Uniform fuss can't be tackled uniformly
With some phu yai rattled by the campaign for students to wear casual attire launched on Tuesday by the "Bad Students" group, I am glad that we've come to the point where school uniforms may be disposed of. This could be the first time we've had a real discussion about them.
Yesterday, the Bad Students staged a symbolic campaign, "Returning uniforms to the Education Ministry", as a way to make statement. While the Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec) instructed all schools not prohibit students from wearing casual outfits to school on Tuesday, some schools decided to stick to their rules.
Interestingly, supporters and opponents of school uniforms cite equality to support their argument. Student activists point out that 3.5 million underprivileged students can't afford a uniform and many have missed school. Some parents and officials, however, argue the uniforms help students of all social classes look the same, meaning they are equal. Really?
While school uniforms may make every student look the same, school emblems don't. Some may flaunt theirs if they are in a prestigious school or university; but what about those who are not able to go to those top schools because their parents couldn't afford cram schools?
Do students from BMA-operated schools, rong rian thesaban, or some unranked schools feel equal when they meet other students who wear uniforms with emblems of elite schools like Triam Udom, Suan Kularb or Satriwittaya and Catholic-run schools in Bangkok? Are students in uniforms one or two sizes too big for them really proud of the donated outfits?
I was disappointed by comments made on Monday by respected child and family development expert, Assoc Prof Dr Suriyadeo Tripathi on this topic. On social media, he said uniforms don't represent authoritarianism, an accusation made by the "Bad Students". He said uniforms reflect the seeds of beauty in the heart of children and equality regardless of the region in the country they come from. They also symbolise the virtue growing inside them.
The expert went on to say that student uniforms make people want to help the wearer in the event of danger or if they are in a risky place. It also reminds the wearer of their duty to learn and improve themselves in order to become independent. Representing unity, uniforms help them grow up to be responsible members of society and respect others. Wearing a uniform is a discipline that denotes the unity of a group of people, citing professions such as doctors, nurses, soldiers, police and judges.
Can uniforms guarantee safety? This idea probably couldn't be applied to those at vocational schools. Remember, some schools ask their students to switch to casual attire, or hide school emblems when they leave campus so to avoid attacks from members of rival schools.
Some professors who are against casual attire say they feel bad for their students, many from poorer families, who have to wear shabby outfits when meeting counterparts from well-off families. A uniform can conceal such inequality, they insist.
Some people may find these comments beautiful, but for me they are just weird. Do children in remote villages or at the borders, who can't afford a uniform, have virtue growing inside them as much as those in a crisp uniform in Bangkok? Why don't those in casual attire deserve protection?
Many adults are afraid that children will show off to others with expensive outfits or pay undue attention to fashion and hairstyles.
Uniforms do have some advantages. I remember my college years when wearing a uniform was not compulsory. Some always wore uniforms so they could get discounted tickets while commuting. I could then see how some of my friends were very creative with their outfits.
While most of us put on simple outfits, a good friend of mine had her own "uniform" daily, a mix and match of brand-new and second-hand stuff. She always came to class in style.
One time, two of my friends played a prank, arriving on campus in traditional Thai costume. Wearing full make-up, they decided to stay in that "uniform" the whole day until late evening when they could have been mistaken for ghosts in the lush-green campus that resembled a little forest.
They did not only entertain themselves, but also friends, with their creativity. Despite this mischievous act, they were among the top students and now have decent jobs.
I know many parents think it's easier to get their children to put on a uniform every morning. Many of my friends agree, saying getting children ready and preparing breakfast is already tough, and looking for the appropriate outfits for their kids would be a burden.
But isn't this how a child learns about responsibility and social appropriateness, and becomes independent? They could invent their own fashion or dare to be different with their outfits, or they could also conform to the dress code if they cannot resist the peer pressure. Or if they feel uncomfortable and want to wear a uniform, let them decide.
Keep uniforms in school but as a choice. Students who want to wear a uniform should do so. But for those who are comfortable without them, their wishes should also be respected.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.