Uniforms and identity

During the Civil War, it was possible for a conscript to avoid serving in uniform by paying a substitute to serve in his place, or by simply paying the government $300. In 21st century America, we draft all children into school until a certain age, and we don’t allow for substitutions or for buying their way out of compulsory attendance. But only in certain schools do we require the wearing of a uniform.

In Cobb County, Georgia, a few schools that require students to wear uniforms make it possible to buy a one-day exemption for as little as one dollar. [1]

The practice of mandating school uniforms has come under fire from many sides. Some argue that it is discriminatory, citing the fact that the schools that require uniforms are predominantly ones that have a majority poor and/or non-white population. Some point out that uniform regulations are just one more trap for kids who are already too often targeted for disciplinary code violations. Some complain about the expense of purchasing a separate wardrobe just for school.

With the Cobb County “dress down” policies, a different financial argument is being heard. Parents complain that they should not be expected to pay for allowing their children the privilege of wearing their own clothes.

As a parent and educator, I have had a number of occasions to consider school uniforms, and the role they can play in school climate and the learning process. My own kids have been enrolled in schools that required a uniform and in some schools that did not.  My thoughts about these requirements have differed significantly depending on the totality of the circumstances.

Uniforms can have a positive effect on a school community. One school my sons attended is 50% immigrant/refugee and 50% U.S.-born children from mostly financially comfortable middle class families. At this school the uniforms disguise some very real income inequalities and facilitate children seeing each other as equals.  The required uniform is a simple white or light blue shirt and navy blue pants – relatively inexpensive and versatile attire. Additionally, it is part of the culture of that school for the families that could afford it to donate clothing – mostly gently used – and thus spread a little material wealth around the school community.  I believe that the uniform requirement is a very sensible idea in the community created by that school.

But that was a special case. Community is the product of a spirit of unity and shared purpose, and cannot be created through appearances alone.

My older son’s current high school requires not just uniforms, but garments that display the school name and colors – an odd bit of tribalism that seems calculated to impress those outside the school more than it is likely to bind members of the school community together. These uniforms must be purchased from a preferred vendor.

It is early – just two months into my son’s high school career, but I have yet to see evidence of any benefit from the mandatory uniform policy. And I have my own reasons to doubt whether this requirement does more good than harm.

The problem is, adolescence is a natural time for the search for identity, and uniforms suppress one avenue for that search.  Granted, some kids have no problem finding themselves in a blue blazer – some even prefer the anonymity that comes from looking like all of their peers.  But there are also kids who interpret these rules as more than just an insult to their taste – it is a denial of their right to make decisions about something that is very personal to them.  Wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to make good decisions than to take the matter completely out of their hands as if they can’t be trusted?

Some kids need desperately to develop a positive self-image, and they need adult support in doing so.  When they dig deeper to find what makes them unique, they often don’t like what they see.  And that is okay – in fact, it is not only a normal phase of adolescence, it can be the motivating factor that sparks self-improvement. But without guidance and support on an individual basis from responsible adults, a healthy search for identity can turn into an unhealthy cry from a very confused young person for attention and respect.

The worst examples of adolescent behavior – actual anti-social or dangerous acts worthy of disciplinary intervention – are the result of frustration and a misplaced sense of identity. I feel safe in asserting that a kid who would do something as self-destructive as firing a gun in public, or fighting with a policeman at school, or hitting a teacher who intervened with a fistfight in a classroom, doesn’t have a well-grounded self-image. [2]

Uniforms are all too often a mask to create the illusion of peaceful cooperation with authority.  Requiring them is just another tool in the arsenal of coercions schools employ to create an air of discipline and a culture of conformity.  In special cases they may have some value in building a sense of community, but allowing kids to buy their way out of the requirement seems to undercut this value by creating divisions while doing nothing to address individual needs.


[1] French, R. (2015, October 2). Some schools letting students skip uniform. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. B1, B3.

[2] See previous posts on this blog: Opportunity cost of school violence and Navigating the funnel

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Avoiding a trap

We have fallen into a trap. Facing uncertainties about our economic future, grappling constantly with the technological changes that have become the erratic drumbeat of life in the 21st century, we grasp for a formula that will ensure success in the short term and a game plan for the long haul. The answers that seem the most promising in a time of rapid change are the ones that appear most familiar. Thus we are trapped by our fear of the uncertain, and easily seduced by whatever sounds like common sense.

This fear, and the resultant grasping for solutions have had a terrible effect on public education in the United States.

We are accustomed to believing in the power of technology to improve our quality of life. Technology gives us tools (and sometimes some pretty attractive toys). But providing students with more tablets, chaining teachers to computers and projectors, is not in itself an answer. It is still up to us to craft the best way to use technology to teach the students in our care.

We fret about corruption and ineptitude in our public schools, and we wonder if the structure of the bureaucracy that delivers the service is actually getting in its own way. So we create vouchers and charter schools, and debate about federal mandates and local control. Rearranging deck chairs on a leaky boat while the students below are treading water.

We question whether the institution itself is fundamentally flawed. We take the critique of government – that it should be run more like a business – and apply it to public schools. But in so doing we ignore the fact that the price of success in a free market is failure. To be sure, in the long run, we want a system that will give everyone a chance to be a winner. But here, we are dealing with children. How much time do we really have before failure becomes part of an impressionable child’s identity?

We feel we are slipping behind, and numbers seem to confirm our fears. So we spring into action, generating more numbers, hoping for a turn in the right direction. Before long, it is all about the numbers, and the students become simply producers of data. Progress is measured in the aggregate, not the way young learners experience it – individually.

The answers are not easy, and they cannot be administered from Washington, state capitals, school boards, or principal’s offices. Learning is an individual act, unique to each of us. Schools, and school systems, are not set up to address this fundamental fact of human life. They are designed to usher large numbers of young people through an often impersonal process intended to produce identical outcomes.

We need to make fundamental changes in the way we view education. We need to get away from placing a high value on compliance and see learning as a means to set young minds free. If not, we will simply produce another fearful generation that will fall easily into a trap.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog

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What did you learn?

For the last several years, there is a question I have been asking to many of the young people I meet. I generally only ask it to people between the ages of about 20 to 25 – individuals who still have many vivid memories of their adolescence, but also have gained a few years since then, and hopefully some perspective.

I don’t usually ask people I have known a long time. I don’t want anyone to tell me what he or she might think I want to hear. Sometimes I ask the people I bump into by chance and expect never to meet again. But when I make someone’s acquaintance and I expect to strike up a friendship, the question is almost always included in our first conversation.

The question is: Thinking back on the years you spent in high school, what did you learn then that has helped you the most today?

I have been surprised at the variety of answers I have heard. And the most remarkable thing – although hardly the most surprising – is that of the hundred or so times I have asked the question, only once has the answer involved anything that was in the high school curriculum.

The answer has often involved the awakening of interpersonal social skills. Sometimes it has involved a growing awareness of a broader society outside of one’s immediate environment. At times the answer involved a life-changing event. Sometimes it was an event that just brought a part of life’s meaning into focus.

Sometimes the answer involved a mentor – often a particularly important teacher, but just as often not. Sometimes it was a first love, or a best love, or a lost love, but the importance was always manifested in the wisdom imparted, not in the person.

On some occasions, the answer involved learning in the classroom, but the part of the experience that was of lasting value was almost never the specific subject matter of the lesson. It was the experience of learning itself – the sense of empowerment that came from accomplishment.

And I think this understanding that the experience is more important than the knowledge, provides a lesson about human nature, and about life in the 21st century. Information is easy to come by. Insight, wisdom, self-awareness, and the confidence to go forward with a belief in one’s own success – these are the treasures of life experience.

It is a common practice, in classrooms, in workshops, and in training sessions, to wrap up the lesson by asking participants to state what they have learned from the activity. It is a well-established method for reinforcing learning, and if done regularly it can make us more mindful and deliberate learners. But outside the context of a workshop or a classroom, how often do we stop and ask what we have learned from life?

We don’t stop learning when we leave school behind. Think back on the last seven years of your life. What did you learn that has helped you the most today?


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Opportunity cost of school violence

A Friday night high school football game in a major American city. Two people are wounded by gunfire. Panic in the stands when the shots ring out.

Life goes on in 21st century America. A ripple on a still surface, while turbulent waters churn below.

Predictably, the following week saw the school system respond to the public relations problem created by the shooting. Tighter security measures were promised. But making a few additional uniforms visible around the stadium is, in the end, a token gesture. Law enforcement officials can only react to violence once it is underway. Metal detectors can only identify hardware, not the will to commit a violent act.

To most of us, the image of a teenager firing a gun in a crowded area makes no sense. We struggle to find a reason that will calm the questions. Maybe it’s race. Maybe it’s religion. Maybe it’s that the actor is from a foreign land and is at odds with our culture and our ways.

It is easy for most of us to keep our eyes on the relatively still surface of our prosperous national life and fail to see that violence is not an aberration; it is an intrinsic part of American culture. For far too many Americans, in the absence of any better options, violence does seem to make sense.

A few weeks ago, a ninth grader reported to me an incident on a high school campus not far from the site of the stadium shooting. Two students were fighting. Two uniformed officers waded through the crowd that had surrounded the battle, when suddenly one of the combatants bolted and ran. One officer gave chase and brought the student to the ground, where the teenager struggled and repeatedly hit the policeman. Breaking free, the student ran again, but was brought down once more, this time placed in handcuffs and taken into custody.

It is pretty easy for a detached observer to point to any number of times during this incident that the student could have made different choices that would have produced a better outcome. Did these choices not occur to the student? Certainly his freedom to make choices for himself has now been severely limited.

The superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools weighed in on the issue last week in an interview with a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“[T]he challenge is in education and how we behave and model for children as adults. … We are not providing in our school community of Atlanta a clear direction for our children so they have choice-filled lives. Without that, anything goes. Having a choice, having another option, an option that gives you hope, that gives you opportunity – I think that’s what the issue is.” *

It takes more than modeling behavior. It takes more than a state-mandated curriculum. Teaching is a profession devoted to enabling human potential, and so it has no clear-cut boundaries, no easily defined outcomes. Teachers make a personal investment in the welfare and future of young lives, and it is up to students to embrace their potential and invest in their own opportunities. But they can’t do it without guidance and support. We are talking about children – the future, being formed today.

Teaching is the single most important job that exists in our society. And yet it is not fair to put the entire burden of failure on the schools or the teachers. We all have a stake in the success of every child, and the cost of missing this opportunity will be measured in more than stray bullets. It is an investment that we all need to make.


* Meria Carstarphen, quoted in: Bloom, Molly. “APS Chief: To Curtail Shootings, Kids Need Hope.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution 12 Sept. 2015, sec. A: 4. Print.


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Navigating the funnel

When students filed in to their Civics class at the end of the day on Friday, there was blood on one of the desks and on the wall. The teacher held his arm stiffly and explained that there had been a fight between two students, that he had intervened, and that he would be making a stop by the emergency room after the school day ended. But now it was time to get to work learning about the legislative process. Life goes on as planned – at least until the final bell rings.

The teacher would in all likelihood be back after the long holiday weekend, if he felt up to it. The two ninth graders had several stops to make before they would return to school, and the decision about when, or even whether to return was most likely not going to include any input from them at all. Whatever had prompted the outbreak of violence, the result would be a loss of freedom, a reduction in the choices available, a diminished capacity to control their own circumstances. It would mean their ability even to make positive choices for themselves would be subject to the will of others.

Adolescence is rough, and sometimes can be dangerous. The teenage years are when we discover ourselves, assert ourselves, formulate dreams and calculate our chances of making those dreams come true. For some of us, it is a time of ever-opening possibilities. For others, it seems to be a frustrating gallery of attractions just out of reach. For all of us, it is a time of dislocation – rapid growth occurring on multiple planes – emotional, intellectual, social, and sexual. And for the first time in our lives we have the self-awareness to experience the growth, and the dislocation, as individuals who are searching to define our own identify.

Nothing is more exhilarating than discovering that we are becoming the people we are meant to be. And nothing is more terrifying.

School is the backdrop for this everyday drama. Sometimes a platform for opportunities, sometimes a prison, school is the common factor. It is the road we all must travel to whatever destinations lie ahead for us. For most of our childhoods, it is the only job we have ever had.

A school that can help an adolescent discover himself or herself, encourage dreams, and help each person find a way to make dreams come true, is a great school. There is no standardized test that can measure the unleashing of individual potential. And yet there is no more important role that a school can play in a young person’s life.

All too often, however, schools exacerbate the frustrations of adolescence. As public policymakers, we value equality, so we mandate sameness. We want every student to learn the same material, pass the same tests, exhibit the same behaviors – ignoring all the while that it is our creativity and individuality that gives human society its energy.

The human race is bursting with potential, and yet at an age – adolescence – when human beings are beginning to find their possibilities, we march them into a kind of funnel. Those who are good at the things that school demands pass through as winners. Everyone who bangs against the sides or fails to pass through at all is bruised at best, or branded as a loser.

The school where the fight occurred last Friday is one of the better ones. The teachers embrace the challenges as well as the opportunities of their jobs with enthusiasm. Many work long hours on campus with extracurricular activities, tutoring, and mentoring before going home to continue their labor of love with planning, communicating with parents, and of course the unending task of grading. The principal believes in the diversity of human talent and in the importance of supporting students in realizing their dreams. She encourages extracurricular interests and offers nearly unconditional support. She likes to say, “If a student wants to do it, we are going to make it happen.”

Even the best schools struggle along with their students to navigate the pains of adolescence. It is an imperfect art, and on rare occasions it may be painted in blood. But it is crucially important. It is the most important thing that schools can do.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.


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A different vantage point

I was about 20 years old, on a break from college and sleeping late in my old bed in the room where I grew up. The President of the United States was in town that morning. In fact, he was to deliver a speech on the campus of the university that was located less than a mile from my parents’ house. When I awoke that day, it occurred to me that a short late-morning walk would allow me to see a real live president – something I had never experienced before.

I arrived on the university quadrangle where the president’s speech was already underway and saw that the crowd of people in attendance completely filled the immediate area. I was not going to be able to get within 200 feet or so of the dais, and I wanted a better view than that. So I reached up and grabbed the branch of a nearby tree to pull myself up to a better vantage point. I had barely put my weight on the lowest branch of this tree when a man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

He was dressed in a dark blue polyester suit, with sunglasses and an earpiece, and bulges under his jacket that made me think I was better off not finding out what exactly was under that coat. He said to me, “If you don’t get out of that tree, you’ll be shot out of it.”

I thought, just for an instant, of mentioning the name of Zacchaeus, the man in Jericho who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus as he passed through town (according to Luke 19:1-10). I was sure our born-again Christian president would have appreciated the reference. But I had a powerful feeling that the man in the polyester suit was not going to give me credit for paying attention in church. So instead I slunk to the ground, and spent the rest of the speech scanning the crowd and nearby rooftops for federal agents and snipers.

I thought of that sunny morning many years ago after reading reports last week that former president Jimmy Carter had taught a Sunday school lesson to a record-breaking crowd in his hometown of Plains, Georgia the weekend after his announcement that he had cancer. The overflow was so large that they were relocated from the church grounds to a nearby high school, where Carter, not wishing to disappoint visitors, traveled and taught a second lesson. I didn’t hear any reports of congregants climbing trees, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The passage of time can change perspectives dramatically. I am certainly not the same man I was in 1979, and neither is President Carter. But as a historian, and a history teacher, I have come to learn that the passage of time can create something rather wonderful.

When we are young, history is entirely made up of things that happened to other people – most of them long dead. But the longer we stick around, the more history includes events we experienced ourselves. Sometimes we discover that we are even included as participants.

One of the curious joys of my career as a U.S. history teacher has been teaching the about years that I actually lived. Often I found that the events most meaningful to me were not even mentioned in the textbooks. The primary sources I used for these years were not limited to instructional materials provided by educational publishers or uncovered by me on the internet. They included yellowed pages of books and periodicals I had squirreled away years earlier simply because they had intrigued me, without any thought I might someday be a teacher and use them in a class. My students’ level of personal engagement was about the same between the Reagan years and the age of Jackson. But for me, teaching those different eras was a completely different experience.

Being a history teacher has required me to live in the present while being mindful of the past. It has prompted me to see parallels, make connections, identify meaningful distinctions – and help prepare students to do the same as history unfolds along with their lives.

I remember Jimmy Carter as governor of Georgia, president of the United States, author, international watchdog for democracy, head of the Carter Center. I have shaken his hand and spoken with him as he signed a book for me. (I didn’t mention my Zacchaeus incident.) Carter has been tireless, proactive, and remarkably accessible to the public. I have often thought that if you lived in Georgia in the last 30 years, and you haven’t had a personal encounter with Jimmy Carter, you weren’t trying very hard.

It remains to be seen how history will remember Carter. Most would agree that his post-presidential career has been remarkable. But reviews of his White House years are mixed. At the end of a week of praise for Carter that came on the heels of his cancer announcement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday printed a letter that pegged him as the “second-worst president this country has ever endured.”

I remember something my sixth grade English teacher once said – one of those ideas so striking that it shook my young mind and took up permanent residence. He was mentioning a new book on an old war and remarked, “Now that the last veterans of the First World War are dying off, it will finally be possible to write an objective account of that conflict.”

Living history empowers us to judge history, and gives us a special perspective on those events that become parts of our lives. Our own history may be the only part of us that is truly immortal. But in time, it ceases to be ours. The judgment of history is never complete. There is always a different vantage point.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Once a slave …

The vast bureaucracy of public education is devoted to the transmission of knowledge and social norms that will help children succeed in life as adults. But it is sometimes the unintentional messages that have the greatest impact.

Last week I previewed a short film on the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

This landmark piece of legislation was enacted four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – one of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.

It came 102 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a post-Civil War enactment so sweeping in its effect that some questioned its constitutionality. Congress quickly drafted the 14th amendment in part to establish definitively that the federal government has the power to prohibit racial discrimination by the states. It seems like that should have been enough, doesn’t it?

To anyone who believes in progress, it has to be stunning to realize that over a century after the Civil War, we are still today coming to terms with our sad history of race relations.

The idea of equality is as old as this country, but the practice of equal treatment of all Americans remains an elusive goal – and one that experience has taught us is better served when we have laws to keep our actions aligned with our principles, rather than our worst instincts.

The Fair Housing laws place serious restrictions on the ability of professionals working in the real estate industry from assisting sellers or buyers in discriminating on the basic of the qualities and characteristics specified in the legislation.

For instance, if the seller of a house declares to his agent that he does not wish to sell to a member of a particular racial or ethnic group, the agent’s best strategy for avoiding liability under Title VIII is to simply terminate the agency relationship with the seller. The seller has effectively asked the agent to break the law, and the agent needs to back away as quickly as possible.

The historic justification for the fair housing laws is a pattern of long-standing practices that led to segregated neighborhoods and discriminatory lending practices. But the laws go beyond avoiding these effects. They require real estate professionals to stay completely out of any decisions based on the classes identified in the laws – no matter their intent.

So if a buyer asks his agent to help locate a ethnically-diverse neighborhood because he thinks such an environment will be better for his children, the agent will have no choice but to decline. At most, the agent can refer the buyer to public records that may contain the information he is seeking. But any active assistance in decision-making based on criteria such as the ethnicity of a neighborhood may make the agent liable for “steering,” which is strictly prohibited.

It may seem counter-intuitive to use labels like “race” or “religion” in order to mandate behavior in which we ignore such labels, but the practice of equal treatment often requires the unlearning of old ideas, and old patterns of behavior. Sometimes the best way to change a mindset is to identify something as wrong that one never gave a second thought before.

And so it was with some disappointment, but little surprise, that I noticed a troubling line in the video on fair housing laws that I viewed last week. In an introductory passage giving historical context, the narrator stated, “After the Civil War, Congress passed a flurry of laws to give rights to the slaves.”

There are a number of serious problems with this statement.

First, after the Civil War – specifically after the 13th amendment (1865) – slavery was illegal. When the “flurry of laws” referred to in the video was passed, it was for the benefit of American citizens.

Second, in this country, we are citizens, not subjects. Rights are not given, they are (in the words of the Declaration of Independence) “endowed by our Creator.” It is up to our government to respect them, and if needed to protect them.

But most importantly, the statement in the video is paternalistic and perpetuates negative stereotypes. Surely we don’t need to adopt the prejudices of the 19th century ruling class in order to describe their actions. And surely we don’t need to saddle the children of the 21st century with the message that their rights are subject to the benevolence of a few people in power. Enough already.

It is ironic that an instructional video that promotes a kind of blindness towards categories such as race would include a statement that reflects a racist version of equality. I suppose that there are some prejudices that run so deep that civil rights legislation cannot reach them. But can’t we make the effort to keep these kinds of subtle yet damaging messages away from impressionable young minds?


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.


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