November 26, 2010

School Uniform; or, The Beginnings of Self-Respect

My paternal grandmother was a fierce woman. I don’t think that anyone who knew her would disagree. Until she was 80 she would go on long marches with a stick, and I was never convinced that the stick served any purpose but for beating stubborn livestock that crossed her path. No doubt her early experience with a bull that had blocked her way home across a field had taught her a lesson. On that occasion she had been forced to spend the night under the stars, staring down the animal with contempt.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, or my grandma's largely absentee squire
Always take a stick. This lesson applied to life in general, and she wouldn’t suffer any nonsense. Nevertheless, my grandmother knew her place. She was working class, and defiantly proud of it. I’m sure she used to curtsey for the Earl of Carnarvon when he was up there shooting, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she cuffed the lads who weren’t prompt enough in the tugging of forelocks. Being working class was about being respectable: work hard; never let anybody see that you’re hurting, or that you have feelings; toe the line, even when you hate it, but give ‘em what for if there’s a whiff of injustice. Knowing one’s place involved everyone also knowing their respective places. In its own way, it worked. Of course, it also damaged. All that swallowed anger and resentment, those bottled up emotions and un-talked about problems – it was a patchwork of scarring. Still, face was saved. Respectability was assured. Heads could always be held high.

C.J. Vaughan
I wonder if we can dispense with the scarring and somehow reinvigorate the self-respect. What drove people then was a sense of belonging to a group, the code of which ensured that social transgression was policed not by parliament but by community. The same held good for the elite. C.J. Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow in the 1850s, once gave a lecture at Repton (home town of the aforementioned grandmother), claiming that authority and respect was maintained in the elite public schools by the prefects and praeposters, keeping bullying and oppression in check through their own activity of mind, industry and good conduct. Self-respect among leaders set the example for followers.

Local (to me) working-class school uniforms, c. 1970.
This week I read in the news that Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to encourage schools to re-introduce blazer and tie uniforms, and traditional prefect and house systems. There’s not much that’s come out of the mouth of this man in the last few months that I would care to endorse, but I think this is a worthy idea. I was looking through some archival photographs of kids from my childhood locale and noting that it really wasn’t so long ago that even the lowliest of comprehensive schools chose to sport collar, blazer and tie. Kids used to look smart, and schools had an identity because of their colours. Children felt like they belonged, and took ownership of their identity. Sure, they chaffed at the system at times, but surely they looked (and behaved) better than the track-suited and denim tribes one sees these days. I also remember with fondness the house system, with its house points, as late as the 1980s. I was in Nightingale house, and there was a genuine sense of wanting to do well for it. Good conduct, not to mention good work, benefitted the group as well as the individual. Bad behaviour penalised the group, and the group therefore policed itself. I really don’t know why we scrapped such things. To be house Captain surely was no bad thing. Why would we not want that for our children? All of it taught them self-respect, and all of it helped to ensure that the community sorted out its own transgressors.

My senior school scrapped the blazer and tie just before I joined it at 11. I’m sure my grandmother was appalled. Given the chance she would, no doubt, have cuffed the headmaster. Bring it back, I say, and let’s re-begin with self-respect.

12 comments:

  1. Once again you have struck the right chord.

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  2. Well done, sir. I would like a return to the blazer at my school, but I don't see that happening. We are lucky enough to have the boys wearing a uniform (correctly) on a daily basis.

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  3. Thank you TS. Glad to hear that. Do you think it helps that they are uniformed? I'd like to hear the inside track on this.
    VB

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  4. I do agree that individualism certainly has take over. The causal dressing behavior of people these days is terrible. To suggest a dressing style better than what they choose on their own will get you an earful from your kids. Luckily my daughter loves to dress up. My son...I give up. Why don't you come over and talk to him yourself! Pop culture is a very very strong tide to swim against.

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  5. As long as you set a good example, Steven, I shall wager that your son will ultimately see the wisdom of it. But he may have to get there by himself. You can take a horse to water...

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  6. I totally agree VB,
    I went to a top-notch Grammar where the Uniform was something we wore with pride. School spirit, the house system and all the traditions were in play, and we felt a great deal of love for our fine old school.
    The values we were empressed with taught us about belonging, about respect and about pulling together for the common good. I'm glad to say the place is still the same, though minus latin class...apparently after Mrs M retired, no replacement teacher could be found and so it was abandoned. How sad...I always loved latin.

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  7. Thank you Liath, as always. Your experience sounds delightful, and I'm not a little rueful about my own in contrast. Our school emblem, a grffin I believe, looked more like a barbecued chicken, and received nothing but scorn. Alas, Latin was NEVER taught in my school, nor in thousands like it. There was dubiety even about French! This has left me sorely deficient in language skills, which haunts me as I move between homes in Germanophone and Francophone countries!
    VB

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  8. On this, I am in total agreement. We do not have houses here in the US. Ok, we do have houses, but you know what I mean. A school uniform I think would do wonders for the schools, instilling great pride in where you go for your education.

    My son's school has something close, although I wish they would take it further. Each class is assigned a University and the class wear's that University's colors at certain points of the year. Instead of bells, they play the University fight song throughout the day. My son's 2nd grade class is the University of Alabama. He suddenly has great interest in all things "southern".

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  9. What a novel idea. I do hope all the Universities are somewhat aspirational. Wouldn't want to give kids the idea of lauding Texas Tech or the University of Luton (for examples).
    VB

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  10. Although this post was written a month ago and I agree with many of your views on this blog, I feel I must disagree with you in this case.
    Having attended both public and private schools in Britain, the latter in which I had to wear a uniform similar to the one pictured above (although with a skirt instead of trousers, being female) I can absolutely say that wearing a uniform never did me any good whatsoever. Not only were our uniforms uncomfortable, unattractive (honestly, they would have made a blind person flinch) but when it rained they smelt like wet dog. And worst of all the expense of them was something unholy when added to the cost of enrollment, books, equipment, etc. I can assure you that not a single student had 'pride' in such a get-up.

    Your article (and most written on the same subject by other writers) seem to imply that if children did not have uniforms to wear, children and teenagers could not possibly dress themselves in the morning. This is utter nonsense. Even at the age of 12 my parents had taught me to dress cleanly and sensibly, while still allowing for what was 'fashionable'. While I can't speak for everyone, I am sure that if British schools dropped the antiquated idea of uniforms, students would no longer feel the need to rebel against the torture inflicted on them by uniforms. And maybe an alternative channel for 'free expression' is required in order to stop students truanting, disrespecting teachers, etc. Just my thoughts on the matter.

    However, I do think that a House system should be implemented in schools, as rivalry between different houses took up some of our energy while at school.

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  11. Thank you H,
    Tales of individual experiences are always welcome, of course. One might idealise a uniform that was, in fact, comfortable, and that didn't break the bank. The one my school scrapped just before I attended it was largely polyester (hence no wet sheep), and one need not picture a world where every teenager looked like a young George IV.

    Contrary to what you say about kids not being able to dress themselves, my fear is that they are all to able to dress themselves, and that their expressions of healthy difference often reinforce antagonistic differences (not to mention social class differences). To offer a personal experience of my own, the lack of school identity, and the dire state of the rabble that lurched through the school gates daily, did nothing for the attitude of the pupils. There is surely a healthy and civilized looking middle way here.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks again for the insight.
    VB

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