I didn’t own a suit until I needed to buy one for my wedding day, and I was rather proud of myself. I had grown up despising ceremony and insisting that it impeded genuine personal expression. I had grown up under the spell of Romanticism, and had I known much about Rousseau, would probably have considered myself a rather noble savage. Even with my suit, I wore Dr Marten boots, and the wedding was a minimal registry office affair.
But despite all of my sub-Romantic ideology, I learned something that day. The ceremony did make a difference, and the part that made the biggest difference was the part that was fixed, the part which was nothing to do with self-expression. After years of sneering at ceremony, I had glimpsed civilisation. I had learned that there was something other than individualism or conformity.
I was struck yesterday by a comment on a blog post about behaviour, in which a teacher described formerly rebellious pupils who had finally got a decent haircut and some smart clothes after years of sloppiness in school: they wanted to get a job. Here we have the two poles of modern experience: anarchic individualism on the one hand, and grey conformity on the other. It is all in Rousseau: the savage has the pleasures of the natural life, but society demands that he surrender them in exchange for material prosperity and safety. Once he has conformed, he will still long for the state of nature. There is a fundamental contradiction between nature and society according to Rousseau, and the only two options are antinomian separation and grey, slavish submission.
So is that all we can hope for? Is there nothing better than pragmatic surrender to the inevitable? Is the grey suit the noblest garment that modern man can wear? Certainly if you look at male teachers nowadays, the grey suit is becoming ever more ubiquitous.
The twentieth century was a schizophrenic century, its split personality divided between the cane and conformity prior to the sixties, and the anarchy of self-expression afterwards. Are we moving back to the fifties? C S Lewis wrote in 1943 that ‘the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts’ (The Abolition of Man). If we tell our pupils that the point of education is merely to achieve material prosperity, we’re back in the desert again, after spending a few decades in the jungle. Is there no temperate climate for us to inhabit?
The answer lies at least partly in the academic gown. I have written before about why academic gowns should be brought back. The key idea here is that of the dignity of knowledge, which has nothing to do with the personality of the knower, which is entirely outside of himself, objective and external. A gown expresses the dignity of office, not the personal taste of the wearer. By definition, the wearing of gowns cannot be restored by individual teachers. It must be a corporate decision, so that it does not become yet another marker of individual choice.
If teachers were gowned, they would point by their very physical presence to something higher than mere conformity to practical necessity. They would be a sign of hope for escape from the solipsistic, narcissistic culture which offers only two types of prison to our young people. They would point to the belief of every generation prior to the modern era, that civilised society can contribute to man’s perfection.