On the virtues of tradition
Blog - On the virtues of tradition
Wednesday 30 January 2019
The 1960s Broadway musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ opens with the dairyman Tevye singing ‘Tradition’, lamenting the threats to his domestic patriarchal control and the cultural values that he holds dear. The musical charts the disintegration of Tevye’s world with his daughters defying his attempts to control them and Tevye himself forced to leave his village under threat of tsarist pogroms. So much for the value of tradition, swept away by the tide of events and individual freedom. Tevye’s song reminds us though of both positive and negative connotations of ‘tradition’. On the one hand repressive patriarchy, on the other the rich cultural heritage of belonging to a community.
The current debate in this country’s education system between those teachers who espouse the importance of the transmission of knowledge, amongst whom I count myself, and those who favour the socio-constructivist approach to education where children are encouraged to discover and learn through deduction, has often been characterised as a debate between traditionalists and progressives, for example in this recent piece by Jonathan Simons, which celebrates the fact that there is such debate.
That label ‘traditional’, used in the context of education, deserves some careful consideration lest in accepting the category we miss important nuances both about what it denotes and connotes. Often those commenting critically about teaching which focuses upon the transmission of knowledge will use the shorthand descriptor ‘traditional’ alongside phrases such as ‘chalk and talk’ and of course references to Dickens’ character Gradgrind. These associations clearly have negative power in a community whose concern for being child-centred has long been normative.
Yet when I speak to parents and prospective parents about our Bennett curriculum, the virtue of talking about a ‘traditional’ curriculum is rapidly apparent. They readily identify with the term and can articulate that this is precisely the high value public knowledge that they know will open doors for their child. For them Matthew Arnold’s defence of an education in the ‘best of what has been thought and said’ rings true. So we probably should not be surprised then that Ofsted directly quote Arnold in their new inspection handbook when framing accountability about the ‘intent’ of any curriculum and its capacity to give children cultural capital. Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that it is the curriculum offered by schools that is the key factor in whether or not they enable social mobility, as this research seems to indicate.
The word tradition itself comes to us from Latin. It is a so-called noun of action, referring to the process of handing something on. The word was used in Roman law to denote the handing over of an object, for example a set of keys or a clod of land as part of a transaction. On Sunday I was reminded of the significance of such handing on in the passage from the Gospel according to St Luke that I heard. Luke, opening his account of the Gospel, writes to Theophilus: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Two things in what Luke writes resonated with me in particular in reflecting about my understanding of tradition and our role in passing on knowledge in schools; his concern to ensure an ‘orderly’ account and for his account to result in ‘certainty’. These seem to me to be important tests and processes to apply to any knowledge that we teach.
The first speaks of the importance of the sequence in which we build knowledge in the mind. Order is needed so that knowledge coheres. This seems to fit with what cognitive science is telling us about the formation of schemata, where presenting to-be-learned information in an orderly way which does not overload working memory results in better learning. Of course humans through time have built such sequences and order into the discipline of subjects; teachers’ pedagogy ought surely to capitalise on that?
Luke is also concerned with certainty. Here he is clearly thinking about matters of faith which may seem alien to a discussion about teaching and school curriculum, but I would contend that this is directly relevant to the work of teachers in passing on knowledge. The knowledge that we pass on to students needs to have explanatory power. It cannot just be declarative knowledge learned for its own sake, isolated and disconnected. It must enable the development of understanding both of the world and of my part in it. Luke is also concerned to take responsibility for that which he passes on to Theophilus, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” The transmitter must be concerned to give the best account possible as witness to that knowledge.
So what of those voices who suggest that a concern for traditional definitions of curriculum and teaching risks blunting creativity or enforcing an illiberal world view on children’s minds? My response is to point to the role of knowledge in both enabling creativity and challenging the powerful. Some of the most creative and experimental minds of the past were those who had mastered the traditional knowledge of their discipline and used this to leap forward, whether that be Pablo Picasso, who began to receive formal academic training as an artist from his father from the age of seven, or Isaac Newton who identified his debt to fellow scientists and mathematicians with the acknowledgement, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Those icons of 20th Century liberation struggles Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi both studied formally as lawyers, using that knowledge to empower their struggle. One of the foremost champions of feminism in our public eye at present is Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her 2017 publication ‘Women and Power’, is a manifesto for the re-definition of power which uses her extensive knowledge of the Classical past to shed light on and call out the way women have been silenced.
So tradition enables us to develop knowledge and orient ourselves in our world. While it may provide us with a necessary fixed point for the departure that is our own exploration of meaning and identity, surely the greatest significance of tradition lies in the other direction in offering us a shared narrative of our common existence. This serves to show us that we are bound together in community and that without one another we are nothing. This shared language is surely vital in drawing society together? At the epicentre of this for me as a Christian, to borrow the words of the theologian Yves Congar, is a view of tradition as “the very principle of the whole economy of salvation”; such is a tradition that we should accept through reason.