The Carrying Stream


There’s nothing like a walk up through the woods by a timelessly tumbling Scottish river to reduce National Curricula and exam targets a more appropriate level of significance – and distance. The manic obsessions of the school year tend to make such things loom far larger in all our lives than they really warrant, for all that real, life-enhancing education is important. They are not the same thing, anyway.

While we were away in Scotland, I was reading Gary West’s book Voicing Scotland. Rather esoteric, perhaps, to be added to this blog’s reading list, but of much interest for someone involved in playing traditional music. It also unexpectedly shone a useful light on our professional debate.

The Carrying Stream is the title of one of my all-time favourite recordings of Scottish music – beautiful tunes and songs, as far as can be imagined from the tartan tat of popular misconception. West’s book concerns the role of traditional folk arts in a modern cultural context, as relevant to the debate and forthcoming referendum on independence in Scotland, and he uses this same phrase in his introduction when considering what the word ‘tradition’ really means.

Traditional teaching has been much in the limelight in the past twelve months, being variously promoted as the salvation for falling educational standards and dismissed as a retreat towards the dark days of rote learning and corporal punishment. West’s analysis shed a little light on my own dilemma in this respect as well. Over the years, sheer experience has shown that for me at least, traditional methods work better and make more sense in terms of my own understanding of what education is, and is for. At the same time, I am resolutely modernist in most matters, and have little time for indulgent nostalgia. Teachers as a breed need to look to the future: their entire work is founded on the notion that the future can improve on the past – but they also need to respect the legacy that that past endows.

So where does this leave the supposedly redundant methods of ‘traditional’ teaching? West resorts to the notion of the carrying stream to explain. In his view – and he quotes the Scottish poet and intellectual Hamish Henderson – the carrying stream flows out of the past and into the future, linking our past accomplishments and understandings with those yet to come.

“It is a tradition that flows through time, picking up new flotsam as it goes, leaving some things on its banks in the process. At any given point, its content and form may be a little bit different from places further up or down stream, yet it remains recognisable as the same tradition”.

West also points out that a stream, in flowing, is not like a pond which is indeed static. He suggests this is the difference between tradition and convention, the latter of which is indeed stagnant and adhered to ‘because it has always been this way’.  Traditions tend to die when they become mere convention, as they need change and evolve to keep them alive. This is precisely what is happening in traditional Scottish music at present, as a new generation of brilliant young musicians reinterprets age-old songs and tunes for the present century.  See here and here.

However, tradition tends to be a process of evolution rather than revolution – and maybe this is where the teaching profession is going wrong, both in its widespread rejection of traditional methods and its obsession with ‘silver bullets’, quick-fixes which often turn out to be rather less helpful than they first seem. West again:

“…change, within tradition tends not to be revolutionary or even rapid, but incremental, considered, evolutionary. That is not to say that radical new ideas or approaches do not appear…but time tends to be the judge. Roots are important, as is an appreciation of where things come from, where we stand within the stream, and how to use that knowledge to create fresh and meaningful art going forward.”

“Tradition can be of great use in the modern world, a questioning, solidifying force, and a reminder that society cannot spend its entire time in the fast lane. Yet it can help us move forward and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.”

For me, this neatly sums up both the objections to the perpetual revolution that is supposedly going on within education and the virtues of a more considered approach. It demolishes the claim that ‘traditional’ does indeed mean going back to Victorian models of education, while accepting that the crucial element within education – human need – really doesn’t change very much despite all the technical developments going on around. Education is a deeply humane, largely non-technical process for which there is no quick fix.

All of our great professions draw on traditions going back millennia; it is only in recent times that we have fallen prey to the conceit that we need to be rid of all that for the sake of supposed modernity. Rather unexpectedly, I found Gary West’s book to provide an excellent resolution to my own modern/traditional dilemma, and I like his counsel that we should approach new supposed-panaceas openly but cautiously. Recent educational history would seem to justify this, and suggest that it is time for a readjustment.

Reading his book also transmits the richness and depth of tradition in Scottish culture, something that I feel is perhaps lost on many of us mongrel English; maybe as a profession, we would also do well to hallow our traditions and established wisdom (not mere conventions) rather more than we do.

My intention in the forthcoming year is to be less apologetic for my use of traditional methods, while remaining (as always) sceptically open to new developments. I am going to need to re-think some ideas, as I have spent the past quarter-century effectively denying what my intuition was telling me made sense all along in order to accommodate the short-lived fads that my employers demanded.

The Carrying Stream itself embodies an ancient concept whose use in the modern era would seem completely apt.


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