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The College Tie: On Dressing for Work

By RJ Snell on Friday, Apr 9 2010

In one of his many brilliant essays, "The Alma Mater and the Necktie," Philippe Beneton suggests that the loss of the necktie (or equivalent) in the academic context indicates "equality by default" and neglects a sense of the seriousness and importance of the activity.

What does it matter what is worn to teach? From a standpoint of utility one can wear just about anything (and with online education maybe not even that) with little or no consequence to the performance of the task. So why is this relevant? We all know you buy a suit for the job interviews and never wear it again, right? In fact, we keep it in the same closet as the pipe we bought during our sophomore year to express our academic credentials.

Forms, Beneton states, reveal distinctions "among activities, times, ways of being," and in ordered work one does not dress "in the same way for a ceremony as for a picnic"; the tie-wearing professor who refuses to "consider everything as equivalent . . . is saying that this activity is worth a certain seriousness."

Since the task of teaching is not reducible to data transmission but includes teaching "attitudes of the intellect," respect for dress goes along with the forms that "make up the habitus required for intellectual life." If one respects the humanistic understanding of knowledge, which is not simply knowledge transfer, one wears a tie, he states.

I'm especially intrigued by his claim that the in world of equality by default "virtues, customs, and forms recede in favor of methods, rules, and procedures." An interesting statement: the "uniform" of academic regalia or even just the necktie doesn't depersonalize nearly as much as wearing whatever one wishes—if dress is one's own business, "an expression of the Self," "autonomous," one might expect this to express one's own personality, but doing so reveals a tryranny of method and procedures which govern the transmission of data and the institution rather than the customs and vritues which encourage and allow the encounter of persons in a relationship of a certain form. The form allows the persons to act as persons, the formless allows Selves to operate within a technique (the pajama-clad online instructor as evidence?).

I wonder if I can ask my Dean for a clothing budget? It is, apparently, for the good of the student.