Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dress Code Compromise at ISU?

I spoke last night at a panel about the Illinois State University dress code for marketing classes. The president of the SGA indicated that a compromise solution might soon be announced, perhaps tomorrow. We'll see if it's acceptable.

Here are my remarks from last night:

We should evaluate students based on their academic merit, and not their appearance. Obviously, I have a personal stake in this debate. If we start judging people in academia based on their appearance, I’m completely screwed. But I also believe there are important principles at stake here. This is about far more than the trivial subject of what particular woven threads you put on your body; this is about the meaning of what a college education is, and it is about individual freedom.

I could talk about the specific problems in this particular dress code, and there are a lot of them, but I think the dress code is wrong on principle, regardless of the details, and so I want to object to the principles being followed here.

What’s most objectionable about this dress code is that imposing it on students is completely unnecessary for the stated purpose of educating students about proper fashion. There are all kinds of ways to teach students how to dress properly without forcing them to do so. Personally, I can’t imagine why anyone thinks teaching students how to dress is an intellectually appropriate lesson for college students.

But I am a great believer in academic freedom (some would say too much so), and I believe in giving professors the freedom to do things that I consider to be stupid. So I believe professors have the right to teach students about wearing clothing. They have a right, in fact, to give students quizzes about business casual dress and grade them based on whether they know the proper rules for it. They have the right to waste classtime discussing proper footwear. They have a right to personally criticize a student’s choice of clothing, to say, “that outfit sucks.” They even have a right–and this is how extreme I am–a right to bring a student to the front of the class, declare that he is the worst-dressed person in class, and engage the class in a Maoist-style collective humiliation of the student. As appalling as that would be, I think it is permissible. But what a professor cannot do is ban a student from a class based on his or her appearance. What a professor cannot do is grade a student based on his or her appearance, and that’s what this policy does, because you get a 0 grade for attendance and anything due that day if you violate the dress code and are kicked out of class.

(Unfortunately, I can’t actually find any place on the ISU website that describes grading policies and unfair grading and details the grade appeal procedures for students. That’s a very serious omission that ISU needs to fix, since I believe it needs to be quite clear that grading students based on their appearance should be a violation of ISU’s policies, because it is unquestionably a violation of academic standards and, I would argue, it is a violation of the constitutional rights of students.)

Once you begin to abandon some academic standards and start grading students on something other than pure academic merit, what’s to stop you from going further? Why can’t professors force students to agree with dominant pro-business ideologies, and grade them down for dissenting? After all, allowing dissent is just another academic standard. It’s not a business standard. There’s no right to dissent in corporate America, so why should there be any right to dissent in the classes that prepare students for corporate America?

You can go a university and pass out copies of the First Amendment to anyone you want. But if you go to Wal-Mart or a shopping and try to hand out the Constitution to people, you’ll be arrested. Go ahead and try it on Monday, that’s Constitution Day, it’s fun, bring bail money.
Now, that’s just one difference between academic standards and business standards.

Academic standards are largely defined by intellectual merit and individual freedom. Corporate standards are largely defined by conformity and obedience. So when you set up a system of business standards in the college classroom, you are actually violating academic standards and acting in a way that is unethical in the academic world, even though it may be perfectly normal in the business world.

Of course, there are many business standards that coexist with academic standards. So ethical norms for business are easily compatible with most ethical norms for academia. But when academic standards and business standards are in conflict, then at a university, particularly a public university, the academic standards must prevail. And the dress code is just such an example of this conflict.

Unfortunately, the tendency among students, as a species, is that they are instinctively geared to flee from predators and freeze at signs of danger. And professors are regarded as their predators. So when a thundering herd of professors is coming at a student with a set of standards, it’s very difficult for that student to stand up and say, “Stop, I disagree.” But that’s what we need to educate students to do, to be independent thinkers, to be creativity and nonconformist in their ideas.

When students see a dress code imposed on them, then that only reinforces their cautious instincts. They begin to think, if business standards are applied to how I dress, maybe they’ll also be applied to what I say and what I write, and they legitimately fear that the business standards against dissent and criticism of corporate America will also be imposed on students.

Turning professors into the fashion police is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea because it imposes unreasonable rules on students, it undermines the principle of intellectual merit, and it places business standards above academic standards. We must judge students on the content of their academic work, not the character of their clothing.

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