Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Uniform(ed) Schooling

When I was a young boy growing up in Cleveland in 1950s, when the cold war was at its height, there was no shortage of propaganda on the evils of communism. Media images portrayed the dreary, humorless existence of men, women, and children unfortunate enough to live behind the Iron or Bamboo curtains. In these popular images, there was no room for joy or laughter, self-expression, or personal or political freedom. For me, the most persuasive portrait of human misery in China or the Soviet Union was captured in films depicting life in Chinese classrooms. Even now I have no idea if these films were real or not. But the image of school children dressed in military-style uniforms, sitting rigidly in their seats, chanting patriotic slogans, and being abused by unvarying, insipid lessons terrified me. From my perspective in the Midwestern United States, this was the antithesis of the personal freedom that was the birthright of Americans (as a 10 year old in Ohio I was unaware of the legalized racism in parts of the country that denied African Americans their birthright).

This all came to mind as I was reading a recent article in USA Today (Carol Motsinger, “Ironing out policies on school uniforms,” August 6, 2007) about the increasing trend in American schools to require children to wear uniforms. According to the article, one in four public elementary schools and one in eight public middle and high schools now require school uniforms. There is evidence that this trend is particularly prevalent in under-performing rural and urban schools serving large numbers of poor and minority students. Apparently, left to their own designs children choose clothing that will distract their classmates from learning although this doesn’t seem to be a worry in more affluent public schools.

Along the same line, Jonothan Kozol’s (2006) book, The Shame of the Nation, documents numerous instances where urban students begin their school day by chanting mind-numbing, “motivational” slogans. In a Seattle school Kozol visited, the entire student body stood and chanted “I have confidence that I can learn” 30 times at a morning assembly. Slogans are big in many versions of urban school reform.

And then there is the tendency toward dreary, one-size-fits-curricula in urban schools, a trend evident in the growing popularity of scripted reading programs in underachieving schools.

Taken together, classrooms overpopulated by poor children of color wearing identical school uniforms, taught through uniform curricular practices, and chanting mindless slogans paint a picture that for me is no less disturbing than the images of Chinese school children from my youth. Politicians and educational policy makers often situate the need for educational reforms in the context of globalization. US companies need better educated workers to compete in a global economy. At least that’s the claim. The irony is that the desire for economic success in a globalized economy may be undermining fundamental American ideals, at least for Americans already disadvantaged by poverty and discrimination.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Thank you for this post. For me, it brought together many things that have been bothering me without realizing exactly why. You have stated these concerns beautifully.