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School Uniforms and The Mob

September 16, 2016

Last week there were stories in the press about a school that enforced its uniform policy (yes, that really was considered newsworthy). Much of the response resembled “school shaming” which I wrote about in this series of posts in the holidays:

It wasn’t a terrible “shaming”, as there was a lot of support for the school, and only the hardcore anti-uniform, anti-discipline types could go along with condemning a school for enforcing its own rules. The following blogs give a flavour of the response among bloggers:

For this reason, I wasn’t planning to comment on the story, beyond the following tweet referring to the contradictory positions of some of the serial school shamers:

However, I was quite impressed by one of the arguments used by the headteacher when defending his decision here.

I had 2 Year 11s talk to me yesterday about the fact that when they were in year 7, and when they came to school in perfect uniform, they got bullied by two other children because of the fact they were doing the right thing. We need to send a very clear message that I’m standing by the majority of our children, the majority of our parents, those parents who stood up to their children… and stood up for them.

It reminded me that so often when we relinquish the right of adults to tell children what to do, we are not liberating them to do what they want, we are putting them under the control of their peer group. The absence of authority is not freedom, it is mob rule. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about this problem with progressive education decades ago, identifying the following basic assumption in progressive thought:

… there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening. The real and normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are thus broken off. And so it is of the essence of this first basic assumption that it takes into account only the group and not the individual child.

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others. There are very few grown people who can endure such a situation, even when it is not supported by external means of compulsion; children are simply and utterly incapable of it.

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.

From The Crisis Of Education, in Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt

I’ve tended to defend school uniforms in the past due to the way they help with school security, and the poor behaviour often seen on non-uniform days. But I think this is a more important point; we tell students what to wear because, if we don’t, the mob will. And our instructions will be much fairer, much more affordable and much more likely to help them develop good habits, than what their peers instruct them to wear. We tell children what to do because it gives them more freedom.

6 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. This plays into my 13-year-old daughter’s in-class introversion and modesty. She doesn’t want her peers to think she’s “boasting” or a “keeno” and that’s a significant factor in why she typically keeps her hands down. Assuming she has an answer she does like being picked. I’ve heard this cross her lips a few times in conversations with peers: “They made me do it”, which diverts any resentment for doing something shiny into peer-bonding common-enemy territory.


  3. In the context of the comments by Old Andrew, I was always struck by the fact that every single secondary school in England in which I tought used “Lord of the flies” as a prescribed book.

    Yet almost nobody on the staff, most especially not the heads or SMTs, paid a blind bit of heed to its contents.


  4. I was teaching a class of sixth formers in Prague who could not contain their amusement at the idea that their peers, in my own school in London, wore a uniform. They thought a little deeper about the issue when I pointed out to them that every single person in the room, except me, was wearing denim.


  5. We also owe it to parents to mean what we say. Parents who do their best to support schools don’t really welcome being undermined by their sloppy application of rules that are set.
    I’ve no strong views about uniform as such, but whatever we say we do, we must then do. Consistently


  6. Really interesting article At a previous school, that brought in uniform when it became an academy, we found that students would kick against the rules whatever they were. If they had uniform the rebellions were usually about uniform and therefore more trivial. Without uniform their misbehaviour was more challenging. And without a set uniform they also almost all wore jeans and a white t-shirt.



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