A Benedictine Defense of the Dress Code
An esteemed coworker of mine, whose teaching career has spanned multiple classical schools, recently remarked that no school she had been a part of was able to successfully implement an upper school dress code. This statement is not shocking when you take into account constantly changing fashion trends that often push the boundaries of a dress code, systemizing the reporting of dress code violations, re-evaluating punishments for different violations, and navigating parent complaints about said punishments. All the dress code entails might lead a classical educator to consider it an impediment to the most important part of their job: teaching.
These teachers might think: Did we not become classical educators to do more important things than enforce the dress code? Should we not be focused on introducing our students to the works of Dante, revealing the goodness of God’s creation through Biology, and discovering truths in the works of Lewis and Tolkien? We did not become educators to spend most of our day telling Johnny to pull his mask over his nose, take his hoodie off, and tuck in his shirt … right?
Viewing the dress code through this lens is reductive, however; such thoughts fail to recognize a dress code’s structural benefits to classical education. To teachers struggling to see this bigger picture, I urge you to follow St. Benedict’s guidance.
St. Benedict, a monk dissatisfied with the state of pagan Rome’s cultural depravity, fled the city and created a small God-centered community by serving as an abbot of a monastery. While Benedict primarily sought to shepherd the monks towards a healthy spiritual life, he created a structure for the daily life of monks, now known as The Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict’s Rule covers all aspects of a monk's daily life, including specific instructions on the number and order of songs sung at Sunday services, the hours of work one must complete around the monastery, how many plates one can eat at a meal—and yes, instructions on appropriate dress for the monastery’s inhabitants. To an outsider, one might wonder why an institution focused primarily on the spiritual life of its members would create such detailed rules on seemingly arbitrary aspects of their daily life.
While many parts of Benedict’s Rule may seem arbitrary to us, the rules laid forth by Benedict serve a purpose greater than many of the possible frustrations they would bring its followers. The Rule ultimately shapes the hearts and desires of the monks through daily obedience to the established rituals and habits. Monks must execute their tasks with “firmness of purpose, promptitude, and fervour, without murmuring or resistance.” If a monk were to complete his task while complaining under his breath, he would not be rewarded or commended for his actions, even though he completed the task. The goal of the Rule is not just to have the monks complete a task, eat a certain number of plates, or dress a certain way. Instead, it is to form the monks' hearts to loving obedience through daily observance. Few novice monks would have properly sought and loved complete obedience before first submitting to the Rule. Similarly, few students will walk into your school with properly ordered love towards all school rules.
At a classical school, the practical benefits should not serve as the ultimate goal of a dress code, though there are many (uniformity, elimination of distracting dress, etc.). While important, those elements ought to be secondary. Just like Benedict’s Rule, daily submission to the dress code ultimately trains our students in loving obedience through daily observance to school policies.
A student reading this might think: “I still don’t understand why I have to tuck my shirt in every day to learn to be obedient.” As Rod Dreher points out in The Benedict Option, “Submitting to rules one doesn’t understand is difficult, but it’s a good way to counteract the carnal desire for personal independence.” While there might not be much spiritual merit to following many of the rules individually, “the humility that comes with agreeing to submit to another's decision that one do so is transformative.”
Now, this belief does not excuse adding arbitrary rules to your school. It does, however, defend rules like the dress code, that many students and parents (and sometimes teachers) may deem arbitrary. Nor does it mean students will leave high school loving the dress code. Enforcing the dress code can be a thankless, frustrating, and annoying task. But holding our students accountable to established school policies loves them in the truest way we can. It will not always be easy, but it is classical.
Classical education extends further than the content found inside the classroom. Classical education is the holistic formation of the student, guiding all loves and desires towards that which is true, good, and beautiful. A truly classical school has daily habits, rituals, and policies that habitually guide students towards virtue.
To the struggling educator tired of enforcing the dress code: Remember Benedict's Rule. Hold your students accountable to such rules, teaching them the transformative power that comes from humble obedience, even when they do not like it. We might not see the immediate fruit of our daily conversations regarding the dress code. But when Johnny grows in Christ-like humility, we will see the reward.
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