Having been raised in the public school system, my first exposure to school uniforms took place when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in the smallest town in Costa Rica that had a high school.  

Some of the students in our school were the children of the “jefes” or bosses of the United Fruit Company, so they could afford more expensive school clothes, but most of them came from quite humble circumstances. But all of our schools required that their students wear uniforms, which consisted of a pair of khaki pants and white shirt for the boys, and a khaki skirt and white blouse for the girls. And that system worked wonderfully.  

  What were the benefits that I observed? Well, since the uniforms themselves were quite a bit less expensive than the wide array of other clothes that children would normally wear, all families could afford them. Plus students could get by on one or two pairs of clothes instead of much more. This resulted in the “have nots” being able to keep up with the “haves.” In other words, all students looked the same regardless of the income disparities. This also meant that competition in wearing more pricey “designer labels” and other exotic apparel simply disappeared. And the same was true with the more sloppy clothing.

  Beyond the issue of cost, school uniforms took a great deal of pressure off the parents and the school administrators. Instead of fighting with the students about what they could not wear, there was a common understanding about what they actually would wear. This naturally reduced a great deal of the pressure on students and adults alike, and brought greater peace both to the home and to the school. An added feature was that it took the students a great deal less time to get dressed in the morning.

  Importantly, I also observed the enormous benefit that school uniforms were able to keep the children younger longer. Particularly in today’s world with all of the pressures on our kids to grow up quickly, I think we can all agree that this is clearly a good thing.  

For example, I never will forget the time that we had an annual high school dance at my Costa Rican high school. One of the girls present was stunningly dressed in a fairly low-cut top, short skirt and make-up. I wondered who that “looker” could be, until it dawned upon me that this was “little Leda,” one of my wonderful young ninth-grade students. Of course all of the boys were distracted by her, and vied for her attention. So if she had been allowed to wear clothes like that to school, it was clear to me that everyone’s attention level to sex and flirting would have increased dramatically, to the detriment of the entire scholastic atmosphere of the school.

Finally, but critically, most people generally tend to act in keeping with the manner in which they are dressed. If one wears sloppy attire, that person naturally tends to act more casually. But if people are dressed more formally, their actions generally tend to be more controlled and refined. So if students are wearing the uniform of their school, they will be much more likely to behave themselves as representatives of their school. In a similar fashion, they will be “dressed for learning,” and act accordingly. This also has the additional benefit of showing respect for learning, and disrespect for sloppiness.

The same is true for the rest of us. I know I have a definite tendency to act more formally and cautiously when I am wearing my working “uniform,” which is to say my judicial robe. And I venture to say that most other people have the same tendencies. If people are wearing shirts that display the name of their company on them, they are more likely to be careful about their demeanor. The same is true for men who are wearing a coat and tie, or women who are wearing more formal business attire. They tend to be more business-like than people wearing jeans and sweatshirts.

So what are the drawbacks of this program of school uniforms? From my perspective, there really is only one, and that is a limitation upon individual expression. But that is really a small price to pay for the other benefits. In fact, many people believe that this would also be a benefit in itself. The children can “express themselves” all they want to, within parental limits, once they get back home. But while they are in school, they are literally working at the most critical job of their lives, which is to get an education. This is not the time for diverting their attention to who looks more “cool” or sexy. Instead their focus should be on learning, and school uniforms strongly promote that focus.

So why aren’t more schools in our country requiring uniforms for their students? I believe that most of them would like to do so, but are hindered by resistance from the parents, who in many ways seem to be afraid of the wrath of their own children. But there is a difference between being your children’s friends, as opposed to being their parents. Appropriate wearing apparel is not a decision to be made by children; it is to be made by concerned parents.  

Accordingly, in my view it is time for parents to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of school uniforms. When they do so, I believe they will decide that the benefits discussed above strongly outweigh the one so-called drawback. And then the parents should assert themselves for a program of school uniforms for the good of the education and future of all of our children.  

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)