My book is not about school dress codes!

In my recently published book on education, "Teaching as a Conserving Activity," there are approximately 8,000 sentences, only 11 of which make reference to what is called a dress code. If one were to judge what the book is about on the basis of TV interviewers' questions, newspaper reviews, or letters written to the author, a fair guess would be that it is a 230-page treatise on how children ought to dress in school. From this, I have learned many things; for example, something about the conceptions of social order held by many people , and a great deal about their reading habits.

The book, of course, is not about school dress codes. It is about the cultural context in which children now attend school, and it advances an argument which, at its end, led me to propose many suggestions about schooling, among which are 11 sentences' worth of favorable comment on dress codes.

Here, in the briefest possible form, is the argument:

We live in a culture that is volatile, experimental, and filled with novelty. People everywhere are moving about, searching for new values, practicing new life-styles, rejecting old- fashioned institutions. Our modern forms of communication -- TV, film, records, radio -- undermine traditional patterns of culture while, at the same time, they generate opportunities for new cognitive aptitudes and systems of social relations.All is uncertain and without precedent.

In these circumstances, the most useful function of the schools is to provide ballast against the winds of confusion. For every system -- no matter how much change it is undergoing -- requires a stabilizing element: if one has no conception of where one is leaving from,m a journey must inevitably be aimless and exhausting.

The school is well suited to provide such a perspective. It is almost our only social institution that has no vested interest in change: progress is not its most important product. Thus, it may concentrate on revealing to our youth the case for history, continuity, literacy, and other values that derive from an earlier tradition. By arming our youth with knowledge of an intellectual and social world-view different from that which is promoted by the mass media, our schools may help young people to free themselves from the tyranny of the present , in Cicero's phrase, and thus make a coherent accommodation with the future.

There are essentially two ways for schools to do this. The first is through the agency of the curriculum; that is, through the subjects we teach. I have proposed, therefore, an emphasis on history, science, language, philosophy, art, and religion, all of which require students to confront serious content, complexity, and continuity, and which are uniquely able to provide perspectives on the present.

The second way the school may act as a conserving force is through its ambience, its style, its attitude toward social symbols. I believe it is important, for example, that school be sharply differentiated from other cultural institutions such as movie theaters, rock concerts, playgrounds, and McDonald's restaurants. In particular, schools must be seen as places of historic academic purpose.

The best way to achieve this is by preserving (as a relic, one might say) civilized modes of discourse and relatively formal patterns of behavior. This means, for example, that our youth should be required to express themselves in words, not mime; that they should be encouraged to base their evaluations of ideas on knowledge and reasoning, not feelings; that they be taught how civilized intellects disagree with each other, and generally what the habits of well-mannered people are. It also implies that the school will insist on a measure of respect for traditional social symbols.

In this connection, I put forward the suggestion that teachers and students ought to present themselves in school wearing clothing that signifies the serious and dignified purpose of school. To this suggestion, I have had the retort either that clothing is not symbolic of anything or that it is a trivial symbol and in no way reflects what goes on in a person's mind.

To this I reply that what goes on in a person's mind is always tempered by the symbolic environment in which one is functioning; and that, in fact, the way in which we know what kind of behavior is expected of us is by assessing the meaning of the rituals and symbolic forms present in any environment. These would include, among other things, the manner in which people address each other , the style in which they talk, the characteristic level of noise, the amount of time allotted for activities, and the degree of attention required.

It also includes the way people dress. That is why all of our institutions which conduct serious cultural business -- for example, courts, churches, and corporate board rooms -- have dress codes of one sort or another.

But I shall not insist upon the point. If it can be shown that the ideas, the habits of mind, and the manners of those who lived before television can be made accessible to our young people, regardless of how they dress, I shall be glad to withdraw my 11 sentences.

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