Solon High School
Instructor: Nanci Bush
Impact of School Uniforms on Individualism
Impact of School Uniforms on Individualism
The role of uniforms in education has been shifted dramatically throughout the past several decades. During his 1996 Presidential State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton endorsed the use of schools promoting uniforms within their campuses. The President used the encouragement of uniforms to go along with the need for a disciplined and safe school environment (Samuels). However, the role of uniforms throughout the past several decades has raised concerns about the potential consequences to adolescents. The school uniform can impede on self identity within adolescents by "restricting the urge to experiment" when uniqueness and individuality is the most essential (qtd. in Wilkins). No further experimentation into self identity is being done by adolescents particularly when uniforms are mandated, since no sort of individualized style is developed. According to Rachel Monroe, a writer for The New Yorker, "Fashion brands have always played on our aspirations and insecurities, and on the seemingly innate desire to express ourselves through our clothing." Through developing a style, a sense of self expression also develops. Our perceptions of clothing are determined by the individuals around us. So, when every individual is wearing the same clothing, no sense of self expression is developed. Along with no self expression, other negative consequences come as a result of this conformity as well. Uniforms lead to less creativity in adolescence, not just in clothing related areas, but completely unrelated topics as well. For example, in a study conducted by psychologists, group synchrony was tested to see the results of those who participated in a synchronized task and then soon after performed another task. The results concluded that those who had participated in the synchronized walking task with their peers were less creative in the story writing task afterwards (Gelfand et al). So, when addressing experiences outside of just the fashion industry, adolescents can face less creativity as a result of uniforms. A task or idea done in a synchronized fashion can lead to a less original output in another area. Although uniforms were once encouraged by the most prominent leaders, it is imperative to address the potential negative results that uniforms can have on adolescents. These concerns bring up the question: Should schools require uniforms in light of potential detriments to students' sense of individualism? Overall, an analysis through the social, economic, and health angles show that policies about uniforms need further adjustments to reduce negative consequences.
Uniforms impact social issues because they limit students' ability to express themselves. If uniforms go too far in restricting what students can wear, then the restrictions could create First Amendment issues. For example, previous cases involving armbands have gone before the Supreme Court. Expert in international law John Knetchle argues that "[p]ublic schools interfere with students rights' to choose their dress- a violation of students' First Amendment right of free speech." For example, in Tinker v Des Moines, it was declared that when in the school environment, students have the right to use their freedom of expression (Fossey and DeMitchell). In other words, freedom of expression can come in many forms, including on various types of clothing. So, by taking away these rights, students are less likely to express themselves in a way that is unique to their peers. While school districts are obligated to provide education in a safe and "disciplined" environment, schools are also required to respect students' constitutional rights (Fossey and DeMitchell). Students use their freedom of expression to display a variety of clothing trends and styles. In fact, this form of self expression can be seen as a "walking billboard" for certain brands (LaPoint et al). Ultimately, when schools place too much of a mandate on uniforms, it places a burden upon the students' constitutional rights and individualism (Rodriguez). Therefore, it is essential that students have the ability to express themselves without having the uniform be a barrier. Not only does the uniform act as a barrier for students' self expression, but the uniform also does not contribute to solving other social issues within schools, such as discrimination and discipline.
One common reason that schools use uniforms is to reduce discrimination and promote discipline. However, some experts view the uniforms as an ineffective method for dealing with gender identity and discipline. For example, if schools are struggling with gender discrimination, uniforms may only make the problem worse. Alison Happel, a researcher focused on social and environmental justice, argues that "school uniform is linked to gendered performance where school uniforms underpin sex and gender roles, because they restrict movement and confirm traditional gender identities" (qtd. in Reidy). When school districts instill the idea into adolescents that they must change something about themselves by wearing a uniform that does not conform with their gender identity, it can have damaging social consequences. This is because students are no longer freely displaying their views or styles, but are rather taught that only looking a certain way is acceptable. In addition, in order for schools to convey a certain message regarding discipline, students must be taught the basis of the problem as well as the consequences of rule breaking (Wilkins). Basically, because the main outcome of a uniform is group conformity instead of a specific message being conveyed, if the ultimate goal of school districts is to provide a more disciplined education, mandating a uniform will not solve issues relating to other forms of rule-breaking. The outcome of a school uniform is not as complex as some make it out to be. School uniforms do not solve societal issues as some advocates intend for them to do. In fact, it can be very hard for the uniform to be accepted by students across schools.
School districts can mandate the uniform on only certain occasions or introduce it very slowly in order to form a sense of acceptance within the students. The question regarding the relationship between uniforms and individualism in schools brings up how a uniform is not an effective way to promote academic achievement and creativity. Proponents of uniforms argue that when schools promote a conformed environment, there will be more academic success because of less distractions related to discipline and safety (Moland). Yet a close analysis reveals that there are many factors that contribute to academic achievement, not including uniforms. Based on studies of "large datasets and meta-analyses," researchers were unable to find a connection between students wearing uniforms and academic outcomes (qtd. in Reidy). Additionally, students will only feel motivated to even participate in creative tasks when it is accepted by the environment (Fox and Shirrmacher). If schools are mandating uniforms to promote academic success, they need to change their approach. In addition, by narrowing the freedom of students to express themselves, it is essentially creating an "intrusive control of group behavior" (Reidy). Researchers focused on psychology emphasize that, "[s]ynchrony had the unexpected negative effect on creativity," making it clear that a potential solution is to lessen the degree at which uniforms are required (qtd. in Gelfand et al). Ultimately, this means that the conformity that the uniform provides is enough to reduce the creativity in another area. In order for more uniforms to exist within the classroom while still promoting individualism, school districts should instill a form of acceptance with the uniform. However, students may face more difficulty accepting the uniform if they face economic barriers.
In order to limit negative economic impacts, school districts can make a budget related to the cost of the uniform to ensure economic inclusion. The original goal of mandating a uniform may contribute to fixing economic differences within the community. Uniforms were also used to promote social equality by essentially "blurring any economic differences" in children (Samuels). For instance, schools would mandate uniforms in order to prevent conflict between students over economic disagreements on pieces of designer clothing ("President William…"). Despite the fact that uniforms hide this economic ladder, the mandating of uniforms can exclude students and can be a burden on low income families when it is too expensive (Reidy). So, when addressing the conformity of uniforms and its economic implications, schools can make a budget related to the cost of the uniform ensuring that all students are included and making sure no student goes through economic trouble. When the student feels included in a group, it creates a sense of belonging which helps the student develop a culture that promotes individualism (Reidy). Individualism can also be promoted when the student has different options when choosing a uniform.
As an alternative to placing a strict policy on uniforms for the sole purpose of conformity, schools can allow students to choose from a variety of options if a uniform is mandated. Because most children rely on parental figures for economic support, making certain clothing brands off limits does not help create independence. As an alternative to specific uniforms, many schools are banning specific styles, trends, or brands in order to create conformity within the classroom. However, imposing these restrictions will only create more conflict over what is acceptable versus what is not. When schools place a broad spectrum of clothing "off limits" it only creates more disputes within the school environment over the limits on the pieces of clothing (Wilkins). In addition to disputes over unnecessary brand bans, in most cases, adolescents do not have the financial independence. If schools place strict restrictions on clothing, it can make it harder for families to afford clothing that complies with these rules. A group of researchers focused on the consumption of clothing emphasize that "the idea that children should be allowed to decide what to wear, in order to become independent and find themselves, stands strong." (Borch et al). This allows the student to have individualism and creativity when picking an outfit, while still following school policy and promoting economic inclusion.
Uniforms can be designed with a multi-function use in order for the students to be able to perform physical activities while also encouraging students to engage in activities outside of only academics. When schools require uniforms, they are designed to fit the interests of the particular school. In some cases, the uniform can cause a barrier to participation in physical activities because of its non multi-use design. When school uniforms are impractical, it can cause students to be less active at school because of the "restriction of movements" that the uniform is causing (McCarthy et al). Ultimately, from a health angle, mandating a school uniform can further get in the way of promoting physical activity when it is poorly designed to engage in physical activity. Schools can further help end this barrier by changing the overall way the uniforms are manufactured or distributed.
School districts can set uniform guidelines that make sure the uniforms do not limit the student physically, while promoting creativity at the same time. Uniforms must be designed to keep up with school environments. For example, schools are an important place for children to get physical activity. Of course, if schools are not promoting enough physical activity then it would be essential to change an already existing factor. However, even a minute change in the type of uniform being distributed can cause a positive outcome (Norrish et al). In other words, a very effective way to overcome any physical barrier is to change either the design of the uniform, or the intended goal. On the other hand, some argue that uniforms do not come as the cause of these barriers because of the many other forms of creativity.
The lack of individualism in adolescents as a result of school uniforms is an ongoing problem. School uniforms do not help to establish greater academic achievement, discipline, or reduce economic differences. Minimizing the problems that the school wishes to achieve does not come as a result of mandating a uniform. There are multiple effective ways to promote students' individualism while still limiting the range of options of what students can wear. School districts can give students more freedom when choosing a uniform option to ensure there is no financial stress and make room for creativity. Ideally, students can show self expression while the school still is able to maintain some control over what students can wear.