My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.
There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.
While I have not (as of this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.
As might be imagined, I am somewhat divided on this matter. However, I will endeavor to sort through the matter from a philosophical and professorial perspective. I will do so by looking at the reasons behind the code.
The first reason nicely matches Aristotle’s views of education. When discussing moral education, Aristotle notes that young people do not find a temperate life to be particularly appealing, so it is necessary to condition them to such a life. Doing so, he argues, will make it less irksome and hence it will be all the easier to ensure that they follow the right path throughout life. As might be imagined, many college students would prefer to not dress like professionals and prefer to be rather more casual. Also, some college students clearly prefer the now forbidden styles. As might be imagined, the job creators who will hire the students when the graduate will expect their employees to dress in appropriate ways. As such, the university would merely be extending its mission of conditioning students for the workplace by adding in control over their modes of dress. After all, the American education system has been training students to follow schedules, do boring work at the behest of others, obey petty authorities, stand in lines, and so on. What, it might be asked, is the problem with adding a conformity of costume to the curriculum of conditioning?
The obvious problem is, of course, that such an imposition seems to violate the liberty of the students. Since they are adults, there is a presumption in favor of their right to dress as they choose. Naturally, this should match the laws regarding public indecency (although those could be challenged as well). However, provided the students are not violating such laws, it would seem reasonable to not impose on their liberty. Unless, of course, the harm done by specific attire would morally warrant imposing on the liberty of the students. This takes me to the second reason.
The second reason does have some appeal. While I have never had a class actually disrupted by someone’s choice of attire, it does seem possible for this to happen-provided that the clothing was such that it would create a significant and lasting impact on the class. In all my years of teaching, about the most extreme reactions I have seen is having some students stare briefly at another student because of his/her choice of clothing. This has sometimes been followed by some whispering. However, this sort of “disruption” is nothing compared with the disruptive influence of personal electronics and people talking to each other in class. Naturally, students coming to class partially or fully naked would probably have a significant impact-but that is already covered, I think, by existing laws regarding public nudity. Because of this, I have never really considered improper attire a threat to my classroom-but my experience might be unusual. There is also the possibility that I am blind to the damage it has been doing in my classes. If other professors’ classes (and mine) are, in fact, being disrupted by improper attire, then the code would make sense on this ground. After all, the disruption of class would harm the other students and thus warrant imposing on the liberty of the student whose attire is causing the disruption.
Of course, it could be countered that there are cases in which the student cannot be reasonably held accountable for the reaction of others. To use the obvious analogy to free speech, if a student says something that annoys, offends or otherwise bothers other students, this does not automatically entail that the student should be compelled to be silent. For example, if a student presents an argument in favor of God’s existence that really annoys some atheists in a religion class, it would hardly be right to silence the student because of this.
The obvious counter to this is to argue that the clothing being banned is not the clothing equivalent of a rational argument that bothers those who disagree. Rather, the clothing is on par with someone shouting vulgarities in class. If this is so, the code would seem sensible.
The third reason also has some appeal. While philosophers are supposed to be concerned with wisdom rather than with the “sights and sounds”, I recognize the importance of appearances when it comes to matters such as recruitment and reputation. For example, if prospective students and their parents see FAMU students dressed inappropriately for higher education, this might impact their decision to attend FAMU (although our enrollment has been at record levels). As another example, photos of the university that feature inappropriately attired students could also do damage to the school’s reputation. After all, reputation is often more about appearance than substance. Naturally, it might be countered that people should be more concerned with the substance than with the appearance, but that idea seems quaintly out of touch in a time when people assert that “perception is reality.” In any case, if the damage done to the university by the inappropriate attire exceeded the damage done to the students by imposing on their liberty, then the imposition of the code would thus seem morally warranted.