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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Shopping for Truth: Stringent requirements beg us to bend them

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg

I often think I really am a product of eighat years of Catholic school.

For those eight years, I was told what to wear and how to wear it. I was one of those Catholic girls in the uniform skirt, the uniform pants, the high heels and knee highs. And no, it wasn’t the cute version that Britney Spears portrayed in her “Baby One More Time” video.

During middle school I wore that plaid, pleated skirt and vest, and I wore it with some semblance of acceptance. I’ve always been a girly girl, so wearing the skirt wasn’t that big a deal. But the length of the skirt certainly was.

And so was the height of the heels. I’m not kidding when I say our teachers would literally walk around with a ruler and measure our high heels and skirts to make sure they were the “proper” height and length.

Sure, we could wear a skirt and we could wear high heels, but they had to be worn a certain way; in other words, there was only a semblance of freedom.

But then high school arrived, and with it came those ugly unisex uniform pants. I swear they made them so that nobody would notice we had figures.

Before my sister’s class, the girls were allowed to wear skirts and dress shirts that they bought themselves, but that were “proper” looking. Well, the nuns determined they weren’t so proper when they wore them so short. And so, in came the unisex pants.

They came in three colors, creating the illusion of choice. But they all shared the same level of ugliness.

Let me just state for the record that I HATED that uniform. I couldn’t wait to be a senior in my last few weeks of school when I could wear my “own” clothes. Besides those weeks, the only time I had for that was the weekends and “tag days” when students paid money to wear non-uniform clothes.

Come on, paying to wear your own clothes? How cheesy can you get? You have to pay to buy the clothes, isn’t that enough?

I’ve always had a mixed opinion about the tradition of uniforms. On the one hand, uniforms teach students to look beyond the physical; they encourage us to accept everyone for who they are. They show us that everyone is the same. If we’re not all competing to wear designer clothes and judging each other when somebody can’t afford them, the world is supposed to be a better place.

But here’s where the flowery prose and idealism comes to an end. Everyone isn’t the same. Everyone is unique and some of us like to wear more pink in the span of a week than some people will wear in a lifetime.

This is why every time I’m told I have to wear something, I get annoyed. In my opinion, dress codes where the rules are a bit less strict are better. And with the recent debates going around about university requirements and the future of academics at Brandeis, I’ve started to reminisce about my uniform-wearing days.

Uniforms, like university requirements, give students a way out, allowing them to forfeit sometimes difficult decisions. Who hasn’t had the experience of standing in front of their drawers and agonizing over what to wear? Furthermore, who hasn’t been frustrated trying to figure out how to fulfill their university requirements?

To me, the word “uniform” symbolizes a lack of choice; a mistaken assumption that one size fits all. Well, sorry, but unisex pants actually don’t look good on everyone, and neither do requirements.

The point of Brandeis’ and many other school’s general requirements is to develope a liberal arts education. And this kind of education is extremely valuable. It’s one of the many reasons why so many students, including myself, chose to attend Brandeis. Having a broad background in many subjects enriches the intellect and one’s prospects in the job market.

But what about those instances where we meet a requirement or a uniform that just doesn’t fit right? What if science is your extra large, baggy sweatshirt that you desperately roll up, trying to make it look less geeky? What if writing is your pair of unisex pants that you try to fit into, but no matter how hard you try, they just end up looking stupid?

Brandeis is currently undergoing major changes, as we all know. Perhaps thinking about what we hated about our high school experiences will teach us a thing or two about what we can change so that we can love our college experiences.

For instance, if three years of required high school science wasn’t enough time for me to make up my mind, I don’t think one semester of science is going to turn me into Albert Einstein.

If you’re like me, you dread fulfilling two or more of your general requirements. For me, it’s science and quantitative reasoning. You could also throw creative arts in there, but that’s the lesser of the three fashion faux pas in this case.

There are, admittedly, many classes available for students who don’t fit into the one size fits all category. These are the classes every student knows and takes grudgingly. They most often don’t get anything out of them except for a notation on their transcript.

But then there are the students who learn to love a subject because they were forced to take it. These are positive instances, but not the norm.

But then there are some classes like biology that are deemed “writing intensive” because they incorporate writing into the subject.

Tailoring university requirements to the area students are interested in seems to me the perfect way to encourage students to step outside of the box. Maybe if students who hate writing learn to love it by writing about biology or chemistry, they’ll be better for it. Or maybe students who dread taking foreign languages will fall in love with them in a film class.

In my case, I’m a writer, a communicator. I’m many things, but scientist is not one of them. Maybe I would like science more if it were intimately related to my field of interest – journalism. Maybe I’d still hate it. Who knows? But I’d be more willing to approach it from an angle I’m interested in. And I have a feeling that a lot of other people would feel the same way.

Having such stringent rules just begs for students to bend the rules. Now while this is more difficult when a college diploma is riding on a certain class, it doesn’t mean that the requirements are swallowed happily.

You see, I was too afraid to bend the rules back then. So I wore that stupid uniform grudgingly every single long day of the week. I looked like an idiot, too.

Abandoning a requirement is not what is called for here, it’s tailoring it more to students’ passions. It’s recognizing that not every scientist likes to write, not every writer can handle a test tube.

Rather than making everyone take a science or a language class, maybe we should incorporate a piece of every person into the distribution requirements.

This is what, after all, makes life interesting – our diversity. And when students fear requirements, the learning goal is null and void already.

It’s a paradox because with more choice comes more difficulty, but with less choice comes more frustration. Is there really a way around it?

Maybe. It seems like a less stringent dress code is what’s in order here. After all, if there’s one thing Catholic school taught me, it’s that nobody wants to be caught wearing those unisex pants.