Should teachers come to school in jeans? The short answer is: “No.”
Yet earlier this month, the Haryana government withdrew a perfectly legitimate order directing teachers not to wear jeans at work. Political correctness and media ridicule forced the administration to take back its notification. That was a big mistake. Instead of uplifting teaching as a profession, this further confirmed its lowly status; in fact, put a lid on it.
Even in the United States, the Mecca of jeans, schools are not always happy when teachers walk in as if on a holiday, or a hike. There are several school boards, such as in New Jersey, Santa Ana, and Colorado, which have prohibited teachers from wearing jeans to class. There is good reasoning behind it; as most professionals go to office in formal work clothes, teachers should too. Otherwise it would be ridiculous; imagine a shabby teacher in jeans facing freshly bathed kids in clean school uniforms.
Red and romantic radicals should also note that in all portraits/busts of Vladimir Lenin, he is never shown without a suit and tie. Mao Zedong too was inseparable from his trademark jacket and Fidel Castro invariably wore his formal army gear to office. Exceptions, such as the casually attired Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs can hardly be an excuse. They are billion dollar, elevated showmen, who must flash-dance to project their wares.
On the other hand, check out photos of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, whose science made Apple, Google, and others, rich. You will nearly always find him formally attired with a necktie. Rare also would be a photograph of an open collared Albert Einstein or Bertrand Russell. This is actually quite the rule; most Nobel laureates, including our Amartya Sen, are always properly dressed in public. It’s time then to bury the myth that an untidy look hides a brilliant mind. This is about as true as finding gold in sea water.
When it’s all right for school teachers to be dishevelled in class, the message on the blackboard is clear. They don’t care and nobody cares for them. They can scream out their demands, but they are not going to happen. To correct this drag, the Third Republic in France, as early as in the 1880s, made sure that all teachers wore dark suits to work. They were respectfully called “les hussards noirs”, or “soldiers in black”, not guerrillas in jeans.
For the Third Republic leaders the logic was simple: If teachers looked respectable they would be respected. After all, these “soldiers in black”, in their dark suits, had an enormous task at hand. Their goal was to ensure that French children were as well, if not better, educated than Prussian kids next door. Ernest Lavisse, scholar-administrator of the Third Republic, believed that Prussia was militarily stronger than France because of their superior school education.
On account of the prestige that “soldiers in black” received, French schools began to attract some of the best minds. It was not uncommon for bright, ambitious intellectuals to seek a job in a school, or lycee, after earning their doctorates. Names reel out: Emile Durkheim, Jean Jaures, Merleu-Ponty, Sartre, Claude Levi Strauss; they were all school teachers before they became world scholars.
It is this background that explains why professors in College de France are certified French celebrities. Their inaugural lectures are pencilled on many a Parisian’s calendar as a major “must-be-seen-there” event. On a more mundane level, French teachers, of all descriptions, are allowed gratis entry to museums. Why, some even get coupons that serve them free coffee and meals in select restaurants.
Indian school teachers will never get there because they are not expected to. In fact, their clothes give the impression that they are forever in and out of pajama parties. It is not as if western clothes are the only formal option; a clean dhoti, a starched sari can equally evoke popular respect. This is because careful attention to office apparel, Indian or western, displays a certain rigour of mind and dedication to duty.
Therefore, what one dons to work should never be too comfortable. It is interesting that formal clothes in western societies are bodily restrictive, though not quite thrombotic. But they pinch in all the wrong places, particularly when the wearer’s posture slackens. It is as if these outfits are designed to force the person to stay awake and remain attentive.
In fact, after the Meiji Restoration, the emperor of Japan ordered that only western suits be allowed at work. But a carefully worn dhoti or sari, or the so-elegant sherwani, can be quite uncomfortable too, that is, if you want to keep them looking neat. However, for that to happen, the person must know the why and the when of formal clothing.
In Japan again, school teachers enjoy higher status than white collar employees in swishy private firms, and you will not find them wearing jeans. There are schools in that even insist on suits. Quite in keeping, Japanese teachers rank in prestige just after high court judges and corporate presidents. Rub your eyes on this one: A Japanese teacher commands more respect than a doctor and earns a starting salary higher than engineers.
In India, on the other hand, a government school teacher gets around `20,000 a month and most of those in private schools are paid even less. As their social status matches their salaries and the clothes they wear, they are often the butt of ridicule. This also explains the popular joke where a lazy child is admonished with the question: “Do you want to be a teacher when you grow up?”
In the current context, perhaps the question needs to be reframed: “Do you want to wear jeans to work when you grow up?”
Dipankar Gupta is an eminent sociologist and taught at JNU for nearly three decades
The views expressed are personal