Friday, October 05, 2007

Do Clothes Make the Student?

(I meant to write this post about a month ago, but things got busy; fortuntately, it goes quite well with the outlawing-saggy-pants stories that have been floating around for the past week.)

I've done quite a few posts about overzealous enforcement of dress codes in public schools; surely those who feel oppressed by such things are quite happy to get to college, where such things are rarely a concern. But now comes news that the interim president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas has instituted a dress code at his school. Sorrell wrote the following in a September 4 op-ed column in the Dallas Morning News:
Aristotle once wrote that "education is the best provision for old age." This provision requires not just classroom tutelage, but the type of instruction that leads the pupil to achieve "Renaissance person" status.

It's easy to lose sight of this obligation in the face of the realities and pressures of modern academia. Today's college presidents, especially small-college presidents, must balance a myriad of issues as we seek to create enlightened minds. We must satisfy the expectations of parents, students, faculty and a global marketplace that demands nimble, creative talents with the reality of limited fiscal resources. Therefore, we as college administrators must become more innovative, resourceful and comfortable operating outside of the box. It was a combination of this spirit of innovation and a nod to history that led us to implement a business-casual dress code for the students at Paul Quinn College. Beginning this fall, on Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every student must adhere to business casual wardrobe rules. No jeans. No T-shirts. No sneakers or flip-flops.

We are charged with the responsibility of preparing our students to assume a leadership role in business, and we can no longer pretend that their attire isn't one aspect of that preparation. In order for our students to seamlessly transition into the corporate landscape, they require lessons in business etiquette and practices. At Paul Quinn, those lessons are now occurring daily.
Needless to say, there has been opposition to this, and not just from the students. How are the students supposed to pay for this, some have asked. (Sorrell responded by asking community leaders to sponsor a gently-used clothing drive.): As for the other concerns, Sorrell has answers as well:
I have heard the criticisms from a small segment of our students and their parents that (1) the students are adults and thus don't need to be told how to dress and (2) how you dress doesn't affect your academic performance.

I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree. First, we are an educational institution. Our job is to educate our students completely. Teaching them business etiquette falls within that job description. Second, as I walk the campus and observe young women walking to class in skirts or when I watch the students in my class debate the finer points of their reading assignments while wearing shirts and ties, I look at the smiles on their faces and I listen to the confidence in their voices. They don't just look different or act different, they are different. This will absolutely translate into greater academic performance.
Do you agree with this? Do clothes really make the man (or woman), or is this just another example of excessive adminstrative control by a school? Since the original op-ed, Sorrell has had the "interim" tag removed from his presidential title, so this policy is probably going to stay for the foreseeable future. DMN columnist James Ragland likes the idea, though he notes that the code can't dress up the other problems the school is experiencing, including being put on probation by its accrediting agency (for a laundry list of problems) and going through five presidents since 2001.

But let me look at this from another angle for a moment. One of the things that Sorrell said was that "[w]e are charged with the responsibility of preparing our students to assume a leadership role in business." But wait...isn't that operating on the dangerous assumption that every graduate would actually be entering the business world after college? The college's catalog lists sixteen different degree programs, only three of which are really business degrees. (I'm not saying that a lot of the other majors would lead to jobs in places without dress codes, but it seems a stretch to assume that everyone who graduates from this college will be a "leader in business.")

I'll lay all my cards on the table here: As someone in the arts, I'm a little leery of using the business world as a standard to which we should all aspire. After all, in its highest form, art is about searching for truth and beauty in everyday life, whereas business is all about the almighty dollar. I'm not trying to be overly idealistic here; I'm just pointing out that business can't exactly be held up as a paragon of virtue. There's been a lot more corrupt behavior in businss than there has in music. (Perhaps this is why the music business--or at least the commercial part known as Big Music--is so distasteful to me, because the business half has corrupted the music half.) Why should business get to dictate things like this outside of their own little world? (This sentiment was expressed earlier by another Kevin--the now-former Dallas sports columnist Kevin B. Blackistone, who wrote, "This is one quip Mark Twain got wrong. Clothes don't make the man. Some pretty reprehensible folks over the years have dressed like they belong in boardrooms. Come to think of it, some of them have been in boardrooms. And now they're in jail rooms." I tend to agree with that sentiment.)

Several years ago, the DMN ran an article about school dress codes (this is so long ago that I doubt I can still find a link). Included was the usual drivel: Administrators worried about people dressing like gang members and so on (what would happen if gangs started wearing Old Navy?). The one voice of reason came from, of all people, a high-school sophomore, who noted that there was no reason to impose the standards of the business world on everyone, because not everyone was going to graduate and join the business world; a lot of them would become artists, musicians, computer programmers and so on--places that didn't subscribe to the worldview--or uniformity--of business.

The comments have been a little paltry lately (is it just that nobody wants to register with Google?), but please feel free to chime in on this subject, especially if you have a point that hasn't been discussed here yet.

It's spreading: Now there's even a dress code for Malaysian taxi drivers. Tucked-in shirts! No sandals! White shirts and dark pants only! When will it stop?

And this just seems silly: A teenager's yearbook picture has been rejected by her New Hampshire school because she's holding a flower in it. Evidently, it runs afoul of a "no props" clause or something...

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