School Uniforms Contradict First Amendment
by Sarah Sirota
Uniforms, which are so abundant at Jewish schools, are advocated because they are claimed to create equality among students, a focused learning environment, and a more modest atmosphere. Yet experiments and surveys have proven that they do not accomplish any of these goals. For something that accomplishes nothing, the removal of freedom of expression is a hefty price to pay.
Private schools may fight for pleated skirts and button down shirts. They may claim that the uniforms create equality among the students, erase competition, and put the focus on academics. But what the uniforms destroy is far worse and much more damaging than the little “good” they supposedly create.
When kids are young, the sky is the limit. Their dreams are vast, their manner unsubtle, and their actions unique. Why should schools have the right to take all that and bottle it up?
The first amendment of our constitution gives the right to freedom of expression. People argue every day about the second amendment, regarding the right to bear arms. Why doesn’t a uniform’s clear infringement on the first amendment, warrant any fight?
In Jewish schools especially, where kids are slowly learning to be responsible for their individual level of Judaism, they can sometimes feel stifled and suppressed. Gradually coming to understand how and why they are different from other secular kids, it is very important that they not feel overwhelmed, and be given adequate breathing room.
Demanding that the students wear uniforms, exacerbates their learning experience, backs them into a corner, and can make them resent what they could admire. Without a little room for self-expression, they will rebel against everything being thrust at them. What should be a loving and comfortable learning experience becomes a hated one.
In a public school setting, it is easier for a child to feel unique and different, simply because of the diversity of the institution. In a Jewish school, where the student body is made up of a specific minority population, a student is more likely to feel like just another in a crowd. Therefore, self-expression is necessary, so that the students’ individuality can shine forth and distinguish them. Being able to dress as they like and not being confined to a uniform dress code, will give students the freedom and ability to do that. As Charles Evans Hughes, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, stated, “When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.”
David Brunsma, professor of Sociology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is a leading researcher in the field of school uniforms. Brunsma’s findings demonstrate that in terms of academic achievement, uniforms are actually detrimental to students’ reading capabilities among tenth graders. He states that uniforms do not enhance one’s ability to focus and learn, nor do they curb violence and cliques. In essence then, uniforms accomplish nothing. Removing freedom of expression for something that does nothing seems too bold a step to take.
Jewish schools in particular are always very big on dress codes, because they feel it is the best way to enforce the laws of Tzniut (modesty). If everyone wears the same button down shirts and pleated skirts or pants, illicit clothing and crude fashion won’t enter the picture. So rather than deal with dress code issues, the schools require uniforms.
This approach is severely flawed. A school’s job is to educate. Demanding that students wear uniforms is not teaching them the importance of dress. How much is really being taught if the students go home after school, dispose of their uniforms, and dress in whatever manner they like? It’s as if the school is teaching them that only public appearance matters and what you do on your own doesn’t, that modesty is important only during school hours.
If schools go around toting such ideas, students will not take their manner of dress or their education seriously. Things taught and enforced in the classroom should translate into life out of school also. There should be no distinction between public and private appearance.
Schools should worry less about enforcing rules and spend more time on teaching life lessons. Without an official dress code, a school can teach its students how to dress properly and modestly, within their own wardrobes. With such an education, students can learn to define their own style, while still maintaining appropriate fashion, both in and out of the classroom.
Students should not have to buy special clothing, uniforms, for school. Their closets filled with clothing, which scream individuality, should be allowed to enter the classroom. Writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, hit it on the button when he warned, "Beware all enterprises that require new clothes."