“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society” – Mark Twain
I recently read an excellent book by Phillippe Beneton called “Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement.” Equality by default is “founded on an idea of man which breaks with all the humanism of the West. Man is pure indetermination, autonomy without a compass, liberty without a vocation, he is what he makes himself.” We have more rights in the modern age and our culture is more egalitarian, but we find ourselves dispossessed. Modern man finds himself emptied out and isolated. Since autonomy and liberty have become absolute values, and culture has been “deconstructed” and relativized to death, we have no bearings remaining to find our way. This, then, gives rise to a mechanistic understanding of the person and society as “virtues, customs, and forms recede in favor of methods, rules, and procedures.”
One chapter applies this view to academic dress (an essay called “The Alma Mater and the Necktie”). The problem with the loss of the necktie (and the general shabby dress of most academics these days), is that the loss of form leads to a loss of seriousness on the part of everyone involved in the education process. These forms (culturally inherited norms around dress and such things) help us to see distinctions “among activities, times, ways of being”. The academic who dresses in the proper form rejects the idea that everything is equivalent, that going to class is no more serious an affair than going to see a movie. The proper form of dress, then, helps to communicate the seriousness and nobility of the experience of philosophical inquiry and wonder to the student. After all, teaching is about more than transmitting information to students. Teaching also concerns teaching “attitudes of the intellect”. So, Beneton says, respect for proper academic dress help cultivate the “habitus required for intellectual life”.
One rather surprising claim – it is actually less de-personalizing to wear a “uniform” than to wear whatever one wants. When we wear whatever we want, he suggests, we make it more difficult to develop certain forms of personal relationships and to see distinctions between different activities and ways of being.
I think Beneton is really on to something with this view. One of the things I have learned from teaching large classes (150-200 students) is that form matters. In such classes, it is impossible to develop personal relationships with more than a handful of students. As such, many students make all sorts of judgments and pre-judgments about the instructor and even the discipline he teaches based on how the instructor walks into the room, what they wear, how they speak, etc. As a concrete example, I am always surprised by how often my beard comes up in my evaluations.
I have always dressed pretty well to teach, but have considered wearing a tie for some time. In particular, I have often considered wearing a bow tie. I like the bow tie because of how it looks, but I also have fond memories of them. I grew up wearing bow ties to Cotillion for many years as a child and young man. (Cotillions are ballroom dancing lessons – we learned to dance, boys learned to bow, girls learned to curtsy, we learned formal table manners and social graces, this sort of a thing).
Anyway, the Beneton essay put me over the top. Beneton is right, it is not up to me what I wear. To think it is entirely up to me is to think that I have liberty without vocation, autonomy without a compass, that I am whatever I make myself. The tie says NO to all of this modern autonomous nonsense. So, then, the tie and the bow tie will be my little contribution, the little blow I strike, against the culture of autonomy. Take that!