A Nation of Barbers

Barbers Hill High School senior DeAndre Arnold interviewed on KHOU. (KHOU/via YouTube)
A public-school system beset by conformism, in Texas and across the country

It seems almost inevitable that long hair is unwelcome at Barbers Hill High School.

There’s a touch of aptronymic poetry in Texas public-school dress-code disputes. When I was in school in the 1980s, at the height of the Satanism panic, the local school-district superintendent circulated a list of “occult” symbols for teachers keep an eye out for, and one of those was the Star of David — which would have been bad enough in any case but was amusing coming from a man whose name was Moses. (George W. Bush would later make Mike Moses a state education commissioner.) Barbers Hill telling young DeAndre Arnold that his hair is too long honors the literary convention.

It does not honor good sense.

Arnold, a young black man of Trinidadian ancestry, wears his hair in dreadlocks. That’s fine with the powers that be at Barbers Hill, so long as said dreads don’t extend — these things always get hilariously specific — below the eyebrows, earlobes, or a T-shirt collar. Arnold’s have recently grown a little longer, and he has been told that he will have to spend his days in in-school suspension and that he will be barred from his graduation ceremony if he refuses to comply.

There isn’t anything obviously unreasonable about the dress code: Schools are right to have basic standards for their students, and the rules are written in the ridiculous way they are written because the complaining and litigious nature of Americans makes it impossible to simply ask teachers or vice principals to use their own judgment. At the same time, there isn’t anything at all wrong with the way DeAndre Arnold presents himself: There are guys who wear their hair the same way who work in Silicon Valley or write for the New York Times.

Barbers Hill seems to be doing some things right: Its math and reading proficiency rates are 96 percent and 87 percent, respectively, its four-year graduation rate is 99 percent, and 30 percent of its students pass at least one AP exam, according to U.S. News and World Report. It is located in the exurban energy corridor on the far edges of Houston, in a town called Mont Belvieu, where wages are pretty good and where households are more likely to be made up of married couples living together than the national average. So, credit where due, and all that.

But, this being the United States of America, two additional aspects of the case are inevitable. The first is that there is a big wad of cholesterol in the bureaucratic arteries here: There is a form, apparently, that Arnold’s family can fill out to beg for a variance. They’d never heard of any such thing, but now the student’s mother has filled out the form pleading with the school district for permission to parent her own child and see to his grooming. The second inevitability is the charge of racism.

“People want to call us racist,” school superintendent Greg Poole told CNN. “But we’re following the rules, the law of the land. We’re certainly not making this up.”

Of course they’re making it up.

These silly rules were not handed down from on high by the Almighty. The school district made up these rules, and it can revise them. And while there isn’t any reason to assume racist intent, it is not exactly unthinkable that it could be the case that the powers that be in a Texas town that is 90.96 percent white didn’t get the dreadlocks policy exactly right on the first go. Poole speaks like a man with the soul of a vice principal, who cannot distinguish a school dress code from “the law of the land” or that from the permanent things. Laws change.

The question for the ladies and gentlemen of the Barbers Hill schools is, or should be: What is the Barbers Hill high school for? Does it exist to produce educated men and women, or does it exist to produce docile rule-followers?

That is not a rhetorical question. The American public-school system is guided by cutting-edge progressive thinking . . . from the 19th century. The Bismarckian conception of the state as a factory is deeply impressed on our education policy, which is oriented toward turning out workers for the economy as though it were an assembly line producing widgets. Conformism is an inescapable part of that kind of thinking: Assembly lines by their nature impose homogeneity on what they produce. When it comes to dress codes, there’s a reason we call the most comprehensive kind uniforms.

And uniforms are funny things. For young people, they can in the right context serve to encourage a more interesting and vital form of individualism by eliminating the most shallow kind of distinctiveness (Yeah, Caitlyn, you’ve got blue hair now, congratulations) and obliging them to distinguish themselves in more meaningful ways.

But, as Pete Townshend knows, sometimes a uniform is its own reason for being. In the glory days of punk rock, one could go from suburb to suburb and meet fierce young nonconformists who were, strangely enough, all wearing the same motorcycle jackets and the same Doc Martens, all sporting the same haircuts, all listening to the same music, all mouthing the same political slogans. A lot of those kids went on to be diversity officers at schools and corporations, and brought with them a notion of “diversity” that means “You can’t work at the Denver Post if you have unpopular political views.” The instinct for conformism is very strong.

And so it is fair to ask the superintendent in Barbers Hill how it is that bullying DeAndre Arnold into conformity with the fashion sense of the nation’s vice principals makes better students — or whether this is a case of a rule being enforced because somebody whose occupation it is to enforce such rules understands such rules to be self-justifying.

A side note: Fighting with the hair police (now a moot concern for me, alas) as a high-school newspaper editor was my introduction to journalistic controversy. The other thing I learned in high-school newspaper was that the spray adhesive we used to paste up newspaper pages could, if deployed in just the right way, create some pretty good dreadlocks. Funny old world.

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