Editorial: No formal dress code
For boys, it’s simple. A collared shirt or sweater, and no jeans. For girls, it’s even simpler. No shirts with writing, and, again, no jeans. And no sweatpants, either. Or hoodies. Or athletic gear. That’s the Loomis dress code. Coming from public school, it’s a bit of a shock at first. But, in the words of faculty member Curt Robison, “Certain restrictions to the freedom of choice in dress are needed” (the full text of a speech he gave on dress code policy is excerpted below). Eventually, most students learn to cope with the dress code and respect its restrictions, though. It seems like a lot of restrictions, but truth be told, it’s reasonable. It strikes a good balance between relaxed and formal. A happy medium.
But as the News Section of this newspaper reported in our last issue, the Dress Code Committee is “poised to push for a more formal dress code.” Fred Seebeck, committee chairman, said of the committee’s goals, “We think the dress code should be more formal; the atmosphere should resemble that of one in the workplace. The learning atmosphere is compromised when the dress is too casual. The more formally we dress, the more serious school becomes.”
Dean Seebeck is in large part right. When dress is too casual, the learning atmosphere is compromised. But one could hardly call our current dress code casual. Beyond some level of formality, the learning atmosphere is no longer compromised. We think our dress code is already above this line. A typical boy’s outfit is a button-down shirt and khaki pants. If the goal is a stricter dress code, where might we go from here? Ties every day would be the next logical step up. But in terms of improving a learning environment, what’s the difference between a shirt and shirt-and-tie? It’s hard for us to believe there would be any substantive difference.
Indeed, for a learning environment filled with teenagers, our current dress code is more than sufficient. It compromises neither the learning environment nor our personal liberties. The latter is what’s at stake with this issue. For marginally better academics, are we willing to restrict personal liberties? As Mr. Robison said, “Such restrictions should be made only when there are compelling reasons backed by moral principles which can legitimately override the principle of civil liberty.”
So the issue to consider is this: are there moral principles backing a change to a stricter dress code? We can’t seem to find any. Perhaps if our dress were offensive, tightening the code would help the community. But, as it stands, the dress code doesn’t offend. There is a key principle, however, backing the keeping of our dress code where it is: our school’s need to support student expression. The more specific our dress code becomes, the less freedom we have. And that’s not something to take lightly.
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The following is an excerpt from a speech given by faculty member Curt Robison in 1986 to the faculty of the American School in Switzerland
I think we do ourselves an injustice and give our students a misleading message when, by legislating styles of dress as precisely as we do, we imply that our concern over aspects of style takes precedence over the very general principle with which it conflicts, that of minimizing the restriction of an individual’s freedom of choice and self-expression. Of course, the issue considered didn’t seem to be terribly important, but that doesn’t mean that there were no major principles at stake in our decision. It was precisely in the conflict between concern for a certain style of dress vs. concern for the minimizing of restrictions to an individual’s liberties that we decided that the concern for style should be overriding.
There are many restrictions to an individual’s complete freedom which we could agree are not only permissible, but indeed, are ethically demanded. The concern for individual liberties does not, and should not, ethically override many of our rules (or other possible rules) relating to a student’s treatment of his fellow human beings. Nor in a school setting should freedom always take precedence over certain attempts to foster a positive attitude toward learning and academics. Clearly, issues relating to the development and enrichment of character and mind should be at the very heart of what a school is about (and of course, it is probably clear that in my mind, the principle of civil liberties is crucial in the development of character).
The concerns surrounding many of the particularities of the dress code, however, do not seem to be so central to our mission to develop mind and character. Within certain boundaries (which I don’t think are crossed by the mix of ties and sneakers) a respect for students’ individual choice and self-expression should override our fears of their allegedly poor taste in dress. I become embarrassed by my profession when I am obligated to enforce rules which so lightly regard principles of civil liberty which I consider so important. I wish it weren’t so.
It may be suggested that by posing the issue the way I do that I’ve unfairly biased the argument against any particular dress code provision, for surely any individual dress code regulation, when baldly stated, pales in comparison to a more lofty ideal such as that of civil liberty. This is not my intent, for I fear that even in the area of dress, given our circumstances, complete liberty would be inappropriate. I recognize then that certain restrictions to the freedom of choice in dress are needed. In keeping with my main theme, however, such restrictions should be made only when there are compelling reasons backed by moral principles which can legitimately override the principle of civil liberty in cases of conflict between the principles. I’m afraid that I have difficulty finding such a principle which would warrant a ban of some of the things which were banned - ‘neatness’ just doesn’t seem to make it.