"Community Ties" by Head of the Upper School Michael Denning
As my AP European History class concluded on the Friday before Presidents’ Day Weekend, some students and I spent a few minutes sharing our excitement about the coming four-day break. Amid their talk of family trips and plans with friends, I offered how relaxing I thought it would be to spend several days in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, reading and spending time with family. Having made this comment, I expected that a conversation about reading or Netflix might ensue, but what followed instead was inquiry into my remark about my school and weekend dress codes: “Mr. Denning, if ties are no longer part of the dress code, why do you wear one every day, especially since… it seems… you do not like to do so?”
On some level, this question should not be surprising. In terms of their feelings toward dress codes, most students fall somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from “it is a mildly annoying nuisance” to “the dress code is totally ridiculous and unfair.” Frankly, it is the job of a student to dislike and rebel against any dress code, which is why having one can be such a valuable teaching tool.
At the risk of offending those in both dentistry and retail, I admit that I would much rather engage with the former than the latter: a visit to the dentist is rarely ever considered fun—although my dentist, a Nobles grad, is very funny—so I suspect this statement might tell you something about how I feel about clothes shopping. Ties and plain-colored shirts keep the challenge of knowing what to wear manageable, and that comforting idea goes a long way for me.
I suspect that my allegiance to a dress code, in general, and ties, in particular, also has something to do with a deep-seated desire on my part to emulate my father. The most important role model in my life, my dad wore a suit to work nearly every day of his extraordinary career. In addition, I wear a tie to school each day to honor the teaching profession and those who have come before me. While Oxford/Cambridge-style academic robes may be too far out of fashion, a tie seems, to me, to offer an appropriate level of respect. But if these reasons—and my insecurities about, and lack of interest in, fashion—were all there was to this, I would not be wasting your time with a discussion of my personal style (or lack thereof).
There are those who argue that gender-specific dress codes reinforce stereotypes that are as problematic as they are anachronistic. Without a doubt, I would agree with many of their points. Indeed, any serious discussion about dress code should include hard questions concerning identity, gender, class and culture. And I want to make clear that in this piece, I am not attempting to argue that Nobles should return to jackets and ties as the foundation of its dress code for men and boys. My point is this: while we might (and should) debate what the dress code should be, we should always have and enforce one because of the lessons it can teach students about the obligations of citizenship.
In recent years, mission and values-based schools such as ours have implicitly and explicitly identified entrepreneurship and design thinking as being important in the creation of leaders for the public good. Given the fresh, revolutionary, unorthodox thinking today’s challenges require, I am so glad that we have developed entrepreneurial, project-based pedagogies. Rest assured, there are more coming. At times, however, I wonder whether or not our emphasis (and that of the larger culture) on outside-the-box thinking might create too much individualism, narcissism, isolation and self-promotion, and not enough concern for community. In our desire to create the next generation of problem-solvers, leaders and entrepreneurs, do we inadvertently abandon our commitment to creating strong community stewards, teammates, workers and partners? Moreover, can one be any of the former without first being the latter?
Are there ways we can strike a balance between the need to promote entrepreneurship and the primacy of fostering citizenship? The answer to this question is, of course, yes, but these ways may be more easily discussed than accomplished. Though hardly a medieval hairshirt, my choice of school dress is a mildly uncomfortable (and admittedly traditional) means by which I affirm my own fidelity to community, citizenship and high standards, and acknowledge the obligations they require. The fact that I would prefer other dress (blue jeans and sweatshirts) makes my commitment all the more meaningful for me.
When we talk to the students about dress code and other community rules—being on-time for assembly and classes, parking restrictions, etc.—we do so because these are important ends in and of themselves. Indeed, we need these for our school to function well. However, they are more than just ends, but also means by which we remind students and ourselves of our collective responsibility for this community, one from which we all garner and enjoy great privilege, opportunity and security. Having rules that can be annoying is not only a price we pay to join this community, but also a tool we use to support the ethical development of its citizens. So when we present and enforce rules, please keep the long view and educational principles in mind and support us. By doing so, you support your children, too.