jewels. Why, these overpriced clothiers are considered to be such big shots that we shut down a public taxpayer-supported facility-Bryant Park-twice a year in order that they may ply their wares and their notion that we are defined by the material on our backs and not the virtues in our hearts.
When next the clothiers convene, this business-friendly, New York-touting Mayor could stand outside the gates of Bryant Park to denounce those who transmit the superficial values of fashion to impressionable schoolchildren. He could say that those who put three-digit price tags on Third World-stitched finery and those who exploit inner-city markets with phony status symbols deserve not the city’s patronage but its scorn-never mind the industry’s supposed value to the city, and never mind the great glories of markets without rules, without standards.
And if they don’t like, hey, we can replace their money in an hour! /