A historian proves his or her worth

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By Hardy Jackson

Back in 2007, the Associated Press sent out an article about an Alabama university that had a dress code.
Which university is not the point. I’ll get to the point shortly.
I am part of a profession that wants you to believe that if you study the past you will see mistakes made in the past and avoid them in the future.
Which is why I am so proud of what happened at the university in question. The administration drew up a dress code for students, and when I saw how they planned to enforce it, I saw a historian’s handiwork.
Historians know a lot about dressing and codes.
Back in the 60s, both were hot issues.
The Vietnam War was raging. Campuses were in turmoil. There were radicals and riots and all sorts of unsavory people running.
Administrators believed they could pick out those folks by the way they dressed.
So, with one of those leaps of administrative logic that makes sense only to college administrators, college administrators concluded that unsavory people would stop doing unsavory things if they dressed savory. So, they drew up dress codes that outlawed clothes that might reflect radical tendencies or inspire such tendencies in those who, as yet, were undecided to which tendencies they might give in. (For sheer stupidity, consider that the south Florida college where I taught. Its administrators prohibited, among other things, the wearing of shorts to class. South Florida, hotter than five kinds of hell, the guys in pants and the girls in knee-length skirts and dresses.)
But those were troubled times and administrators hoped that a dress code would hold back the tide of unwanted change and prove a barrier between the civilized and those who would destroy all that was happy and holy.
As any historian will tell you, it didn’t work.
Soon, shorts were the least of their worries. Mini and micro-mini skirts were the rage, as were hip-hugging pants, bare midriffs and see-through shirts – that that was just on the guys.
Although the code was on the books, enforcement proved impossible. Students simply ignored it.
Administrators tried to keep up a good front, tried to tell kids what should and should not be worn, but to little avail. No sooner was one style outlawed than another rose to take its place. The hippie-look morphed into the disco-look which was discarded for the preppie-look which was rejected for the grunge-look except by those who went for the Goth-look or the hoochie-mama-look. College code creators simply gave up.
Now it is all history. And what can we learn from it?
We can learn that fashions change and there is not a thing college administrators can do about it. (Evidence also suggests that the best way to be assured that students will wear what you want them to wear is to tell them not to, but taking that approach could always backfire. Students aren’t as dumb as they seem in class.)
Which brings me back to what went on at the unnamed Alabama university.
There, folks in charge told students that the dress code was designed “to improve the image of the campus and to help students learn what to wear in the workplace after graduation.”
Noble goals. Goals which I personally endorse.
I do believe that colleges have a responsibility to tell students that the chance of a decent company hiring someone who walks into an interview dressed Goth or Grunge or some-such is nil, none, nada.
But colleges also need to realize that to tell them they can’t is to dare some to try. So let them. And when the company doesn’t hire them, word will get around.
(If the company hires them anyway, then they are the company’s problem, not the university’s.)
Which is where historians come in.
Although unnamed university wants students to make a better appearance in class and at job fairs, apparently someone reminded code writers of what happened to codes in the past.
That someone, no doubt, was a historian.
And code writers, considering what they were told, let it be known that they will enforce their code with “gentle encouragement” rather than “strict edict.”
Which is to say they won’t enforce it at all.
Which is just what any historian worth his or her salt would advise – and one there probably did.
Once again, we historians prove our worth.
Jackson taught history at Jacksonville State University and is an op-ed and editorial writer for The Star. He can be reached at hjackson@jsu.edu.

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