What Is a Traditional Teacher?


Illustration of the twelve teachers of wisdom in Dante’s Paradiso, by Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482)

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. The philosophy that Hirsch has labelled ‘providential individualism’ must be rejected.

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.

Transmitting Knowledge

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 accomplishments; they are more artificial than speaking and walking; that is to say, they are more uniquely human. 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 and write by doing them. To learn to read and write, 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 who 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 one recognises that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. Hard work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring.

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 real human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.


8 thoughts on “What Is a Traditional Teacher?

  1. Superb piece, Anthony. Yes, as you say, ‘human-ness’ is something that we acquire; it’s not innate. I want to do more thinking/writing on the cardinal virtues: this seems a very under-appreciated area, to me. For example, what do prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice look like in practice? What examples from literature, history – dare I say it – or the Bible would we use to illustrate them? Then what vocabulary do we use to keep going back to them? They to be habitualised so the frequency of exposure is key, as is the clarity of the message. Always enjoy your writing – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will always be eternally grateful to my parents for helping me develop my sense of self-discipline. Whether it was loss of privileges, allowance, having things taken away or never purchased, it all helped me figure out that failure was not an option and self-disciplining oneself hurt a lot less than discipline.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Reflections on Existence and Teaching | From guestwriters

  4. For me, education is much longer than that encompassed within the school years. Much you have written works, but depersonalise more, for this work we do is not about the teacher at all. In the early years, the child does not have that sense of purpose. Learning is not linear either, and the biggest and best of those that shine as adults are often the runts of the litter when at school. It’s also so often the case that the best performers are the busiest, in and out of class; adults around them need to cut them the slack so the breadth as well as depth can be achieved. Tradition needs to be informed, be dynamic too; when I commenced headship in 1981, the job came with a cane!


    • No one would disagree that we continue learning into adulthood, and that people learn at different rates. Nevertheless, the role of the teacher is vital, especially to those who gain little cultural capital outside school. If we do not take them seriously, and take our role seriously, many of our pupils will miss their only opportunity to gain a foundation in literature, history, science and mathematics.


  5. Hi Anthony,

    I really enjoy reading your writing because it is (apologies for the pejorative nature of this term) hardline. But by that I mean your are uncompromising in the way you explain your thoughts. I also like the fact that your blogs are so short.

    I was just reading a few twitter exchanges you were having with someone on whether pupils can challenge authority. I really can’t understand how to discuss stuff in 140 char so..

    1. Most teachers don’t realise how their authority is undermined. For example, when a five year old wants to colour a tree purple or write 50 as 05 a teacher uses their authority to say, ‘No. That is wrong. Trees are brown and green and 50 is not the same as 05’. In this sense the teacher’s authority means that we have the power to compel the five year old to rub out their 05 and to colour the tree correctly.

    But this is uncomfortable for most teachers to accept. What if the five year old is actually an artistic genius? What if the five year old wrote the five first and then the zero but put the zero on the right-hand side rather than the left. Maybe they are going to come up with a better system than the one we have now.

    And so the teacher might ask, ‘Tell me about your tree?’ … and when the five year old says, ‘That’s a grape tree’… then we have seen a five year old exerting their own authority, ‘I think this, I want to do this and that’s ok’

    I think my job is to help the teachers I work with understand that they have been given authority to teach and that the five year old must not teach or direct instead of them.

    2. Secondly, in a subject like mathematics reasons are not accepted because of the teacher’s authority. Reasons are accepted because of the the logic of the statement. The pupil sits in the classroom and listens carefully to the teacher’s explanations – the pupil’s job is to understand the logic of the teacher’s explanation.

    Once in a while a student may find an error with the teacher’s thinking and so they raise their hand to point it out. Quite often, the student might be right (especially with primary school mathematics lessons). When I teach, errors happen because someone drops a pencil and this distracts me or I have thought something through carefully enough or I wrote my explanation down in such small writing that I can’t quite read it and leave something out.

    Once I studied with an incredibly intellectually brilliant teacher and I found that the moment I spotted a ‘mistake’ it actually meant that I’d found something that I didnt understand. I was lucky enough to study mathematics with a mathematics professor who had taught students who went on to win the Fields medal. I knew that, although he encouraged questions and challenges, the moment I thought I had spotted a mistake was the moment I knew I had truly misunderstood something.

    Interestingly, there were other students in the class who kept raising things that they thought he had explained incorrectly – and I found this disrespectful (it was a bit amusing at the start, these teachers were dumbfounded by the Professor’s explanations of maths concepts like counting, addition, multiplicaiton or fractions). But I found it disrespectful because those students were arrogant – they actually thought that with a maths degree and a few years teaching maths in secondary school they knew enough to confront a 75 year old mathematics professor.

    Funnily enough, this professor remained humble throughout. He said, (and genuinely meant it, I felt) that if anyone could explain any concept any better he would like to know, so that he could improve.

    I see the same arrogance with some of the smartest primary pupils. They interupt continually trying to proove that they know more than their teachers. I keep having to tell them the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

    It is tricky for these pupils though because with some teachers, the pupils actually do know more/are more fluent (because that teacher has barely got a C grade at GCSE and struggled to pass the numeracy test). But courtesy and humility tell students that it is rude to interupt and that teachers tend to get irritable if you bluntly point out their errors.

    I see my job as making sure that the teachers who work at my school actually STUDY and get smarter. My job is to help them be more humble and accept that a teaching assistant or pupil can politely points out that they spelt a word wrong or wrote that 7×6=48. My job is to help pupils learn to be polite. To realise their job is to listen and learn rather than to spot errors, interupt or teach.

    What do you think?


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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