A South Texas high school student’s face-off with school officials over the length of his hair is one of those issues about which nearly everyone — from students to parents to school officials — has an opinion.
Gerardo Garcia Jr., a junior at Harlingen High School South, says he would like to grow his hair to a length of at least 10 inches so he could donate it to Locks of Love, a national organization that produces wigs for young medical patients who have lost their hair. But school officials have told him to cut his hair to comply with the school’s dress code, which forbids boys’ hair from hanging below their shoulders.
Garcia has appealed the superintendent’s demand to the school board.
Similar scenarios have played out in eastern New Mexico dozens of times.
Such requests not only pit the students against the administration, but rekindle the old debate about school dress codes and their applications. Protests against restrictions on students’ clothes and hair heated up during the 1960s, when the parents of many of today’s high school students were attending school.
Some of those who rebelled against such restrictions when they were students are on the other side of the fence now — with their children subject to codes similar to the ones they resisted.
The pros and cons of dress codes and, in their popular contemporary manifestation, school uniforms, draws a line in the sand between those who favor the restrictions and those who oppose them.
Among arguments offered by proponents are that:
• Dress codes help maintain discipline in the classroom.
• School uniforms can be less expensive and easier for parents.
• Dress codes put all children on an even footing.
• Dress codes prepare students for the workplace.
Opponents of dress codes, on the other hand, maintain that:
• They foster resentment instead of learning.
• They stifle individuality.
• They’re nearly impossible to enforce.
• Changing fashions make them an endless work in progress.
Ironically, there is some truth to all of the arguments, which goes to show that reasonable people can disagree about important matters, even when it pertains to the raising of children.
But the American system of public schools does not allow much flexibility when it comes to educating your children. With the still-modest exception of charter schools, parents who want to decide how their children will be educated must leave their tax dollars behind and pay tuition at a private or parochial school.
Our public schools operate basically on a one-size-fits-all premise. Parents and students have little choice but to accept what the local school district has to offer.
As researchers like John Taylor Gatto have noted, our system of public education owes less to the American tradition of a democratic republic than it does to the monarchies of Europe, particularly Prussia.
As Michiel Visser wrote in the essay, “Public Education versus Liberty: The Pedigree of an Idea,” “Public education as we know it grew from a desire by 18th century monarchs to mold more malleable subjects. Pupils were not primarily supposed to learn reading, writing, arithmetic or anything else, but were meant to become obedient citizens. The history of modern education, then, is a history of social control.”
The idea of public school as a means of control takes on special intrigue when viewed in the context of not just Gerardo Garcia Jr.’s conflict with the Texas school administrators, but the entire power struggle that exists within the educational establishment. That struggle was fueled even further by the federal government’s interference through the No Child Left Behind Act.
The issue becomes less centered on whether boys should be permitted to wear their hair long at school and more a matter of whether parents should be able to select a school that most conforms to their ideals and beliefs. The solution to that lies not in a simple vote by the Harlingen school board, but in a thorough rethinking of the relationship between school and state.