A private school is not a democracy

Let’s say, I get a vision from the Lord Jesus to start a private Christian school to teach Christian girls the gospel and functional life skills. The vision and the school evolve into a full-scale Christian institution teaching a wide variety of subject areas and becomes renowned for excellence; all the while the mission being the promotion and inculcation of Christ’s teachings and values as a foundation on which to prepare pupils for the world and to evangelize it. Non-Christians are intrigued by the school’s academic success and want to send their children to my institution. They however do not wish to conform to the rules and values on which the school is built – rules such as mandatory bible study, reciting of bible verses as part of exams, going out into the community to evangelize, the requirement for clothing to be at least 3 inches below the knee and that absolutely no cleavage must be visible, etc. etc. Instead they insist and demand that these rules be relaxed to accommodate their ‘liberal’ preferences.

A similar scenario could obtain for a Muslim person who starts a Muslim school and because of its success, non-Muslims want to attend but they insist that requirements to go to midday prayer or to wear head gear is a breach of their human rights, even though the mission of the school is to use the Muslim philosophy to prepare persons for the world.

Really?

These are not public institutions where in our democracy you are supposed to have a say – through your political representative, consultation or protest – on how things are shaped. These are private schools that have a particular focus and foundation for their genesis and operation. Yes these schools operate within a legislative and social context but you really ought to base your choice to attend a private school on your agreement with the said school’s values and rules.

That being said, yes, some schools may have rules that don’t make sense to you – one rule that I personally can’t figure is the requirement to have the uniform skirt so long that it almost touches the shoe! If however I choose to send my child to that institution (for other compelling reasons) then I will simply have to purchase the floor sweeping skirts and ensure my daughter is as comfortable as possible. It is part of the values of obedience and respect for rules and order that today seem limiting, ugly and archaic.

Now unto the matter of hair grooming

Racism has no place in a public or private institution. Requiring girls to straighten or ‘tame’ their natural hair for school is racist. It is a thinking that comes from the idea that the more we imbibe white features, the more beautiful and professional we are. Nonsense – archaic, racist and sad nonsense. What’s more is that in multicultural environment that requirement is clearly discriminatory since it is largely Black girls who would be required to change their appearance. On the other hand, requiring ALL boys – White, Black, Chinese, Jewish, Hispanic etc. – to cut their hair because it is the school’s preference is not racist. It is a rule. Follow it or choose another school without such rules. Or homeschool for that matter.

Consider the military – a clean cut is a requirement for all males and all have to obey. It has nothing to do with the texture of the hair or race. Yes, as a people, we still struggle with accepting our appearance – hence the incessant bleaching, straightening of the hair, the stitching in of elongated tresses and plastic surgery activities – but let’s not confuse order with self hate and racism. The prep / private school in question’s rule to have all boys’ hair cut is not evil or racist. If the rule is levied against some but not others then that’s a problem. If disrespectful unfounded comments are made about cleanliness and lice, that is also a problem. But on the question of if the rule is racist or not, it is not. Outdated to some? Maybe. But not evil, wrong or racist.

My natural hair is big and curly…and I like to wear it brown. Sometimes a huge afro, other times a Mohawk haircut. I have worked at the highest offices of the land, in the region and with international organizations and my hair has never been a problem. If there was a requirement for my hair to be flattened or straightened for my job, I would not have accepted the offer to work at those particular places. I would however choose to protest the rule privately and publicly based on what I consider discrimination, since the rule cannot be evenly applied across races. Additionally, there were rules that had more to do with my clothing than my head; rules such as no sleeve-less attire etc. I didn’t like the rule – but I abided by it. I carried a jacket and wore a scarf to go with the numerous sleeveless dresses that I wore. Why? Because when I accepted the offer to work at these places, the rules were clearly outlined and discussed and I agreed.

Is there no room for challenging rules?

Of course there is. That is how we grow and change. Rules have always been challenged and some rules ought to be challenged when they no longer serve us, but until the rule is changed – we can’t simply do as we please. There must be compliance. That is how society, full of flaws as it is, maintains some modicum of law and order.

So back to the example of the floor sweeping school skirts…even though I would comply with the rule, I would respectfully through building relationships with the PTA and school administration, request meetings and discussions and make an evidence-based case for the possibility of a change to that rule, if I feel that strongly about it. You see, at the core of it, I would agree with the school’s position and value of modesty but may have a different point of view on how that value is executed. If you don’t believe in modesty at all, then you really ought not to be trying to have your child attend that institution.

On a national level, all of us have a right to participate in the national democratic process and insist that policies are developed for public schools that serve us at this stage in our development as a nation. In those policies we can insist that hair-grooming be an individual (or parental)choice and not be determined by a school administration. We can exercise that right and point of view in our democracy. But when it comes to private schools, even though the government determines the broad framework for operating, you can’t dictate its everyday rules and regulations, even though it operates within the democracy. You can discuss, recommend and request but not dictate. Because the fact of the matter is that even though it is the system of democracy that makes private schools possible, private schools are themselves not a democracy, thankfully. God forbid, a group of atheists who admire the academic prowess of my hypothetical private Christian school insist that I stop scheduling bible classes and prayer, so that they can feel more comfortable to attend. Really? God forbid. And in our democracy, they too can be thankful that my private school isn’t the only option; that there are other schools that are more suited to cater to their particular desires.

Mother of three, Shelly-Ann Harris is an author, communication specialist and the Editorial Director at Family and Faith Magazine. Follow her on twitter @harrisshellyann or comment below.

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