Gordon Robinson | Hair today, gone tomorrow
Another good, old-fashioned 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 dual-purpose 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.
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-secondary-school 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.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns