Can One Teach Traditionally and yet Reject Tradition?

Hannah Arendt wrote in 1954 about the crisis in American education, where already children were being given autonomy and the idea of learning through play was beginning to dominate. It was clear to her that the progressive methods were failing to produce capable and knowledgeable citizens, and she asked the more fundamental question: why would a culture embrace methods so evidently in conflict with common sense? She asked the deeper question, pointing out that unless this were addressed, progressive methods would dominate perpetually, simply being reinvented and dressed up in new scientific terminology, but never truly rejected.

Her answer to this deeper question about modern Western culture is very revealing. She points out that in the modern world, tradition and authority are rejected, and the past is not seen as the model for the future. This rejection of tradition and authority is, in her view, right and proper in the ‘grown-up’ world. And yet it must not be allowed to influence education, if we want education to be effective, because education is intrinsically a conservative activity. It passes on a definite body of knowledge which must be mastered. Without that certainty, and without the authority of the previous generation backing it up, childhood autonomy and the resulting ignorance will prevail.

Arendt therefore insists that education remain conservative, even while the culture at large continues to reject tradition and the authority of the past.

But is this actually possible? Can it be expected that we should produce sufficient numbers of teachers who, while rejecting tradition personally, are happy to use it professionally, for a pragmatic goal? Will teachers be able to cope with the cultural, even moral, schizophrenia that such a position implies?

What I have noticed happening is that an increasing number of teachers are actually becoming more traditional in outlook. This should not surprise us, because we do often end up believing in what we practise.

Discipline is one area which makes this tendency clear. While the majority of British parents remain fairly liberal in the way they discipline their children, more and more schools are embracing a no excuses culture, and seeking to build traditional moral virtues such as fortitude and temperance in their pupils, although they will often avoid using words like ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’. Almost without realising it, or reflecting on it, their outlook is becoming increasingly traditional.

Schools are doing this because it actually works. And before long, teachers immersed in this professional culture may well begin to reflect on whether it works because it is based on a true understanding of human nature, while progressive methods are based on lies. But then again, words like ‘true’ and ‘lies’ are as difficult to use nowadays as words like ‘moral’ and ‘virtue’.

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