18 Feb The tussle between Uniformity and Equality
The tussle between Uniformity and Equality- Today Current Affairs
The sudden spurt of righteous indignation and political activism from a section of students in Kundapur, Udupi and a few other colleges in Karnataka regarding the hijab is opportunistic. The fact that a bunch of students took it upon themselves to attack college girls wearing hijab in the name of equality and uniformity has been condemned by many but also tacitly supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka and some voices in the social media.
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This action is opportunistic because students in that region, as well as in most of Karnataka, are generally apathetic to any kind of mobilisation. Colleges in these places are run on strict models of discipline, and attempts to open up spaces for critical debates have largely failed. It is difficult to mobilise them, either formally or informally. In such a strict disciplinarian system, what really is the meaning of uniformity and uniform dress codes?
One repeated argument in support of uniforms is that uniforms are necessary because they provide a measure of equality among students independent of their economic and social backgrounds. Is this really so? The Hindu Analysis.
A dress is a symbol and stands for many things. So, how does the symbol of the uniform attain the meaning of equality? There is no natural and unique association between a uniform and a concept like equality. This association is established and enforced by social norms. There are many other ways to enable equality among students in schools and colleges. For example, it could be done by making sure that all students have equal access to textbooks, digital media, teachers, uniform nutrition, and so on. These are substantial attempts because in these cases uniformity is a path towards equality—not just uniformity for its own sake.
There are many domains where uniforms are used: defence services, judiciary, factories, religious communities, and so on. They are also important in prisons. In each of these cases, the symbolism of the uniform is different. Not all of them are expressions of equality.
Uniforms as a dress code in educational institutions are not symbols of equality as much as they are symbols of “order,” “discipline,” and “control” (like in prison uniforms). Students understand this well, and it is not surprising that so many of them, including young children, really see uniforms as forms of discipline and order rather than embodying any message about equality. The effectiveness in enforcing uniforms in educational institutions is a direct reflection of the power of the authorities. Our colleges and schools function under these authoritarian regimes, not only in administration but also in modes of learning. There is no sense of active debate, no possible spaces for alternate viewpoints, and no encouragement for creative expressions, particularly through art. Our colleges, specifically in these areas where the students are protesting the hijab, are centres of power that operate through rigid control over every aspect of a student’s life. Uniforms are another part of this disciplinary apparatus and punishment is a direct corollary of violating codes of uniform. The Hindu Analysis.
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All this is not surprising given that equality as a goal of education is no longer tenable considering the way educational systems have developed in this country. When ideas of equality do not exist in the educational environment, how can it suddenly rise through uniforms? The recent changes in education policies have reduced the possibility of uniformity in various sectors of education. There is too wide a disparity in the quality of teaching, access to resources, infrastructure, and administration across schools and colleges. The values of our education system are now built on non-uniformity of various kinds, including the meaningless national exams for various courses as well as the growing material gaps between the private and public colleges and universities. The rural and the semi-urban students, like those protesting now, are the worst hit. Successive governments have played with universities and have been instrumental in creating the disparities that have now become an essential marker of Indian education. The value in education is now measured through differences and not uniformity. The uniformity of exams ironically has always privileged only certain skills and have single-handedly led to the elimination of any meaningful notion of uniformity in education. Ministers, politicians, and business houses now own and run colleges and universities as business enterprises. The goals of education have never been so far away from the initial goals of a fair, equitable, and uniform access and uniform delivery of education to all students.
So should we have uniforms in our educational institutions? I offer two arguments against uniforms in our schools and colleges. First, uniforms can be made compulsory only if other measures of equality are part of the education system, including intellectual practices such as critical discussions among students on ideas like equality, uniformity, and citizenship. The destruction of quality humanities and social science education in our colleges have almost eliminated this possibility. In such a situation, uniforms have only the symbolism of order and control by arbitrary authorities. Second, a classroom is the microcosm of our society. Nowhere else in the public space do children and young adults encounter the multiplicity of their peers (representing the diversity of our country) as in the classroom. True education has to include learning various forms of socialities, and thus, it is necessary that India has to be represented in its multiplicities in the classroom more than in a Republic Day parade. Uniform dress codes go against this most fundamental social responsibility of a society like ours.