C’mon People, It’s Called ‘School’ for a Reason

Admittedly, in the title of this piece I am playing off the TV ads for beach vacations at Ocean City, Maryland, but the underlying issue is serious. The June 10 Washington Post reported that “school administrators” at a Northern Virginia high school had forced two female Muslim students to bring notes from home to prove they were wearing hijabs (head scarves) for religious purposes. http://wapo.st/2srfAeb This reportedly occurred because the school has a policy against students wearing hats or other head coverings except for religious purposes. Apparently, the girls’ word was insufficient and there were repeated instances of administrator challenges, sometimes in front of other students.

Ultimately, the school “administrators” apologized and revised the policy so that students don’t have to prove any religious practice to wear a hijab. Fine, as far as it goes. But you can imagine where this kind of thing leads.

Why, for example, in the current fraught context of controversy spawned by the Trump administration over whether Muslims are welcome in the United States, would a non-Muslim student be forbidden from wearing a hijab as a demonstration of support for Muslims? What educational objective is secured by preventing such acts of good will among students? Suppose hundreds of students decided to wear a hijab to school one day to support their fellow Muslim students during Ramadan? What is the real problem here? Is it the same problem if Orthodox Jewish students want to wear a yarmulke to school?

Among the lessons of formal schooling are learning new things while you, hopefully, grow up. This surely includes associating with new people, not all of whom are going to be like you. Schools should be promoting more interactions among “unlike” students so that, as they continue to mature and enter the adult world, they are more open to and better prepared to deal with the myriad types of people with whom they will interact at work and elsewhere. This healthy process is enhanced, I suggest, by allowing students to “be different” if they choose to be.

The main qualification on “being different” in school would be the problem of disruption or, as it is often portrayed, “distraction” of other students. But the question there is really ‘who is responsible for the distraction?’ If it is merely a passive expression of difference (I’m wearing a hijab and you’re not), any distraction problem should be laid at the feet of the distracted student and not at the student who is merely different. This approach would not apply, obviously, if the issue were overt behavior such as, for example, making a speech in class when the students are supposed to be working quietly on math problems.

For the most part, if school administrators left the students alone to be themselves while acknowledging and showing respect for their differences, some of that likely would rub off on the students. On the other hand, the intervention of the school in ways that seem to disparage students’ separate and different identities is also noticed by students. What lesson do they take away from such episodes?

It might be argued by some that enforcing “no differences” rules is just another way of acclimating students to accept the fact that they will be subject to arbitrary rules from time to time. In a society already struggling with the tribalist tendency to associate only with those just like us, and to listen only to opinions with which we already agree, reinforcing the lesson of acquiescence in arbitrary rules is a mistake. Students should instead be encouraged to, peacefully but persuasively, challenge arbitrary rules that teach nothing of real use.

They are called schools for a reason – to learn and not to merely reinforce what parents already believe.

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