I was once asked to provide a definition of traditional teaching in one tweet, and I described it as ‘knowledge for the mind, and discipline for the will’. A traditional teacher sees their role as primarily the transmission of valuable knowledge and secondarily the formation of good habits. These two goals involve a struggle against the natural ignorance and arrogance of the human race. Education is a battle against nature, not an embracing of its providential designs.
Forming Good Habits
Knowledge cannot be acquired without good habits. A pupil who does not concentrate, who does not work hard, who interrupts teachers and peers, will remain both ignorant and arrogant. In order for knowledge to be acquired, egotism must be overcome; the pupil must begin to realise how ignorant he is and that others know far more than he does; he must realise that in order to obtain the knowledge which his superiors have mastered, a long, hard struggle will be needed.
A rigorous programme of academic study develops all four of the great human virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. A pupil must make prudent decisions about how to spend his time best; he must do justice to his teacher by obeying instructions and showing gratitude for the gift of knowledge; he must be temperate, especially in his speech; he must show fortitude if he is to persevere in mastering academic subjects thoroughly.
These virtues are not acquired overnight, any more than a thorough knowledge of history is to be obtained by reading a few articles on Wikipedia. They are acquired by a persistent effort to overcome egotism, by repeated practice under the guidance of authoritative instruction. To stand much chance of acquiring them, we need a community in which these virtues are viewed as the norm, and in which there are public consequences for being imprudent, unjust, intemperate or cowardly.
Humanity is something which we must struggle to acquire under the guidance of an authoritative community, not something we are born with. This is much easier to understand when one is involved in the raising of children, especially when they are younger. It is abundantly clear to a parent of young children that they are struggling to acquire the habits of their tribe. They are imitating the speech and the actions of their elders. Without an authoritative example to follow and without the struggle to imitate that example, they would not reach maturity.
Walking and talking are universal accomplishments for ordinary members of the human race. They are remarkable accomplishments; they are cognitive feats which are achieved through much struggle and repeated practice. They can be learned by most people without formal instruction, however, because the normal child is surrounded by examples and receives rapid feedback on mistakes, either because his words are not understood or because he falls flat on his face.
Even these most universal of human accomplishments cannot be described as natural. To be human is to learn from others, to depend upon others, to submit to the authoritative example of others within a community, in order to grow and mature.
This is even more true when we come to formal academic instruction, which opens new vistas to the mind which are outside immediate experience. Reading and writing are not universal. Writing with an alphabet which represents the sounds of speech is quite a recent invention in the whole span of human history. It is a remarkably flexible and useful one, which opens up vast new possibilities for knowledge and understanding. But in order to acquire it, formal instruction is required. Children may prefer to run around and play with mud and sticks. They should certainly have time for doing such things. But they will never learn to read by doing them. To learn to read, they must submit to authority and work hard under the guidance of instructors.
The traditional teacher recognises the importance of formal instruction, but also recognises its limits. He makes a clear distinction between work and play. Work requires self-discipline and effort. There is a place for play, once work has been completed. But they must not be muddled with each other, or neither one will be properly appreciated.
The traditional teacher works intensively to transmit the knowledge which the child requires to be inducted into the adult community. He sees in the child a human being that is not yet fully formed, and accepts the responsibility of forming the mind of that child by introducing him to the great human accomplishments in literature, history, science and mathematics.
Life is so much simpler when you recognise that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. That work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring. As Aristotle wrote long ago, ‘happiness does not consist in amusement’.
A traditional understanding of education means that both teacher and pupil know that they are doing something serious and important, on which the continuation of human civilisation depends. Everything they are doing has a purpose, and it is a purpose which goes beyond mere individual gratification, and raises every person to full human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.