Hair to­day, gone to­mor­row

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Gor­don Robin­son is an at­tor­ney-at-law. Email feed­back to col­umns @glean­erjm.com.

AN­OTHER GOOD, old­fash­ioned Ja­maican storm in a teacup is brew­ing be­cause a child who ap­plied to join the stu­dent body was told by the pri­vate prep school to cut his hair to con­form to school rules or be re­jected.

Shrieks of “in­jus­tice” and “dis­crim­i­na­tion” re­ver­ber­ated across Ja­maica, and, once again, the mod­ern prin­ci­ple that chil­dren must have their own way at all costs ap­pears to be hold­ing sway. For many years, I’ve lamented the pre­cip­i­tous fall in ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards, and here’s a prime ex­am­ple why.

I’ve been writ­ing about ‘ed­u­ca­tion for life’ as be­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem’s pre­ferred goal in­stead of ed­u­ca­tion to pass stan­dard­ised ex­ams. Well, one of the fore­most life skills I learned at Mus­grave Prep and Cam­pion Col­lege, where I came un­der the in­flu­ence of the world’s fore­most ed­u­ca­tors, was DIS­CI­PLINE.

Dis­ci­pline doesn’t in­volve rea­son (an­other life skill that’s no longer taught but should be) and doesn’t brook ar­gu­ment (the purview of de­bat­ing so­ci­eties). Dis­ci­pline doesn’t come nat­u­rally. It’s taught by rig­or­ous prac­tice, rep­e­ti­tion, re­ward and pun­ish­ment. At Cam­pion Col­lege, we were taught Latin be­cause it’s a lan­guage that en­cour­ages dis­ci­pline. Dis­ci­pline is what causes us to stop and think be­fore us­ing vi­o­lence as a re­flex re­ac­tion to some awk­ward per­son step­ping on our toes. Dis­ci­pline is what makes us wait for a lady to en­ter the build­ing ahead of us and open the door for her. Dis­ci­pline drives civil­i­sa­tion.

At school, one of the great­est dis­ci­pline-learn­ing tools is school rules. Many of them are in­con­ve­nient, ha­rass­ing, em­bar­rass­ing or un­rea­son­able. Swal­low­ing hard and fol­low­ing them will in­cul­cate dis­ci­pline that’ll serve us well as adults. The leg­endary Au­drey Pinto, Wolmer’s Girls’ School head­mistress, would rip open the hem of a girl’s too-short skirt in full view of the stu­dent body. Sis­ter Mau­reen Clare, of blessed mem­ory, walked with a du­alpur­pose ruler. It mea­sured daily hem lengths (“Sis­ter, I didn’t re­alise how tall I’ve grown over the sum­mer!”) and the dis­tance be­tween part­ners at school dances.

Stu­dents in school uni­form pro­ceeded di­rectly home af­ter school. One stop at a plaza meant de­ten­tion. In uni­form, we un­der­stood we rep­re­sented the school, NOT our par­ents, so we re­mained un­der school au­thor­ity un­til we ar­rived home safely. We chafed at th­ese rules but obeyed them. Our par­ents were happy for the rules be­cause they never wor­ried about our safety once we put on that uni­form. No par­ent chal­lenged schools’ au­thor­ity.

CEL­E­BRAT­ING IN­DIS­CI­PLINE

Now, it’s all up­side down. Par­ents of undis­ci­plined stu­dents show pride in their chil­dren’s in­dis­ci­pline (now known as ‘in­di­vid­u­al­ity’). They phys­i­cally at­tack any teacher try­ing to dis­ci­pline their chil­dren. Teach­ers have be­come mere ves­sels for im­part­ing suf­fi­cient knowl­edge to per­mit stu­dents to pass stan­dard­ised ex­ams so they can ‘grad­u­ate’ (he in big-heel, pointed-toe boots; she in ex­pen­sive weave). Any at­tempt to put any re­stric­tion on any child is ‘dis­crim­i­na­tion’.

It’s no won­der Ja­maican so­ci­ety has de­gen­er­ated into a vi­o­lent, rau­cous, undis­ci­plined, chaotic ev­ery-man-for-him­self ro­bot taxi. We don’t be­lieve in rules any­more. One tweeter keeps ask­ing me, “Do rules trump rights?” What rights? The ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, a man who took over one of the most undis­ci­plined sec­ondary schools and breathed or­der and method into it to the ex­tent that it’s now a top-tier school again, was heard blub­ber­ing on about the Con­sti­tu­tion and how care­ful we must be not to breach it. Pol­i­tics must be con­ta­gious.

Con­sti­tu­tion schmon­ster­tu­tion! The Con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t give any stu­dent the right to dis­obey school rules or to dic­tate to any school what its rules should be. The Con­sti­tu­tion of­fers pro­tec­tion from dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of: (i) be­ing male or fe­male; (ii) race, place of ori­gin, so­cial class, colour, re­li­gion or po­lit­i­cal opin­ions.

And gives ev­ery child the right to “pub­licly funded tu­ition in a pub­lic ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion at the pre-pri­mary and pri­mary lev­els”.

There is no ‘right’ to in­sist pri­vate prep schools’ rules don’t ap­ply to your child. If your child must grow his hair be­cause of his (or your) re­li­gion, he’s pro­tected, but the school may still in­sist his locks be placed in a tam.

An­other fi­nal­ist in the most inane tweet com­pe­ti­tion was: “You can’t as­sess whether a rule should per­sist if your point of de­par­ture is ‘rules are rules’. Apartheid was a sys­tem of rules.” Oh, dear. Where to be­gin to list the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of de­bat­ing sins in th­ese 140 short char­ac­ters? This is a prime ex­am­ple of the sort of il­logic that rules (pun in­tended) pub­lic dis­course th­ese days, es­pe­cially me­dia talk shows or panel dis­cus­sions.

(1) The is­sue is NOT “whether a rule should per­sist”. The is­sue is whether a five-year-old child should be forced to obey a school rule re­gard­ing the ‘cut of his jib’ or be re­fused en­try to the school.

(2) No­body’s point of de­par­ture (at least no­body I’ve read or heard) has been ‘rules are rules’, al­though I’ve some bad news for this nabob of non se­quitur: Rules ARE rules. What else would they be?

(3) As one who lived through the apartheid era and fought tooth and nail along­side ev­ery Ja­maican for its ter­mi­na­tion, I’m of­fended that a pur­port­edly sen­si­ble, ed­u­cated Ja­maican with ac­cess to me­dia would triv­i­alise apartheid by com­par­ing it to the im­po­si­tion on pre-sec­ondaryschool stu­dents of school rules seek­ing to en­sure uni­for­mity and dis­ci­pline. For those born yes­ter­day, apartheid was the con­sti­tu­tional foun­da­tion of South Africa that el­e­vated the de­hu­man­i­sa­tion of en­tire races of peo­ple who hap­pened to be non-white to con­sti­tu­tional law. De­spite the ef­forts of many ig­no­rant or in­sen­si­tive Ja­maicans to some­how equate the Hope­field Prep school rules to na­tion­ally in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism, clas­sism or dis­crim­i­na­tion, there’s sim­ply no ba­sis for this non­sen­si­cal over­re­ac­tion. Even if there were, to com­pare school rules (no mat­ter how of­fen­sive) to apartheid is de­plorable.

DIC­TAT­ING SCHOOL RULES

(4) Back to the is­sue at (1) above. Do we want a coun­try where chil­dren (or their par­ents) can dic­tate to schools what the rules should be? Ei­ther the school de­cides on its rules and then the par­ents de­cide on at­ten­dance or ev­ery child must have the ‘right’ to change the school rules. No mat­ter how sym­pa­thetic one might be to this par­tic­u­lar child, the re­sult of al­low­ing his mother to pres­sure a pri­vate prep school into chang­ing its rules (or mak­ing an ex­cep­tion the school doesn’t wish to make) will be cat­a­strophic. Ja­maica could de­scend even fur­ther into an ir­re­triev­ably undis­ci­plined so­ci­etal abyss.

(5) Re­gard­ing (2), ‘rules are rules’ is NO PART of the log­i­cal process of ar­riv­ing at “whether a rule should per­sist”. ‘Rules are rules’ is a philo­soph­i­cal ba­sis for ar­gu­ing dis­obe­di­ence must at­tract a penalty. It has NOTH­ING to do with their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or sustainability. Even Martin Luther King and Ma­hatma Gandhi, while fight­ing for un­just laws not to per­sist, recog­nised ‘rules are rules’, so civil dis­obe­di­ence of those un­just laws meant the pro­tester must be pre­pared to pay the penalty. King and Gandhi went to prison with­out de­mur for dis­obey­ing un­just laws.

(6) This is a dif­fer­ent is­sue. No­body is try­ing to over­turn un­just laws. We’re deal­ing with school rules re­gard­ing groom­ing set by a pri­vate prep school. So ‘rules are rules’ isn’t my phi­los­o­phy, nor is it any­body’s start­ing point. If we were on a mis­sion to change the school rules (per­ish for­bid), we’d still have to obey them in the in­terim (or be ex­pelled) be­cause ‘rules are rules’. In this case, my phi­los­o­phy isn’t ‘rules are rules’, but, while you’re in my home, ‘MY rules are MY rules’ and will be obeyed.

Now, MY rules don’t have to be YOUR rules. If you don’t wish to obey MY rules, there’s the gate. Based on the na­tional up­roar, I’m sure there are many pub­lic and pri­vate schools will­ing to obey YOUR rules or al­ter theirs to suit you.

(7) The cor­rect fo­rum for as­sess­ing whether rules should per­sist is the school board af­ter re­ceiv­ing com­ment from PTA and the gen­eral school com­mu­nity and af­ter as­sess­ing:

(a) the rea­sons for the im­po­si­tion of the rules; and

(b) whether those rea­sons have some­how been made re­dun­dant or ob­so­lete.

All I can say about what’s be­come of Ja­maican ed­u­ca­tion is I’m glad I and my three sons are done with it. My sym­pa­thies to the vast ma­jor­ity of Ja­maican par­ents who ex­pect school to in­still some dis­ci­pline into stu­dents, even if they can’t teach math­e­mat­ics or English. You’ll be dis­ap­pointed.

Peace and love.

I

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