The Arbitrary Nature of School Uniforms


School uniforms.

Hassle.  Uncomfortable.  Controversial.  Unimaginative.  Robotic.  Problematic.

But do they have to be?  School uniforms are nothing new in the educational tradition, but they are recently misunderstood.  For a rich, rigorous school, however, a dress code is usually essential, typically via school uniforms.  This is rooted in the fundamental purpose of a school—to educate well.  For a Christian school, it’s to educate well by scriptural standards.  This purpose drives everything else, from vision to curriculum to discipline policy to dress code.  What students wear is directly linked to what students learn.

The basic purpose of school uniforms is to promote good, honest learning without distractions.  Uniforms support the primacy of excellence in academics without compromising beauty.  They promote focus, reduce sidelong glances, and foster unity.  Learning class material well is arduous, and uniforms show respect for that task.

But this might not be immediately clear without understanding that everything in God’s world speaks (Rom. 1:20, Ps. 19:1).  Nothing is neutral, which means there is no part of life that can claim exemption from the way God made things, and there is nothing—plant, animal, or mineral—that can opt out of speaking.  As Bonhoeffer once said of Christians, “Not to speak is to speak.”  So just as the heavens declare the glory of God, the clothes we wear also declare something.  They either speak well or badly.

Not only does everything speak, but everything has its place.  A great question to ask of pretty much everything is, “What is it for?”  Baseball caps are for the outdoors, not the dinner table.  Bluegrass is for barbeques, not church.  A man who interviews for a respectable job wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt won’t get the job—and not because the shirt is evil.  The problem is the place, not the thing.

Still, uniforms tend to give the impression of robots, not students.  Why dress all students the same when no other area of society does that?  The answer is that every area of society does that.  Businessmen must wear suits.  NFL athletes must wear helmets and tights.  Swimmers must wear swimsuits.  And every public school student must wear whatever is considered most cool.  All areas of life have dress codes and uniform policies.  So when a classical school student who wears a uniform envies his public school counterpart who does not, he is simply envying a different kind of uniform (and one usually much less classy).  He is not envying that student’s freedom, which does not fully exist.

A uniform policy could also be seen as an arbitrary set of rules.  Why blue Polo shirts and not green?  Why a zippered sweatshirt and not a hoodie?  Who’s to say?  The answer is that a uniform policy by definition is arbitrary, and that is a good thing.  A school could have chosen green shirts, but they didn’t.  They could have allowed hoodies, but they didn’t.  Sometimes these decisions are based on good solid morals (miniskirts probably belong in the trash, not in school), and other times it could go either way and isn’t a moral issue at all.

The issue here is the difference between principles and methods.  The principle should be the same for every Christian school—dress in such a way that God is honored and academics are the focus—but the methods can be different.  One school allows navy blue pants, the other only allows khaki.  Both methods are perfectly fine.  One is a pear, the other is a banana, but both are fruit.  And God likes fruit.

So students and parents should clearly understand the standard and know that their school’s uniform policy is simply one way of upholding that standard.  But even though it’s only one of many ways, it is the established way for that school and should be honored as such.  When this harmony between principles and methods is clearly understood, and everyone knows that it’s not a moral issue (button-downs are “better” than Polo), a uniform policy becomes a freedom, not a restriction, and everyone is able to lighten up a bit.

And what about beauty?  A uniform policy is meant to reduce distractions for the sake of academic excellence, but it should never sacrifice beauty.  Schools should choose styles and items that are classy, sharp, and lovely—even if simple by other standards.

Last, enforcing a dress code policy necessarily involves a bit of grit and discomfort.  Any kind of law creates resentment and sin (Rom. 7:7), and so complaints about uniforms, and violations of the code, are no surprise.  Students test boundaries as a matter of course.  But any discipline must be driven primarily by joy, or else it will be ineffective.  Violations should have consistent consequences, but those consequences must be administered with mercy and joy, not finger-wagging and condemnation.  The consequences must be real, but they must almost be light-hearted—the entire purpose of school uniforms will fall flat otherwise.  Any school can get students to obey the standard if their stick is big enough (and busy enough).  Not every school can get students to love the standard.  And unless students love a school’s standard—whether the uniform policy or something else—they will simply grind their teeth, say the right words, do the right things, and count down the days till they can get the heck out of there.

Grace and Peace, Nate Ahern