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Jewish World Review May 10, 1999 /24 Iyar, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Three cheers for uniforms

(JWR) ---- (
THE GREAT WORK of our time is to undo the damage we inflicted on ourselves starting in the 1960s. The response to the massacre in Littleton, Colo., is actually heartening, as it reflects a dawning awareness that disorder, enfeebled authority and malignant entertainment can have terrible, even deadly consequences.

Authority is making a tentative comeback. Around the nation, school districts that had not considered them before are rushing to reinstate dress codes. The schools would do well to go even further, all the way to uniforms.

The actor Laurence Olivier once said that he could not become a character until he had decided upon the right nose. Clothes do the same for all of us. We dress for church or synagogue to convey the importance we attach to prayer. It would seem disrespectful to G-d and the other worshippers to arrive in jeans and a T-shirt. Clergymen go further. Religious vestments help invest the wearer with both authority and spirituality. In the Jewish faith, a prayer shawl (tallis) over the shoulders is the ancient symbol of piety. It is nearly impossible to imagine a man draped in a tallis using coarse language or engaging in vulgar conduct. The same goes for a clerical collar.

We are only human. We are affected by surface things.

In the '60s and '70s, dress codes and uniforms were thrown aside in the name of freedom and authenticity. These were seen as the antipodes of tradition and authority. Conformity was everywhere condemned, individuality celebrated. We now have a bit more individuality than we bargained for -- personified by the lonely and alienated teenagers who are seizing our attention in tragic ways.

Youngsters attend public schools (private and parochial schools have tended to keep uniforms) sporting T-shirts with crude expressions, spiky mohawk haircuts, chains over shoulders, spiked dog collars and, famously, dark trench coats. It's no wonder schools are reluctant to install metal detectors; they would cause a fashion crisis. Those whose sartorial tastes are milder have only purple hair or nose rings.

Jew wearing a talis
If you can recall a time when children rose from their chairs, pronounced, "Good Morning, Mrs. Dixon," in unison and resumed their seats, you are probably over 50. Scenes like those went out with nuclear war drills. When everyone, teachers and students alike, stopped dressing for school, they downplayed the importance of learning. I recall vividly that after the rules were changed to permit blue jeans and cut-offs in school (I was in junior high), manners and decorum took a decided turn south.

If you wear the same clothes to school as you do to a video arcade or Home Depot, you are not taking education very seriously -- which is exactly what the '60s liberators had in mind. They didn't think adults had very much to teach children. The young were going to lead the old into a new world of peace, joy and love. The principal duty of an educator, they preached, was to help the young express their innate creativity.

Even today, in Fairfax County, Va., the echoes of that sensibility are still audible. A mother who asked why her fourth-grader was not learning basic math skills was told by the school's "resource person" that "we will never go back to drills and workbooks." And you can hear the echoes of this view in teachers colleges around the nation that disdain the role of teacher as imparter of information, and seek to create "facilitators" instead.

Even those who do not believe in reviving authority must be concerned about the teasing and rivalry that "anything goes" dress permits. Children in inner-city schools have been murdered for a jacket, and disparities of wealth are flaunted elsewhere. Some schools have responded by banning designer labels. But why stop there? Dress can define cliques and pinpoint outcasts. And while reinstating uniforms cannot prevent kids from forming groups, it can mute their exclusivity and help send the message from the parents and the administration that cliques are frowned upon and cruelty is forbidden.

Moreover, uniforms give children something many are seeking but not finding -- a sense of belonging. As a fifth-grader in North Carolina put it to the Raleigh News and Observer "We're all dressed alike, so there's nothing to tease about. It makes us feel like one big family."


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©1999, Creators Syndicate