Baby, No More Times

I’m inclined to rant today. As readers have probably figured out, that doesn’t really differentiate today from any other day, but still.

Today’s rant is about Catholic education. Let me preface it by saying that I like Catholic education. I got my Ph.D. at Notre Dame. I’ve spent the last twelve years teaching at a Catholic-Franciscan university, “The Franciscan University of New Jersey,” no less. I just got a paper accepted at a conference at Sacred Heart University on the “Catholic intellectual tradition” wherein I defend the pedagogical legacy of Cardinal Newman. I teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church in my ethics classes. Some of my best friends are members of the Knights of Columbus. 

Not bad for a heathen, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something about Catholic education that distinctively predisposes it to a kind of truculent, self-perpetuating hostility to reason. That sounds bad, I know. But here I sit; I can type no other.

John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais

Cardinal Newman, a little nonplussed by my argument

Consider a small but revealing example: the standard-issue Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform—white blouse, sweater, plaid skirt, knee socks, saddle shoes. I don’t know whether it’s literally required by such schools’ dress codes, but in a somewhat weaker sense, it clearly is de rigueur in Catholic schools. My university stands next to a Catholic girls’ high school, some of whose students attend classes on our campus. The vast majority of these students wear this uniform with no apparent consciousness of its overwhelming ridiculousness. But I’m here to tell them.

No, the tie doesn’t signify gender fluidity

It is, first of all, twenty degrees Fahrenheit outside with a windchill that pushes the temperature into the single digits. What sane person wears a skirt in such weather? Only one who’s been induced or coerced into doing so by her less-than-sane Catholic elders. Hard to imagine that anyone would do it entirely of her own accord.

And why–to continue my catechism of impiety–would such elders insist on such a uniform? The only answer I can think of is to insist by sartorial decree on a rigid, reactionary sense of gender differentiation. To wit:

Girls are girls. Hence girls must appear to the world in girlish mien—under the guise of Girlhood. Skirts exemplify girlish mien, i.e., The Essence of Girlhood. Hence girls must wear them, regardless of the weather, or similar considerations of mere common sense.

There seems no discursive space in the Catholic milieu I inhabit to ask the obvious question: why? Is any of this really necessary?

There’s one last aspect to this topic—unsavory yet unavoidable. It’s common knowledge to everyone outside of the world of Catholic education that “The Catholic Schoolgirl” is a kind of cliched sexual trope—a fetish, to be blunt, served up to sex-starved perverts acting out their Lolita fantasies. You don’t need to venture into unsavory or exotic places to figure this out, by the way. You can look it up, as I did, on Wikipedia.

A schoolgirl uniform fetish is a sexual fetish in which someone derives sexual pleasure from viewing others dressed in the typical uniform of a schoolgirl (with either a school skirt or culottes), or from themselves dressing in that manner.

Who knew? But after such knowledge, what forgiveness? You’d think that parents and educators so otherwise solicitous of their wards’ virtue—their chastity and modesty—would figure this out, and grasp that the uniform probably does a better job at objectifying their daughters and students than would the slovenly sweatshirts and sweatpants they’d be wearing if left to their own devices. But no: self-deception must reign forever and ever. Wikipedia, again:

The stated purpose of uniforms, often set forth in school uniform policies, include reducing clothing expenditures for parents as well as avoiding distinctions among children based on whose parents can afford to buy them fashionable clothing to wear to school. The school attire is also said to reduce distractions and help with student identification, ensuring that a stranger will stand out among the uniformed students.

Please. The year is 2019, AD. Who at this late date can bring themselves to believe any of this?

Hearken to the words of the Lord:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

That goes for Catholic schoolgirls’ uniforms, too. Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. Put another way: free your mind, the rest will follow–assuming you want it to. The biggest problem with far too much of Catholic education today is that it’s not clear that they do. 

12 thoughts on “Baby, No More Times

  1. I’m totally unconvinced. I don’t teach at a Catholic school, but I do teach at a school that has more or less traditional uniforms of the Catholic school type. Our version of the uniform policy may differ from the school next to you, or from many others, but taken as applied to our uniform policy, your complaints miss the mark.

    First, at least for us, girls have far more options within the established policy. They can wear the uniform skirts if they want, or they can wear pants, or they can wear shorts. The boys can wear pants or shorts but not skirts. The girls can keep their hair long or short; they can wear earrings and certain sorts of makeup if they want. The boys, by contrast, cannot have their hair long, cannot wear earrings, and would probably be called out for makeup. Most of our girls choose to wear the skirt. They can wear tights if they want, but since we live in the desert, most don’t. Most of our girls keep their hair long, though a few don’t. Earrings and makeup are common among high school girls, but it’s not odd to see girls without either. Of course if you walk around campus you can typically tell immediately who the girls are and who the boys are. But there’s not much enforcement of gender differentiation, and what enforcement there is takes the form of limitations on what boys can do, not what girls must do. For the most part, the girls embrace femininity on their own. Those few who don’t do not seem to me to suffer much for it. If there’s a sensible complaint to be made here that isn’t just a complaint about having a uniform policy at all, it’s that it doesn’t give the boys enough options.

    Catholic school girl uniforms are indeed fetishized by some, but after spending most of my days for two and a half years with girls in such uniforms, I can emphatically affirm that the uniforms sexualize the girls far less than what they’re inclined to wear otherwise. One piece of evidence for this is what happens when they don’t have to wear their uniforms; another is what happens when I walk down the street next to the public school that has no uniform policy and a very lax dress code. Of course one could make a schoolgirl uniform that sexualized its wearer — Britney’s skirt is very short and her shirt isn’t buttoned very high, both of which would violate our policy — and I suppose anybody with a fetish could be turned on by our uniforms too (people with fetishes tend to be easily turned on by anything associated with their fetish). But the uniform draws far less attention to the girls’ sexual features than the clothes that many of them wear when out of uniform.

    As for the standard positive case: “The stated purpose of uniforms, often set forth in school uniform policies, include reducing clothing expenditures for parents as well as avoiding distinctions among children based on whose parents can afford to buy them fashionable clothing to wear to school. The school attire is also said to reduce distractions and help with student identification, ensuring that a stranger will stand out among the uniformed students.”

    On the evidence of those days when we allow students to attend out of uniform, I contend that our uniform policy succeeds in reducing distractions and helping with student identification (the latter of which is perhaps more important for us because we have an open, largely outdoor campus). It also certainly reduces class distinctions; students have other ways of learning about those, and the uniform policy doesn’t make them entirely invisible, but it considerably reduces their visibility. I’m strongly inclined to think that it reduces cliquishness and fashion-related anxiety, as well. We occasionally have students who struggle to afford the uniforms — so the reduced expenditure point needs some qualification — but those students would likely fare much worse if they and their peers were allowed to wear more or less whatever they chose; it would become obvious that Janet is poor and is wearing her older sister’s clothes from five years ago, while Amy can afford to buy cool clothes, or perhaps just has better taste than Samantha, who is so lame, I mean, just look at those pants. I believe this in part because I see it, in part because I see the difference in other schools in our neighborhood, and in part because I hear how young people talk about this stuff. If you can’t believe any of this in 2019, New Jersey must be an even weirder place than I thought. Do you suppose that kids these days aren’t so conscious of class, fashion sense, and clique that the uniform has no role to play, or do you suppose that they’re so conscious of it that the uniform has no effect?

    I went to Catholic school through 8th grade and hated the uniform policy. Like many things that children hate, though, it’s mostly a good thing and serves its purposes well. There may be some uniform policies in Catholic schools that succumb to your objections — if girls aren’t given options, or if their options are the sort of undersized, cleavage-revealing stuff that Britney’s school apparently forced on her — but if the policies are like ours, your objections miss the mark. Of course to some extent the details of the traditional uniform are what they are simply because they’re traditional; there’s no particular reason why it needs to be plaid skirts, it just typically is that way because it has been that way, probably since Adam and Eve invented plaid skirts. I don’t find the uniform particularly ridiculous, either; perhaps you just haven’t been exposed to it often enough outside the context of Britney videos and other media that aim to fetishize it. Get around it often enough and it becomes boringly normal and completely tasteful. That’s most of its point.

    One might object to uniform policies in principle; I wouldn’t be sympathetic, but the sorts of objections one might raise — individuality against conformity and all that jazz — would have more plausibility than the notions that the traditional uniform enforces rigid gender differentiation or sexualizes young girls.


    • Mutually unconvinced. I’m going to assume ex hypothesi that Immaculate Conception High School’s policies are the same as your school’s. (ICHS is the school next door to Felician.) And just as factual background: ICHS students take classes at Felician, so I’ve been seeing them in uniform now every day for twelve years, including in my classes. The rant is today’s impulse, but the idea itself has been a dozen years in the observing.

      Your comment misses the starting point of my post. New Jersey isn’t Arizona in a totally different sense than the one you mention: it’s twenty degrees out with a windchill around 9 or 10 degrees. Why, short of pressure imposed by authorities, would anyone wear a skirt in such weather? And it’s not just one student here or there. All of them are out there in this weather, wearing skirts. Like your students, they are most likely permitted to wear pants, yet they wear skirts in weather totally inappropriate to it. That requires an explanation, and my explanation is that they’ve internalized the gendered expectations of their elders. I can see why you’d wear a skirt if the temperature out was 79 degrees, as it is today in Tucson. But it was 20 this morning here. The same explanation can’t apply. And the weather wasn’t a surprise. It’s been cold, and everyone knew it would be.

      I don’t really see how your first point (your second paragraph) rebuts what I’m saying. What it proves is that the boys at your school are deprived of options. But since there are no boys at ICHS (it’s an all-girls school), that’s neither here nor there. Given the difference in weather, the rest of it doesn’t apply, either. Given what you say about the boys, I don’t understand your claim that there is no enforcement of gender differentiation. Not allowing the boys to wear long hair, earrings, make up, or skirts is enforced gender differentiation. What other explanation would it have? A plausible explanation of the whole phenomenon is that the girls are thought to be more docile, hence require less enforcement, but the boys are expected to be a pain, hence require more enforcement. But taken as a whole, the enforcement of gender differentiation seems pretty transparent.

      Passing point: there’s nothing about the enforcement of gender differentiation that requires that one go out of one’s way to flout the desires of the people under enforcement. If the girls reach school with beliefs that there should be gender differentiation (often gotten from their parents), then the school, in enforcing those same norms, need only appeal to those girls’ pre-existing propensities. That will work until the day when a girl shows up who really wants to dress like a guy. So here is one clear difference between your school and ICHS: the girls there don’t wear ties with their uniforms; would a girl who decided to wear a tie with her uniform be tolerated? I doubt it. How about one who went out of her way to wear a tie, guy’s pants, and guy’s shoes? No. If I’m right in that surmise, I think I’ve confirmed my gender differentiation hypothesis. The aim of the policy is not to induce girls to “look nice,” but to look the way girls are supposed to look. Since they live in a conformist universe, most of them already think that. The few who don’t, hide. That’s why they appear not to suffer from it. So much of the atmosphere is so stifling that it’s beside the point to rebel against the uniform.

      On sexualization: I’m not convinced that that many students would self-sexualize. Given half a chance, I think most students would look slovenly, not sexy–sweatpants and sweatshirts, not thongs and crop tops. There’s not that much of a difference between high school seniors and college freshmen, and our freshmen get to wear what they want. Only rarely is it all that revealing. But if that’s really such a problem (I don’t even agree with that but…), the obvious remedy is to ban the wearing of very revealing clothes. Tell them that they must cover up, but let them do it any way they want.

      Yes, it’s true that anyone can probably fetishize anything, but my point was that the Catholic schoolgirl trope is such a cliche that it’s far more widespread than most fetishes. As far as sexualizing-in-the-eyes-of-others is concerned, that puts it on a par with anything that girls could come up with on their own. You might as well be dressing them up in French maids’ costumes. In any case, they wear skirts, not kilts: I’ve never seen a uniform skirt that went below the knee. If the uniform is going to be that revealing, the difference between it and any voluntarily worn get-up is going to be a matter of degree. If you then block the particularly revealing outfits with a policy designed to that end, I don’t see what’s gained in the “don’t sexualize department” by insisting on above-knee plaid skirts but proscribing anything else consistent with the “not too revealing” policy. Unless the underlying idea is, “It’s better if we pick your clothes for you than if you pick your own.” To which I can only say that at a certain point, people have to pick out their own clothes and dress themselves, so better sooner rather than later.

      On “distractions” my view is: I don’t see how a straight boy apt to be distracted would fail to be distracted by a girl in a skirt, any skirt, so that if you adopt a “not too revealing” policy, nothing is accomplished in the “let’s not distract them” department by mandating skirts. But again, we all have to learn how handle distractions, even pubescent boys. So at a certain level, I find this whole “distraction” issue hard to take seriously. If you’re too distracted, you can’t work. If you can’t work, your grade suffers. If a kid is dumb enough to let distractions affect his grade, he just has to learn his lesson the hard way. Some people learn that way. Some never do.

      I have a similarly cavalier attitude toward the supposed problem of cliques, fashion anxiety, class anxiety, and so on. Whatever its normative status, inequality is a fact of life. Some people have more money than others. These monied people will buy nicer things than the people with less. So what? Does anyone really suppose that poor kids are somehow ignorant of the fact that rich kids have bigger houses, nicer cars, and nicer toys than the average person? I don’t see what purpose is served by insisting that their clothes reflect some faux egalitarianism while Rich Kid’s Mom shows up in a Mercedes to pick up her kid, while Poor Kid walks home. Rich Kid goes to some six bedroom house on an acre of lawn; Poor Kid goes to some half-assed apartment. A uniform doesn’t change any of that. It doesn’t conceal any of it, either. It just facilitates the pretense of concealment. The inequality remains. Might as well deal with it. I guess I don’t understand the thinking here. The poor kid sees the Mercedes, knows about the mansion, but takes one look at a uniform and decides, “Well, that proves it: I guess rich people are just like me”? All it takes is once expensive watch, one piece of jewelry, or one invitation to a Sweet Sixteen (birthday party, bar mitzvah, etc.) at some impressive venue, for the whole uniform-generated facade to fall to pieces.

      It’s already obvious who is rich and who is poor. Even the dumbest students aren’t that dumb. So Janet wears old hand me downs, but Amy has the newest things, and Samantha is so lame–and this is noticed. Lamentable but inevitable; not resolved by adoption of a uniform; and ultimately, not really the business of education. Janet, Amy, and Samantha are primarily there for an academic purpose. The question is: how well are they doing at that? As for the rest, barring the commission of clearly defined infractions (contrast an overt insult at a specific person vs. assuming the airs of a “mean girl”), they have to deal with it themselves. It’s one thing if Janet is being bullied. But the sheer existence of cliquishness and aura of classism or fashionism isn’t really a problem requiring institutional resolution. (Not that it’s not a problem.)

      I do object to uniforms in principle. We had a dress code rather than a uniform at my high school. I found it stupid but not particularly onerous at the time, and didn’t think too much about it. I hate it more in retrospect than I did then. In my experience, uniforms go hand-in-hand with inversions in educational priorities, that is, with the insistence that we ought to police our wards at the expense of educating our students. The uniform complements intellectual uniformity and a brainless sort of moral education. The uniform goes hand in hand with the imperatives of School Spirit, Love of Country, Love of Our Veterans, Love of Our Flag, Love of Our God, Love of Our Football Team, plus the Mantras Du Jour and the whole list of mind-numbing cliches that seem to clot young people’s minds. Eventually, it just reminds me of that scene from “Life of Brian”: “You’re all individuals!” “WE’RE ALL INDIVIDUALS!” But in it together, because they’re all wearing the same…uniform.


      • 1. Why do they wear skirts when it’s cold? It’s not implausible that they’ve internalized the gendered expectations of their elders, but I don’t see any particular reason to embrace that explanation over others. In particular, I don’t see any reason to think that it is the uniform policy that is the explanans here. It may in fact be that they aren’t allowed the option of wearing pants, in which case I’d side with you. But in our case, most girls wear the skirt even though they have the option of wearing the pants. What I gather (from actually asking half a dozen or so girls rather than speculating) is that they choose the skirts because they’re more comfortable, and most certainly not because they see the pants as boyish — most certainly not because they feel as though we expect them to go with skirts despite giving them the option to wear pants or shorts. In your neighbors’ case, comfort seems not to be such a plausible explanation. But it may well be. It may also be that they choose the skirt option because they do in fact feel that it’s more appropriately feminine. But I take it that your complaint about the uniform policy presupposes that the policy itself, or the enforcement of it, or the implicitly expressed attitudes of those enforcing it, explains the choice. I can’t see that you’ve provided any reason whatsoever to believe that.

        2. The point of my second paragraph is that the options provided to the girls tell against your complaint that the uniform policy enforces gender differentiation. On our policy, the girls can dress exactly like boys, and some of them do (a very few always or almost always do; many sometimes do; most rarely do). My remarks about our restrictions on the boys were meant to concede that there is some gender differentiation in their case. But that’s irrelevant to your objections, which applied to girls; it’s true that we don’t let boys dress like girls, but it’s not true that we insist that girls not dress like boys. Given that there are only girls in your neighbors’ school, if we’re assuming that the policies are more or less the same, the narrower restrictions on boys (which are fairly standard in Catholic schools as well, many of which are co-ed) are irrelevant. The uniform policy lets girls dress in the ways that Catholic school boys would dress. How, then, is the uniform policy enforcing gender differentiation?

        3. The tie example might be relevant in a school where boys wear ties but girls don’t, but that’s not the case here or at your neighbors’ (since there are no boys). The only time boys wear ties at our school is on days when their sports team plays; it’s meant to give them distinction as athletes (and that I do find obnoxious, but mostly benign). As it happens, a few girls have occasionally worn ties, and with no punishment that I’m aware of. They get noticed and pointed out as odd, but that’s because it’s odd for any student to be wearing a tie. In any case, it doesn’t look so odd precisely because ties are part of many traditional school uniforms for girls. I don’t know what you’re on about with “guys’ pants,” since the pants the girls wear are more or less identical to the pants the boys wear. A few girls on campus wear pants almost every day; one is certainly regarded as boyish, but for reasons that go well beyond her wearing pants, and the others are not regarded as gender fluid in any way whatsoever — most are in fact otherwise quite conventionally feminine (long hair, makeup, etc.). As for shoes, girls can wear girly shoes but can also wear black tennis shoes that are virtually indistinguishable from the boys’. Perhaps they couldn’t wear men’s dress shoes, but I’m not sure anybody would notice. Hardly any of the boys wear them to begin with. Shoes might be one area where our uniform policy is relatively liberal, though.

        4. The broader point is that students often do reach school with highly gendered preferences and expectations; that, and not the uniform policy, mostly explains their choices. But there is no sense to be given to the idea that our policy reinforces those preferences or expectations, because our policy allows the girls to dress in ways virtually indistinguishable from boys. It’s of course possible that the people enforcing the policy reinforce the highly gendered preferences in ways that aren’t covered by the letter of the policy. Obviously I can’t tell whether or to what extent that’s the case at your neighbors’ school, because I’ve never been there. There may be some of that occurs here in subtle ways that I’m not aware of, but I don’t think so.

        5. On sexualization, I think either you must be out of touch or you must be working with a very different idea of what sexualization amounts to. Here’s what I have in mind. Often when I encounter female students out of uniform — our own or those at the public school down the street — they wear clothes that are some combination of extremely form fitting and highly revealing of their chests and legs, sometimes of their stomachs and their breasts. Their school uniforms are nothing of the sort. You seem to think of the uniform skirt as highly revealing of the legs, but it’s much less so than what I often see around here, and it’s far less form fitting. Maybe most of our upperclass girls have skirts that are officially too short, but they’d only seem extremely revealing to someone living in a different century. They’re far less revealing than normal shorts, and also less tight than much of what seems to be currently in fashion. Sexualized and slovenly need not be exclusive; I see plenty of mixtures down the street.

        6. You seem to think that the main sort of distraction at issue is sexual distraction, but that’s not the main issue. The issue is that kids get obsessed with what each other are wearing. It literally distracts them from focusing on Locke or calculus. That’s true when they’re not also harshly judging and categorizing each other on the basis of their clothes. That you don’t see the difference that this can make in minimizing the visibility of class differences strikes me as wild. As I said, it doesn’t make them invisible. But it does make them far harder to notice, and at least where I’m teaching, it helps prevent people being stigmatized or treated as inferior and contributes to their being judged for their personality and decisions rather than their parents’ money. It’s not about tricking students into thinking that the differences aren’t there; it’s about preventing the conspicuous display of wealth or the humiliating display of one’s (parents’) lower economic position in the day to day interactions between students. One of my students last year was, at several periods, literally homeless, but had you been in my classroom for weeks you would not have guessed that her family was even in rough financial shape. Others of our students come from families that are richer than you or I will ever be, but again, you wouldn’t be able to tell from sitting in my class for a few weeks. Of course it’s not as though nobody knows that the rich kids are rich or that the poor (or homeless) kids are poor (or homeless). But the differences are less marked. I suppose both of us are just relying on our intuitive interpretations of some limited and hypothetical scenarios here, but I find it very hard to believe that students at a school like mine would be no more divided by wealth if their family’s income were effectively stamped onto their clothing. For what it’s worth, at least some of our students’ parents seem to agree both that the uniform policy helps prevent their kids from feeling singled out and that it helps them spend less money on fashionable clothing for their kids who are eager to be cool.

        7. That you fail to see the connection between students’ academic performance and the social dynamics between them and their peers is pretty mystifying. If the business of education is to educate, then maintaining an environment that minimizes distractions and divisions irrelevant to education is part of the business of education. I don’t have quantitative studies to show you that the uniforms do that — and I suspect that whether and how well they do it depends on too many other variables — but it seems pretty clear to me that they do. If it turned out that they don’t, that’d be a pretty decisive reason to get rid of them. But the idea that the goals that they’re aimed at have nothing to do with the proper business of education seems to make sense only on the assumption that the people being educated are fully autonomous, independent individuals who are either completely in control of themselves or are to be left to fail if they aren’t. I suppose that works for college. Would your own elementary and high school education have been any good if your teachers had thought of you that way?

        8. If you think uniforms go hand-in-hand with intellectual conformity, you need to visit my Humane Letters classroom. I have plenty of conformists, or, perhaps better, unimaginatively conventional thinkers. Most of them are of course very much in the grip of intuitions that they’ve acquired from their family and friends, but then so are most tenured professors of philosophy. Perhaps this really is a big difference between our school and a Catholic school (though I’m not so sure, since our curriculum was basically designed by a bunch of Catholics). In any case, whatever their received opinions, they spend a great deal of time arguing on multiple sides of the philosophical questions that arise in the texts we read. I don’t know how many of them really change their minds, and some of them never seem to get around to really caring, but if they were to be intellectually conforming to the curriculum that I’m delivering, they’d be embracing the value of reflecting deeply, offering respectable arguments for their views, and appreciating the diversity of intelligent perspectives on important issues without giving up on the idea of truth. Their non-conformity in fact mostly takes the form of dismissing the value of non-instrumental intellectual endeavor and hating school — and, like so many non-conformists before them, they thereby succeed mostly in being very much like one another. One virtue of the uniform policy is that they at least can’t deceive themselves into thinking that they’re being unique, non-conforming individuals because they wear cool clothes that nobody else wears.


        • Addendum: it may be that you’re mostly right about the school across the street and that I’m mostly right about mine. At any rate, I can tell you about some things here that I’d be very surprised to hear about at most Catholic schools. One of our seniors last year identified as trans (or possibly non-binary; I’m not sure it was clear to them, but we didn’t discuss it in much depth); the student transitioned after sophomore year, took a differently gendered name, and dressed accordingly. Now, I’m not sure that things would have gone so smoothly if the student had transitioned male-to-female and started wearing skirts, and it was of course not a perfectly uneventful transition; some students (and a few teachers) were uncomfortable with it and made unsympathetic remarks. By and large, though, it went just fine; certainly the administration and the adults handled it just fine, and most of the students most of the time handled it just fine. I have a hard time imagining that at a traditional Catholic school. For a non-uniform example relevant to (non-)conformity, in all three years of my teaching here students have openly discussed and debated religious and theological questions, with atheism and irreligion well represented. Those discussions have sometimes been more heated, and some students definitely find them uncomfortable, but for the most part they’re pretty civil and only very rarely devolve into ridicule (which has then received due reprimand). Now as a graduate of 8 years of Catholic education, I can attest that the stereotype of dogmatic intolerance is at least not universally true; my 7th grade class’ discussion of abortion was so open that I didn’t realize until years later that Catholics are supposed to have a hard time being pro-choice (for me, it was fundamentalist Protestant education that was the dogmatic and intolerant kind). Nonetheless, I’d imagine it’d be next to impossible for students in a Catholic school to discuss the problem of evil in quite the way that my classes have. In a Catholic school context, the conclusion that arguments from evil against theism are compelling isn’t really a viable option; in my classes, it is very much a viable option, and though I do not tell students my own view and try to argue vehemently on both sides, if they feel like I’m urging them in favor of anything it’s probably that the arguments are in fact compelling (which is not, in fact, my view). I’d like to think that I could teach in much the same way in a Catholic school without trampling on any orthodoxy, but as a stylistic matter, if not a doctrinal one, I don’t think my approach would fly — and it might not even work, because the context might just suggest that we’re expected to accept some views and not others. Similarly, our students figure out by 11th grade if not before that our faculty is by no means ideologically homogeneous; we have believers and skeptics, conservatives and progressives, communists and anarchists. In at least some Catholic schools, there is more intellectual and ideological diversity than one might expect (in fact there are more non-Catholics and irreligious teachers than one might expect), but there’s still an official line — after all, Catholic school students often go to Mass together. I don’t know that most of our students really take us as models anyway, but if they were to consider doing so, they’d have a diverse range of models to negotiate. That’s probably not quite so at most Catholic schools, even if the uniformity is sometimes exaggerated.

          So it may be that the Catholic school next door really is enforcing conformity both in gender norms and ideology. I’m inclined to say that even if that’s so, it’s not the uniform policy that enforces it, but the broader ethos of which it’s a part. But perhaps that broader ethos gives the uniform policy a kind of power that it wouldn’t have in other contexts. In any case, your objections to it seem to me to fail entirely when applied to us. But your post was a rant about Catholic education, and we ain’t that.


        • Further addendum: I discussed this issue with seven young ladies in my study hall (we call it ‘Paideia,’ but in my room it means: he will talk to you if you want about whatever you want and will let you use your phone without asking questions provided that no noise comes out of it), and they unanimously rejected the suggestions (a) that our uniform policy enforces gender norms for them (the enforcement of gender norms for the fellas was mentioned a few times), (b) that those of them who normally choose the skirt option choose it out of any sense that they’d be weird to choose otherwise, let alone less feminine to choose otherwise, (c) that the uniform option that they choose sexualizes them in any way at all — a few of them found this suggestion deeply counter-intuitive — and (d) that there is any serious objection to our uniform policy that isn’t an objection to having any uniform policy at all.

          I began this discussion by just asking them — six who normally wear skirts and one who normally wears pants — why they choose the options they do. The responses were interestingly varied. Three or four said that they wear the skirt because it’s comfortable; the one who typically wears pants vehemently disagreed and went on for a while about how uncomfortable the skirt is for her. A few said that they dislike the pants because they think they don’t look good in them — one thought that she looked bad in khaki pants, a few others said that they don’t think they look good in any pants because their thighs are too thick (NB: they opt for the skirt because they find it it less revealing). Several noted that the skirt is, as they said, “bullet proof”; they can wear the same skirt over and over again and it still serves them (fitting reports that I’ve heard from a number of students who say that they’ve had the same few skirts for four to six years). When I explained why I was asking and rehearsed the two objections to the uniform policy — it enforces gender norms and it sexualizes young girls — they rejected both, but especially the latter. Unanimously, they found the idea that their uniforms made them look sexy ludicrous; when I reminded them — and it was definitely reminding — that their uniforms were fetishized by some, they brushed that off; anything can be fetishized, and in any case if I want to look sexy I am definitely not going to wear this uniform. One student was sincerely confused about how the uniform could be sexualizing anybody; another began to complain that she should be able to look sexy if she wanted to and the uniform was a hindrance to that; a few suggested that anybody who thought their uniforms sexualized them just suffered from a perverse fetish. Overwhelmingly, the two refrains were: I look awful in khakis but I look ok in a skirt; and dammit, boys should be able to have long hair and wear skirts if they want to, because c’mon, it’s 2019.

          In other words, my ladies don’t experience our uniform policy as an oppressive force that constrains their gender identity or sexualizes them. Rather, they greatly appreciate the opportunity to wear skirts or pants and think that, if only boys wouldn’t be so silly about it, they should be able to have as many options as they do. The one thing that all of them agreed on is that it’s absurd to suggest that the uniform policy narrowly constraints their gender expression or that it oversexualizes them. In fact, they were far less sympathetic to those suggestions than I am.

          In the words of one young lady, “What? No. I wear the skirt because it’s comfortable. If I weren’t allowed to wear the pants, oh, I’d be protesting by wearing them every day. The skirt is just more comfortable. It’s bulletproof. As long as you don’t get white paint on it, anyway.”

          At my school, if you want to find people oppressed by the uniform code, focus on the boys I’m constantly telling to tuck in their damn shirts. The girls are just fine.


          • OK, so that’s a 3,200 word response to my previous comment, but almost nothing in it responds to or makes any attempt to deal with the fact from which the original post proceeds: The original post was about what is taking place in Lodi, New Jersey, where the temperature is 20 degrees and the windchill makes things feel like 10. I would think that even if we stipulate (ex hypothesi, as I did) that the policies that exist at your school and at ICHS are the same, our discussion (and our inferences regarding explanatory hypotheses) have to keep this basic difference in circumstances in mind.

            But yours don’t. Apart from one pro forma acknowledgement of the issue in point 1 of your first comment, and one inconclusive attempt to deal with it there, you dismiss the temperature issue as though it was irrelevant to the whole discussion. But it’s not irrelevant. It’s the fact that supplied the impetus for my post. If not for the temperature, the inferences I made about the purpose of the school uniform would be confounded by other factors, and would (I admit) lack plausibility. If not for the (extreme) cold, one might reasonably infer that ICHS students wear skirts because it’s more comfortable, or because they are intrinsically inclined to femininity regardless of any external pressure from their elders, etc. etc. But the weather gives us laboratory conditions for excluding the usual confounding factors. It obviously is not more comfortable to wear a skirt when the temperature is 20 degrees out and the windchill is 10. It’s not just “not more comfortable.” It’s fucking crazy. It’s about as crazy as walking around with ice packs strapped to your body.

            I take that to be obvious. Isn’t it obvious? You’ve described me as “out of touch” on the sexuality issue, but pause a moment. Wouldn’t you have to be “out of touch” to think that people are “comfortable” wearing skirts when it feels like 10 degrees out? I assume you don’t think that, but you also don’t make any particular inferences from what strikes me as strikingly peculiar behavior. You offer up examples of girls who say that skirts are more comfortable while ignoring the fact that the ones saying that are saying it in Tempe, Arizona, where the temperature is in the 70s. How is that relevant to what I’m saying? (I said “Tucson” in an earlier comment when I meant Tempe.)

            Just to drive the point home: the behavior I was talking about wasn’t a one-off explainable by ignorance of the weather report. The whole week was cold, and yet ICHS students wore the same thing every day. Not only that, they wore the same thing every day when they had the option of wearing pants. They refused the pants option for the skirt option for a week despite the almost complete lack of common sense involved in doing so. Nor did anyone within the ICHS hierarchy pause to observe what was going on for a week and respond in what I would have thought the intuitively obvious way. Catholic schools are notoriously hierarchical and authoritarian. If they had wanted to, they might have issued one directive to students saying, “It’s cold out. You needn’t wear a skirt in weather like this. We recommend pants. Pants cover more of you, hence keep you warmer. Warmth trumps other considerations right now. QED.” But no: no one had the wit to say this. No one even seemed to notice the phenomenon in question. This despite all of the boilerplate that schools of this sort emanate about their concern for educating “the whole child.” Evidently, the whole child doesn’t include her epidermis.

            Assume that ICHS girls are as intrinsically feminine as you like (meaning: inclined to express femininity through motivations unrelated to the expectations of their elders). Still, an intrinsically motivated disposition to femininity has to acknowledge certain physical realities. High heels are regarded as feminine, but even the most feminine woman has to acknowledge that they’re bad for your back. A tanned complexion might be thought feminine, but even the biggest aficionado of tanning has to acknowledge the risks involved. When a person flouts obvious realities but insists on expressing her “femininity” in a quixotic way, we need a special explanation for what’s going on. Why (runs the natural question) would someone adopt a motivational set this costly and strange? That’s the explanans implicit in my post. Why would teenaged girls wear skirts in such weather? Or: why would teenaged girls at a Catholic school do that?

            This is your response to that part of the issue:

            1. Why do they wear skirts when it’s cold? It’s not implausible that they’ve internalized the gendered expectations of their elders, but I don’t see any particular reason to embrace that explanation over others. In particular, I don’t see any reason to think that it is the uniform policy that is the explanans here. It may in fact be that they aren’t allowed the option of wearing pants, in which case I’d side with you. But in our case, most girls wear the skirt even though they have the option of wearing the pants. What I gather (from actually asking half a dozen or so girls rather than speculating) is that they choose the skirts because they’re more comfortable, and most certainly not because they see the pants as boyish — most certainly not because they feel as though we expect them to go with skirts despite giving them the option to wear pants or shorts. In your neighbors’ case, comfort seems not to be such a plausible explanation. But it may well be. It may also be that they choose the skirt option because they do in fact feel that it’s more appropriately feminine. But I take it that your complaint about the uniform policy presupposes that the policy itself, or the enforcement of it, or the implicitly expressed attitudes of those enforcing it, explains the choice. I can’t see that you’ve provided any reason whatsoever to believe that.

            So why do they wear skirts when it’s cold? If it’s not implausible that they’ve internalized the gendered expectations of their elders, and there is no other plausible explanation in play (and there isn’t), isn’t “internalized gendered expectations” an inference to the best explanation so far? I could see balking at that conclusion if there were some other, better explanation in play, or if the explanation I’d offered was so implausible that it could be ruled out from the outset. But in a context where there is no other explanation in play, and you’re granting that my explanation has a certain plausibility, isn’t it the best explanation by default? And isn’t an inference to the best explanation something rather than nothing? So here is the logic of our situation: I’ve considered three hypotheses (gendered expectations, comfort, intrinsic expression of femininity), excluded the latter two, and inferred that the first is the best of the three. Your description of our discursive situation: I have given you no reason whatsoever to believe anything I’ve said. Really? It’s as though I’d said absolutely nothing pertinent. But it seems to me that the best explanation for your description is that you’ve resolutely ignored the one pertinent fact that I’ve emphasized.

            It seems obvious to me that given the weather here, comfort cannot be the explanation for why students wear skirts. Likewise, under the circumstances, desire to express femininity as such does not exclude my hypothesis; only an intrinsic desire to express femininity does (meaning a desire unaffected by the gendered expectations of one’s elders). But intrinsic desire for femininity only explains their behavior if we attribute to them a desire of such strength, i.e., of such counter-factual stability, that they’d express the desire even in 20 degree weather. That strikes me as not-not-implausible, i.e., as implausible.

            To explain a desire of this strength (and oddity), we need more than merely an intrinsic desire to express femininity. We need to combine that intrinsic desire (which doubtless exists) with some external factor that reinforces it even in circumstances where the intrinsic desire by itself would fail. Worth mentioning that “intrinsic desire to express femininity,” as I’ve defined it, doesn’t exclude desires problematically influenced by the wider society exclusive of one’s elders. I’m using “intrinsic” simply to exclude elders.

            If you don’t think it’s implausible that the external factor operating here is gendered expectations of elders, and I regard that as plausible, how can it be that I’ve offered “no reason”–no reason “whatsoever”–to think the uniform policy is the explanans for the behavior in question? Clearly, I’ve offered some reason. (And what I’ve just done above is to make tediously explicit the reasons I gave. I’m not adding anything new.) It’s more accurate to say that you’ve offered no alternative hypothesis to mine, much less reason to believe one.

            I mostly want to stop there for now, because however interesting the rest of the issue happens to be, it’s subsidiary to what I’ve regarded as the main issue all along.

            But just to telegraph my view on the other issues: I’m opposed to all school uniform policies. I don’t think they accomplish any of the things you think they accomplish, and I’m not convinced by any of the arguments you give on their behalf. At best, I’d say this: if a particular form of dress turns out to be particularly distracting or problematic, the better remedy than a uniform is to adopt a dress code that excludes that particular thing. There is also the remedy of insisting that those apt to be distracted stop being so. Prima facie, both the distracters and the distracted are part of the same problem, and it’s not obvious that the brunt of regulation should fall on the first group rather than the second.

            I’ve focused on sexuality because “distraction” suggests sexuality. But if the issue isn’t sexual distraction but the supposed “humiliation” that “displays” of wealth impose on poor students, my response is that I find that so tendentious a description of the facts that it just requires a discussion of its own (after we deal with the weather). A student’s wearing expensive clothes is not necessarily a matter of “display,” isn’t always intended to humiliate, and doesn’t always have that effect, either. There also isn’t necessarily something wrong with it (=the sheer act of wearing expensive clothes). So I don’t see why such students should be penalized for the sins of others by a policy that forbids them from wearing what they would otherwise want to wear. Coming the other way around, students with classist sentiments bent on humiliating their peers can easily bypass a school uniform policy to express those sentiments.

            The larger point is this: when (all) such students emerge from their artificially self-enclosed high school bubble, they will have to live in a world full of rich and poor people. They’ll soon discover, incredibly enough, that rich people spend money on nice things, but poor people can’t and don’t. There’s no way to deal with this obvious fact of life except by dealing with it early, often, and without the squeamishness that’s so characteristic of American discourse about money. A school uniform is just a transparent fig leaf pasted onto unpleasant realities. It might do them some good to see those realities a little more clearly and proximately than usual. Here’s one case where the old saw happens to be true: what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger.

            Ironically, for all the criticisms I usually make of my students at Felician, this is one thing they tend to get right. Some of them are rich; most of them are not. The rich ones drive expensive cars (to school), wear expensive clothes, tote expensive hand bags, go on expensive vacations, live in big houses in nice neighborhoods, and all the rest. The poor ones have access to none of these things. (I’ve had students who were homeless, too.) And yet there is no discernible sense of class resentment. The rich kids are not particularly ostentatious about their wealth (but don’t hide it). The poor ones are not obviously destitute, and don’t seethe with any sense of resentment or humiliation. If anything, they (all, rich and poor alike) have the reverse problem: they’re far too complacent about class. But I wouldn’t want them to become class conscious in a way that expressed itself as internecine class warfare, either. If there are class resentments, they are well hidden, at least from me. And if there are, I infer that there’s nothing I can do about them, much less a policy that will resolve them. Some of these students come to us from the world of the Catholic school uniform. None of them have a kind word for it. They realize, once they arrive at Felician, how pointless it all was.

            What are the chances I get “dressed down” by my elders for writing this post? Anyone want to offer odds?


            • I didn’t say more about the issue because nothing more needed to be said. You have not in fact done anything to show that the reason why the students were wearing skirts in the cold is that their uniform policy or the folks enforcing it pressure them to wear it. That’s possible, as I’ve acknowledged, but you haven’t eliminated alternative explanations in the way that you claim you have. You’ve assumed that people would not prefer fashion at the price of temporary discomfort, which is certainly not always true. More importantly, you haven’t said anything that tells in favor of ascribing the hypothesized pressure for gender conformity to the uniform policy and/or those administering it rather than any of the other potential sources of such pressure. You’ve got an empirical hypothesis and you’re treating it as confirmed simply because it seems plausible to you. That’s it. The most crucial factor here is whether or not the uniform policy at the school does in fact give students realistic alternatives to skirts. It’s quite possible that it doesn’t; some schools’ policies don’t, including ours a decade or so ago. If this one doesn’t, then your objection that the policy enforces gender differentiation seems pretty decisive. But then it wouldn’t generalize in the way that you seem to be taking it to.

              That’s another reason I didn’t make so much of the weather conditions: your critique seemed as though it was supposed to apply quite generally to Catholic school uniform policies, not to the particular Catholic school’s uniform policy across the street.

              Your objections to uniform policies more generally seem more sensible. They don’t fit my experience, and some seem to be based on the idea that an educational institution has no business excluding harsh or uncomfortable realities. I have a very different set of ideas about what an educational environment for kids should be like, and I’ll trust my experience over your intuitions.

              The real question, to my mind, is whether the uniforms actually have the effects that they seem to their proponents to have (people can argue about whether those effects are appropriate aims, but I’m happy to let people implement different educational models). Empirical studies have been mixed, but at least some seem to be looking for the wrong things — it’s no surprise that there’s not much discoverable correlation between uniform policies and measurable academic performance, because there are far too many factors influencing academic performance, and I’m not sure I know anybody who thinks that uniforms and better grades have such a tight connection in isolation from loads of other factors, so that you can just plug a uniform policy in and watch while the standardized test scores rise. More generally, too, the empirical literature seems mixed:

              I suppose some true fans of uniform policies would have to lower their enthusiasm in the absence of overwhelming evidence that they’re the cure for all educational ills, but I’m not seeing any grounds in this survey of studies for revising my own view of them as helpfully diminishing distractions and superficial divisions and encouraging students to distinguish themselves through their words and actions rather than through the cool shit their moms bought them.


              • The most crucial factor here is whether or not the uniform policy at the school does in fact give students realistic alternatives to skirts. It’s quite possible that it doesn’t; some schools’ policies don’t, including ours a decade or so ago. If this one doesn’t, then your objection that the policy enforces gender differentiation seems pretty decisive. But then it wouldn’t generalize in the way that you seem to be taking it to.

                The most crucial factor is obviously present: as I said, the school does give students a realistic alternative to skirts–pants. And some students (a small minority) wear pants. But the others wear skirts, no matter how cold out it is. The two competing hypotheses are: they’re doing this to satisfy expectations versus they’re doing it out of a sense of fashion. But you’re the one saying that the uniforms aren’t fashionable! Given the cold, it’s not just that I idiosyncratically regard my hypothesis as plausible; it is more plausible. Obviously, we’re not going to get down-to-the-decimal precision here, but given the context, I think I’ve made a pretty serviceable case, one to which you’ve offered no real objection except to point out the trivially obvious–that it’s a hypothesis that could use some more confirmation. Right, but that’s true of every hypothesis. Given the alternatives, there is no better explanatory hypothesis in play.

                As for generalization: the hypothesis generalizes to every school in relevantly similar circumstances. That’s plenty of schools.

                If there is a philosophical crux here, it’s this:

                They don’t fit my experience, and some seem to be based on the idea that an educational institution has no business excluding harsh or uncomfortable realities.

                Correct on the latter point. Educational institutions should be in the business, by degrees, of subjecting students to as many harsh and uncomfortable realities as is feasible and compatible with safety and issues of liability. The problem with too many K-12 schools, both public and private, is that they infantilize students who were infants to begin with. Then they dump them at our doors (meaning in higher education), expecting us to turn infants into adults, and blame us when the venture misfires–blind to their own role in creating the problems they want solved, but quick to point the finger at those tasked with solving it. At this rate, they might as well just throw their students to the wolves at the outset and be done with it.


                • Late to the game, but I agree that if we arbitrarily exclude the alternatives to the few you prefer because they help you to arrive at the conclusion that you antecedently preferred, then your hypothesis is the most plausible.


  2. De rigueur. Not de rigeur. 😛

    “girls must appear to the world in girlish mien—under the guise of Girlhood. Skirts exemplify girlish mien, i.e., The Essence of Girlhood. Hence girls must wear them”

    Apart from the falsity of the first premise, this practical syllogism is also invalid. However, it’s no more invalid than Aristotle’s example of a practical syllogism: “I need a covering; a cloak is a covering; therefore I need a cloak.”

    Some scholars think the invalidity is deliberate, that it marks a difference between practical and theoretical reasoning.


    • I blame Auto-Correct for that error, too, in the sense that it failed to correct my spelling error, which is what it’s supposed to do. Whether it’s supposed to detect invalidity in practical syllogisms, I don’t know.


  3. Late to the game, but I agree that if we arbitrarily exclude the alternatives to the few you prefer because they help you to arrive at the conclusion that you antecedently preferred, then your hypothesis is the most plausible.

    That isn’t agreement, because it’s not what I said. But I think you know that.

    I think my bottom line here is: suppose that my hypothesis is 100% wrong–not that you’ve given a single credible reason to think it is, or provided a single cogent objection to it, or provided a credible hypothesis of your own. We’re left with the mystery of why a school, which takes such pride in policing the apparel choices of its students on grounds of protecting their welfare, should suddenly abdicate that responsibility when those students literally freeze their asses off by wearing skirts in freezing weather. One word from these authorities would convince the students to wear warmer clothes. Suppose we grant ex hypothesi–unless you want a notarized letter from them–that the school’s authorities have done no such thing. I think we should at least be able to agree that that’s a form of malfeasance. and if my explanation of the students’ behavior is the wrong one, then whatever the alternative explanation one might offer, we are dealing with students wildly lacking in common sense.

    The explanandum, then, has at least two parts: the patently irrational behavior of the students, along with the ad hoc apparel-oriented paternalism of the school professing concern for their welfare. If anyone can up with an explanation of both things that’s better than mine, I’m pleased to hear it. But any successful explanation will share one thing in common with mine: the realization that we’re dealing with a dysfunctional subculture obsessed with rules but blithely defiant of common sense. Any explanation that reflects that fact, and also manages to save the appearances, is by my lights a contender.


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