I’m as surprised as anyone to find out I have really strong opinions about this. I suppose it’s something you don’t really think about until it becomes relevant. But in the wake of the court ruling that the suspension of a male student for having his hair too long (or, technically, for not cutting it when told) was unlawful, people have been talking a lot about what rules schools should be allowed to set.
It seems like the main thrust of the argument in support of the school is something like: Kids need to learn to follow rules. There’s a bit of other stuff mixed in, like it’s not about whether the rule is okay, it’s about the school being able to enforce the rule, and not undermining them, because otherwise kids won’t learn how to follow rules. I’ve seen it said a few different ways, but that basically seems to be the gist.
The thing is, we’re not talking about five year olds, we’re talking about fifteen year olds. If a fifteen year old doesn’t know how to follow rules something’s pretty irreparably broken. Is this kid able to turn up to school on time? Does he do his school work? Is he managing not to commit violence when upset or frustrated? Does he more or less tell the truth? Does he pay bus fares and not shop lift? Is he able to assess how to act around different people depending on where they fall in a social hierarchy in comparison to him? Can he line up when appropriate and wait his turn? Does he follow every single other rule except this one? Congratulations. He knows how to follow rules. It’s just that this rule is stupid. And after fifteen years of teaching a kid to follow rules, I think it’s about time to support them in learning to recognise when rules are stupid and challenge them. There are countless examples through history of rules that needed to be challenged. No, this isn’t a Godwin, I’m talking relatively small things that were nonetheless harmful and oppressive. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my policy classes, it’s that rules can have far-reaching effects and they need to be assessed sometimes to see whether they’re actually doing any good.
In this situation, the rule is not doing any good. There’s nothing wrong with a school saying students should wear a uniform or be tidy. But hair is actually a deeply personal and culturally important thing, and not one that really has any impact on other people unless, I don’t know, you fashion it with razor blades hanging from it or it smells awful or something. The idea that men have to have short hair is by no means universal – in fact I’m willing to bet it’s the case in a significant minority of cultures, and given that we’re making efforts to be a multicultural country, that’s a fairly important point.
The obvious response to that, I suppose, though not one I’ve actually seen, is that schools could make exceptions for students with deeply held religious or cultural views. The problem with that is that a) students shouldn’t have to justify their cultures, and b) when you restrict it to only students with “legitimate” reasons for exception, those students become very visibly Different. They suddenly have to become a spokesperson for their culture and constantly field questions about why they’re allowed long hair when everyone else isn’t while they’re just trying to go to school, whereas if everyone is allowed longer hair it’s just another personal choice that doesn’t need to be constantly justified and explained.
There is, of course, also a gender dimension. I saw a stat the other day that about 40% of non-cis people don’t identify with the gender binary, so it’s not only a case of specifically mtf transgender students. Anyone might want to play with their gender presentation and to be honest when you’re a teenager can often be the best time to do it. (Or at least, it would be if we could make a serious attempt to reduce gender identity related bullying.) It’s a time of life where most people are figuring out who they are – they’re old enough that they’re not so completely under their parents thumbs and they can go through phases, play with styles, try things out to see if they work without necessarily being expected to stick with them.
Let’s be real. With increasing inequality in this country, what school you go to often matters far more than it should. And kids are legally obliged to attend school. It’s not reasonable to just say the market will decide and people don’t have to send their kids there if they don’t want to follow rules, especially a rule that will disproportionately affect boys from non-European cultures or who are gender non-conforming. Courts have always had the right to tell schools that they can’t enforce harmful and oppressive rules, and if we’re going to worry about undermining institutions, I’d far rather undermine the school than the court.