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On wearing neckties

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“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!

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10 Comments

  1. Kleiner says:

    A related note on the loss of cultural form:

    It is with regret that I am coming to accept my children calling my friends by their first names. I think my friend John Smith should be “Mr. Smith” to my children, not “John.” But our culture is so informal these days that most of my friends (out of, I am sure, a sincere desire to be friendly and accessible) introduce themselves to my children with their first name. And now that my children know so many of our friends by their first name, it is hard to imagine suddenly forcing them to shift gears. And I would seem like a pompous ass if I attempted to insist on my last name for others. It seems artificial to insist upon a form that is no longer present in our age.

    And yet, something is lost in this informality. Another instance of equality of default, a loss of custom that erodes any sense of seniority, of coming of age and the associated rites of passage that include how forms of address change over time as one matures (in Cotillion I was always “Master Kleiner”).

    In rebellion, maybe if I have ever have a son I will make him wear short pants until he gets to high school.

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  2. Beelzebub says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but it can backfire on you if you’re not careful, since clothes also signal something about how you view yourself and what you have staked out for yourself in terms of status. This doesn’t really conflict with what you’ve said. I’d be particularly careful with bow ties. They’re cute on boys, but on men they carry a distinct message of superciliousness. I think George Will and people in the financial industry, and some academics, wear them just to annoy others.

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    • Kleiner says:

      Supercilious? Perhaps. But I don’t worry much about coming off that way. I remember how to cuss and spit.

      Besides, I think I am better than those stuffed-shirt elitists.

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      • Beelzebub says:

        That would definitely send mixed messages.

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      • Beelzebub says:

        Come to think of it, don’t boxing referees wear bow ties?

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      • Indeed they do, though I think its more of the English/European tradition to do so, I’m not sure if other boxing countries wear a tie. With Martial arts events, most notably MMA, they wear more athletic gear due to having more to do than count or advise. You have to be prepared to get between people in a grapple. K-1 kickboxing/muai thai however does wear bowties, which I find a bit funny considering how violent that sport can be.

        Practicality and pragmatism still comes into play. I would never wear a suit or tie during my job at the bakery or construction site. Classrooms however are different matters.

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  3. Huenemann says:

    I am reminded of an essay by Norman Maclean (River Runs Through It) about what he knows about teaching. He says he only knows what his mother told him: always wear a tie. And now that you mention it, in the evaluations from my bigger classes, my facial hair always comes up (“how can he teach with that mustache?! It’s so distracting” and “awesome beard!”). Coincidentally, I’ve also learned recently how to tie a bow tie, and plan to wear one now and then. Beelzebub’s point is well-taken, and I shall wear mine only when I intend to be supercilious.

    Of course, I agree with Beneton in his characterization of our age (“pure indetermination, autonomy without a compass, liberty without a vocation”), and also deplore it (well, sort of), but I do not there are any live alternatives. We’re stuck in that rudderless condition.

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  4. I just finished Beneton’s book a few minutes ago and enjoyed it immensely. A graduate student in sociology, I cannot disagree with much of what Beneton argues about the eclipsing of forms in favor of procedure, especially as it relates to late modern postsecondary education. It’s frustrating, too, having to deal with the pretentious language and false neutrality that is so prevalent in all of the social or human sciences. It is difficult enough being a conservative in a predomninantly liberal institution, with little or no community; it pisses me off that so little of conservative political philosophy, or what Sowell might refer to as ideas deriving from the constrained vision of human nature, is taken seriously in academia. It’s maddening that in all of my undergraduate and graduate education I never once had an assigned reading of a conservative point of view on much of anything with the exception of some Mary Ann Glendon in a polisci course. Plenty of Marx, Berlin, Tribe, Chomsky, hooks (small ‘H’ is indicative of the age), but no Hayek, Mises, Bastiat, Bork, Sowell, Beneton or Revel. No wonder I thought I was a socialist for so long. Thank God for Barack Obama and the media; had it not been for the latter pushing the former, I would never have read Goldwater’s _The Conscience of a Conservative_ and started down the road to discovering those self-evident truths, or first principles, that are the foundation of Western civilization and culture.

    Happy,
    Diego Torres

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    • Kleiner says:

      Thanks for posting, Diego. And yes, being conservative (politically, culturally, etc) can make for some lonely times in the academe.

      Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently made some waves with a conference talk where he discussed the “statistically impossible lack of diversity” in the academe when it comes to the scarcity of conservatives in the social sciences. He noted that “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

      This article discusses Haidt and others who have studied this phenomenon:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08tier.html

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