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By Ralph Jemmott
The moderator on Brass Tacks read a letter purportedly from a young male student complaining that he wanted to go to school wearing his hair in plaits, but that his father was totally opposed to it. He expressed the view that his father had no right to forbid him wearing his hair in plaits because the Ministry of Education had apparently given approval for boys to wear the hairstyle of their choice.
Here is a case where there appears to be a disconnect between parental authority and a dictum of the State. In this case I think that the father’s right to insist that a boy living under his roof wear his hair and generally deport himself in a manner in accordance with the parents’ wishes supersedes any dictate coming from any Ministry of Education. I was told by a friend that when he was at school he told his father he wanted to wear his hair in locks. To which his father asked: ‘Yes? And live where?
I once had an argument with a third form girl who was contending that people should be allowed to wear their hair however they pleased. I asked her, ‘Suppose a heavily-dreadlocked man came to your house seeking work as a gardener… what do you think would be your mother’s response?’ She replied, ‘Oh Lord, my mudda would ketch a fit.’
I am very worried that the Ministry of Education, of all authorities, should seek to relax the code governing the hairstyle of males. Since then a number of boys are apparently now wearing their hair in plaits, braids and something called a ‘boy bun.’ Given the level of dysfunction currently showing up in young males, this is a grievous error.
We are told by a small but boisterous clique that we make too much fuss about hair… apparently anything should obtain. The reality is that certain ostensibly subcultural trends reflect more than a style. They have what one writer calls ‘a highly fetishistic appeal’ affecting adolescent behaviour long after the style has lost popularity. I am already hearing from teachers that since the ministry’s advisory, a ‘block bad-boy’, thug culture is appearing in some schools among boys where the old regulations governing male coiffure have been relaxed. If this is so, it would constitute another nail in the education coffin at a time when we say we are attempting to ‘reimagine’ Barbadian schooling.
One is amazed at the rate with which people in authority in Barbados are prepared to surrender cherished values to what a writer calls ‘callous youth…..ruthlessly appetitive and increasingly amoral’. Perhaps my generation was not much different, but the challenges are more problematic and the consequences more dire. Hence the term ‘moral panic,’ as an expression of adult concern may well be justified in the present circumstances.
The distinguished Caribbean intellectual Stuart Hall distinguishes between counterculture and subculture. Counterculture, he suggests, is represented in explicitly political and ideological forms in opposition to the dominant institutional culture. If I am reading him correctly ‘subcultures’ represent a more symbolic and superficial resistance to the dominant ethos. Hence maybe its appeal to young people by its largely fetishistic power. Hence the multiplicity of hairstyles, tattoos, body-piercing and the like. The fact that many celebrities with money and popularity adopt these styles only enhances the adolescent appeal.
There is much talk about good schools and bad schools. A ‘good’ school is any learning institution that has a recognizably high learning and behavioural culture where any conscientious parent can feel that his or her child will be safe, reasonably disinfected from societal evils and inclined to learn and keep learning. No school will be perfect because no school can totally escape ‘the unwholesome exhalations’ of the wider culture. Any school where drugs are sold and used, any school where bullying goes unchecked, and pilfering is rife, any school where students gamble on its premises and carry weapons of any kind is not a ‘good’ school. Information reaching me suggests that in varying degrees, there are elements of all these in our secondary system. Reform that.
Today, the schools and their directorships are ostensibly ceding moral authority to every Tom, Dick and Patsy. The consequences for males in particular could prove disastrous in that the subculture inclines many to reject the whole established status structure and ‘drop-out’ from conventional status competition becoming in Fanon’s words part of ‘the wretched of the earth’, unemployed, unemployable, prematurely indigent and perennially begging for reparations.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected, retired educator and commentator on social issues.