Tag Archives: Traditionalist

Tradition vs Progress: a True Dichotomy

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Dichotomy: A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different OED

I keep seeing references from people, too numerous to mention, that traditional and progressive can happily co-exist as, in reality, it is a false dichotomy. There is a problem in this argument and that is tradition and progress are as dichotomous as they come!

Dichotomy comes from the Greek for ‘cutting in half’. A dichotomy can be false if it is proved that there are more possibilities or that the sides have more in common than not.

‘Tradition’ tradicion was mentioned in the Wycliffe Bible in 1382 in the sense of a belief, custom or practice being handed down. It is drawn from the Latin trāditiōnem, meaning ‘delivery, surrender, a handing down’.

Whereas ‘progress’ way back in 1425 meant a forward movement, from the Latin prōgressus meaning to go forward. Progressive is first noted as meaning advocating reform in political or social matters in 1884. In education its use as meaning “that of aiming to develop the abilities and interests of pupils rather than fitting them to a given curriculum” * is first seen as early as 1839 and was later popularised by John Dewey in the 1920s.

Tradition means from the past, progress means toward the future. Traditional is conservative in the sense of keeping things the same; progressive is radical in the sense of reforming things. Conservatives and reformists have been engaged in ideological battles for centuries in many different societies around the world. Even socialists can be conservative or reformist, look at the battle for the heart of the Labour Party with the ‘traditional’ heart of the Party currently being claimed by the Corbynistas whilst the ‘modernisers’ argue for reform.

In education traditionalists argue for the centrality of subject and progressives argue for the centrality of the child. The traditionalists see the importance of a body of knowledge being handed down and the progressives want to shape a personalised curriculum around the perceived needs of each child. The progressives look to the future and want to endow every child with the skills needed for the 21st Century and traditionalists want to endow every child with knowledge about the ‘greatest that has been thought, said and done’.

The argument about ‘factory schools’ not being centred on the needs of the child, too many tests, pupils being stressed out is made by progressives; the argument that child centred teaching and learning has led to a nation with too many illiterate and innumerate young adults is made by traditionalists.

However, as a teacher one can ‘use’ ideas and methods which are progressive or traditional this doesn’t mean the dichotomy is false, the opposition of ideas remains and the contradictions involved are worth thinking through.

In every classroom throughout the land decisions are made that imbue that class in being more one than the other. If you do project based learning, following the interests of the child, you are breaking tradition; if you insist that children follow a curriculum full of great books you are keeping the tradition alive. If you don’t care about the quality of the books by arguing ‘who says they are great?’ you are flying in the face of tradition and if you say: ‘how do we know what skills will be needed in the future?’ you are undermining the progressivist cause.

Parliamentary democracy has tried to bring the progressive and the conservative together in a political settlement, in the UK this is seen clearly in the House of Commons where Conservatives face Progressives (though I have already argued these schisms run through the Labour Party as they do the Conservatives). The Conservative/Liberal coalition did great damage to the electoral performance of the LibDems with many people accusing them of selling out, many on the far left look at centrist figures on the left and accuse them of being Tories, the dichotomy is real and it gives shape to our ideals and expression to our values. Although you can try to bring the sides together, you will tend to be more one than the other, rather than having a lot in common with each other one is destroyed by the other, with tradition being pessimistic because it is the side that always takes the biggest losses.

Progress happens and tradition gets destroyed. Optimism pervades the progressive cause, pessimism the traditionalist one. As soon as iPads are brought into a classroom you don’t bring the values of progression and tradition together, you destroy tradition. As soon as you knock down the houses in your old Victorian Street you destroy tradition. As soon as you build the houses in the countryside you destroy tradition. As soon as you bring in Votes for the Workers, for Women, you destroy tradition. As soon as you cut the head off the King, you destroy tradition. There is no halfway, no both together. Tradition has to regroup and, maybe, absorb ‘progress’.

But every now and then tradition puts the brakes on reform and starts to restore the way things were: linear exams, knocking down tower blocks, but other reforms remain and tradition tries to bring the sides together enveloping radical ideas like  civil partnerships into the more traditional idea of marriage but this is clearly a progressive step and angers some who see it destroying what is at the centre of their values. Bring back the cane! Centre the curriculum on Bible studies!

The central problem for those who say that tradition vs progress is a false dichotomy is this: the classroom can’t be both subject centred and child centred. You can try to bring the subject to the child, or the child to the subject but this is just trying to sell the tradition or even lie to the child by making it look as though they have some control, though they palpably do not; or you can put the child at the centre and let them dictate their own learning. There is no halfway house.

Values and ideals are important, for without them, what are we? So the next time someone argues that progress and tradition are a false dichotomy, think why would they argue this? They are either lying and are using this argument to hide the fact that they are either on one side or the other. They might be saying ‘what works’ or ‘the evidence says’ but in their classroom it is clear that they belong to one side or the other… or it might be that they have given up on their values altogether and have sold out to pure instrumentalism and are letting the machine drive them like a driverless car, no longer caring about what happens to the children in their care, they follow the data and make all their decisions based on that. In this case the decision they have made to wash their hands of the dilemma and only obey the orders handed down to them, means that the decisions on the dichotomy between tradition and progress are made by other people.

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

GK Chesterton

*Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

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