As both Yahoo News and Salon have recently reported, high school graduate Chelsey Ramer has been fined $1000 dollars by her high school for wearing an eagle feather on her mortarboard during her graduation ceremony. The school is also withholding her diploma. According to Ramer, who is a member of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians, the feather is both a symbol of her faith and her culture, but the school is making no allowances. Sadly, this has happened in Alabama, a state rich in oppressive history, and also the site of many racially charged tragedies. You’d think that a school in this region would be more sensitive to issues of prejudice and intolerance, but that may be expecting too much. According to the school authorities, school policy forbids “extraneous items” during graduation ceremonies. Perhaps the meaning of the word has been misconstrued. The word means ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unrelated’, but since the object in question does relate and is relevant to Ramer, it should be allowed.
This type of intolerance on the part of school is not new. Attorney Jason Bach, a member of the Education Litigation Group, which represents students in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Austin, claims that this is an example of “institutional arrogance”. Educational institutions either create or inherit rules, hand them down blindly, and then apply them absolutely. According to Bach, this process is “convenient for the schools,” who “won’t have to make judgment calls if they have a rule they can apply brainlessly.” The problem is, these rules alienate students and reflect a degree of intolerance that mirrors imperialistic assimilatory practices and mentalities.
Another recent high school graduate, Kaitlin Noothbaar, is having her diploma held back after she gave a valedictorian speech that included the word “hell”. Noothbaar’s father, according to Time, says her “quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’” Apparently Oklahoma’s Prague High School doesn’t believe in freedom of speech and has a higher standard for language than do most churches (I recall hearing the word ‘hell’ a lot in church; not even Puritans are this strict). Despite graduating with a 4.0, the school refuses to release Noothbaar’s diploma unless she offers an apology to the school. It seems that there is one more lesson that the school would like to teach Noothbaar before she leaves: You will, in life, find yourself under the authority of an unreasoning tyrant. Deal with it.
Other instances of militant application of trivial rules: Justin Denney was sent back to his seat without a diploma after he bowed and blew a kiss to his family. In Cincinnati, high school senior Anthony Cornist saw his diploma retained by the high school because of ‘excessive’ cheers from his family at the graduation ceremony. Denney is now being asked to perform 20 hours of community service by the school, which is refusing to give him his diploma until he complies. And such aggressive application of the rules is not present only at graduation ceremonies. A track-and-field relay team was disqualified for ‘excessive celebration’ when one of its members pointed to the sky after winning a race.
While such strident application of regulations can be annoying, what is even more troubling is how it can alienate various groups of people, be they ethnic groups, religious groups, or people who identify as a member of another marginalized group. In Quebec, soccer players have been banned from wearing turbans. Damian Garcia, a transgendered high school graduate who identifies as male, was not permitted to wear the black graduation robe designated or male graduates, as the school insisted that he wear the white robe worn by female graduates.
I attended neither my high school graduation nor my university graduation. Frankly, I didn’t see the point. I don’t recognize the school’s authority over me, though I understand the influence of having an education on success in the working world. One will struggle to succeed without the proper credentials; indeed, one will struggle even with the proper credentials. In classes, I did my best, but the grade I was given meant nothing to me personally; I was only concerned that my grades be good enough to graduate and get into the programs I wanted to attend. The professors and teachers I worked with were not people I knew beforehand. I had no reason to lend them authority over me, and though I did have great respect for most teachers I worked with, there were more than a couple who were utterly unqualified and/or lacked the skill set required to teach. I did not perceive these people as having authority over me. I was paying for my education, and so they were, in my eyes, working in the service industry and providing me with a service for which I was paying a great deal of money. For institutions like high schools or universities to extol such tyranny over their students is appalling. Such behaviour demonstrates how little educational institutions respect students, whilst hypocritically expecting the students to offer blind and unquestioning deference that these schools simply, in many instances, do not deserve.
Part of the problem is the private school system in America. Because these are businesses rather than public entities, they make up whatever rules they like and apply them as they see fit. If these schools wish to practice assimilatory regulations that devalue diversity, then they are free to do so, and if students have an issue with that, then they can go to another school. The problem is that most other private school have similar practices and the public school system isn’t as well funded as the private school system. Coupled with that, it is generally much harder for public school students to get into good colleges in America. These places should be embracing diversity and teaching tolerance; instead, they are breeding ignorance while parents and students alike simply accept it. If parents were willing to put as much into the public school system as they do into the private school system, these things wouldn’t be an issue, but it seems very few people are willing to challenge the system. Hence, we have no reason to be optimistic that schools such as these will change their practices and embrace diversity. The tyranny of institutional arrogance seems free to continue for the foreseeable future.