Traditional teaching: it’s all academic

The debate about the respective positions of traditionalist and progressive education shows no sign of abating. Earlier today, Old Andrew posted a reflection on the role of knowledge in education – which is perhaps widely seen as the totemic difference between the two sides.

And yet it appears that the traditionalist camp (within which I broadly count myself) isn’t as united in its understanding of this as it might seem. The observations that followed betrayed a wide range of understanding, not to mention conflicts, regarding the respective positions of progressive and traditional education.

For example, if you support the use of education for the transmission of a canon of knowledge (particularly of ‘great thought’), then it seems that this also labels you as a supporter of the Establishment.  To belong to this camp, you must apparently also subscribe to the view that education is all about passing exams, and that the purpose of the whole undertaking is to ready people for their place in the grand economic plan.

This caricature of traditional education is about as far removed from my own understanding as it is possible to be, as supported by my own experiences at a grammar school in the 1970’s. Employability was about as far away from the lips of my teachers as it is possible for a word to be, and few of my teachers were straight apologists for the intellectual or social Establishment. In fact, many were sceptics and cynics in the mould of a great part of the teaching tradition.

To my mind, it is actually the progressive tendency that has had the utilitarian understanding of education, arguing that transferrable skills are more important than specific knowledge, that external applications are more important than intrinsic value, and that child-centred approaches are more important than the knowledge of the teacher.

Contributing to Andrew’s discussion, I suggested that the whole point of traditional education is to keep it academic – but it should be noted that the OED offers two definitions of the word, and maybe this is where the misunderstanding lies.

That second definition is: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.

chriswmparsons criticised my view that the whole point of traditional education is to leave the wider purpose of study indistinct. Much to my great surprise, he argued that my position was so relativist as to be ultra-progressive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you accept this definition as opposed to the other one (relating to education and scholarship), then one can only conclude that traditional academic education must essentially remain open-ended. To assign specific purpose to one’s study is to make it contingent on that end. In other words, we define its purpose before we actually know what it is. To define something in this way is to place limits around it and this is anathema to true, open-ended intellectual thought.

Certainly, and rightly in my view, traditional education espouses the teaching of an accepted canon, and it prefers clearly-defined techniques for doing so – but this is to conflate its method with its purpose. It ignores the fact that the canon itself was evolved over a period of time and constitutes the collective wisdom of many individuals, where speculative thought was essential and disagreement frequent. In many cases, the refutation of prior wisdom is precisely what led to the validity of the established canon – in a sense it’s a matter of what has withstood trial by destruction.

So I do not for one moment think that traditionalists should reject any notion of radical dissent, nor that they need become meek organs of the establishment.

The key here is that the traditional education is a) founded on substantial academic procedures and b) it tends to make progress by evolution rather than revolution. The only way to facilitate this process is firstly to make people aware of what the ‘accepted wisdom’ actually is, and secondly to provide them with the means of rigorous evaluation of it, in the form of critical thinking skills.

Back in August, I wrote a little-read piece on the meaning of tradition, prompted by a book I was reading on the current state of traditional culture in Scotland. It seemed to have an amount of resonance for the education debate, and some of that post is perhaps worth re-stating here:

“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.”

“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.”


I must admit that this brief exchange has pulled me up short – I too had assumed that the traditionalist movement was largely agreed on what it valued and understood. I think the re-emergence of this debate is one of the most important things happening in education at present, and it pleases me greatly that it is no longer unacceptable to admit to being a traditionalist. But I think we need to clear up these issues urgently:

  1. We need to be clear about the difference between method and purpose. It is one thing to employ traditional teaching techniques in the classroom, but quite another to consider that their only purpose is to embed an uncritical, unchanging view of establishment values and tastes. One of the key attributes of real academia is the process of critical review.
  2.  Consequently, traditional teaching may involve rejecting or downplaying utilitarian views of education. What and why one teaches is as important as how, and if you only think that education is about passing exams or securing employment, then your practice will reflect these views.

Traditional teaching may indeed have a relativist purpose – it refutes the idea that education is for anything in particular, and by doing so it accepts that it can indeed be ‘for’ anything at all – whatever each individual chooses. In that sense, it is a democratising force as it leaves each individual sovereign to interpret the experience as they choose, not as an external agency pre-specifies.

As the excerpts from Gary West’s book show, traditional education need not be backward-looking or regressive. Tradition is best used as a force for informing the future. Likewise, traditional methods need not be preserved in aspic – they need to be able to adapt to changing times, while still retaining their emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and the power of critical thought.

In my opinion, it is absolutely essential that such misunderstandings are cleared up; the conflation of traditional teaching with Victorian values and social regression cannot help its cause one iota.



8 thoughts on “Traditional teaching: it’s all academic

  1. A very enjoyable post. What I understand by “traditional teaching” are the craft techniques developed by trial and error over many years and retained because of their proven utility. This is not to say that they cannot be changed, adapted or even replaced if more effective techniques can be demonstrated, but for the moment I believe they are the best we’ve got.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think you are completely correct with your analogy. Teaching real people is always going to be more about intuitive interpersonal skills than highly technical ones. Intellectual activity is always going to depend on judgement – even, I would humbly suggest, in the sciences.

    Those are, as you say, more akin to crafts than lab procedures. I think we should rejoice in this rather than be ashamed of it – and use it to argue for a traditionally-inspired modern profession that has a much more accurate sense of what it is, rather than pining for what it isn’t.

  3. Thank you very much. I appreciate the credit I am given in prompting this post, although I did go on to agree with your later clarification in the earlier one! 🙂

    However… yes, I think there is a highly important distinction between seeing the utility of traditional teaching methods (ones which focus on a rich knowledge base, communicated as directly as possible by an appropriate expert) because this is what is the best route to creating proficiency in pupils… and the opinion one has about the ultimate point in the whole enterprise, which may or may not also go on to also be described as traditional. There’s really no necessary reason why one should correlate directly with the other.

    My own formulation of the purpose of education which I put to OldAndrew was “to enable the fullest access to the richness of human discourse and activity”, with the goal of humans becoming “happy, productive, good citizens”. Now to me this doesn’t seem to be too controversially value-laden; 1) If we don’t want people to be happy, then what’s the point of bothering with living in the first place? 2) Who would ever resent having been given the capacity to be productive? 3) And, whether they like it or not, we need to prepare our young so that they follow the laws we’ve developed. That’s the world they’re born into.

    It seems to me that one problem with all of this is that people seem to want to boil it down to just one of these things or some such single thing. Nicky Morgan has gone for the productivity; Daisy Christodoulou has gone for the ability to participate intelligently in democracy, and the present post and Andrew’s earlier (I think) are positing the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake. I too would love to be able to boil this all down to one single thing, but I’m not sure why it’s obvious that this should be possible?

    Now I do, I really do, get the idea that if we throw ourselves into the value of inculcating knowledge/learning/academics for its own sake, then the other things are well positioned to follow as society and individuals see fit.

    I can also understand the view that, as education technicians, it isn’t really up to teachers to decide or even worry themselves about what the whole utility of it all might be (rather like workers in factory making explosives). We can happily leave that to the politicians, religious leaders, Daily Mail and the individuals themselves to decide.

    However, I do believe that having some general value markers (such as the 3 I’ve proposed), which seem to suit a developed society such as ours, gives some guide as to the route to take with selecting and delivering the ‘best that’s been said and done’. Does this make me an indoctrinator? Does it make me progressive? Indeed, is it really helpful to keep using a simple binary of Traditional Vs Progressive at all, when the field is clearly made up of several quite distinct areas and positions?

    Thanks for the debate – I do love trying to get my thoughts together about these things. 🙂

  4. Thanks for your comment Chris – and I apologise for getting you middle initials the wrong way round! It’s an important point that traditional teaching can be used to deliver more instrumental objectives perfectly well, indeed arguably better than the alternatives. But it begs the question, why would you want to? If an individual teacher appreciates the wider benefits of an enriched mind, then why would they agree to restricting their pupils to something less?

    My main beef with the bean-counters is that they seem to have lost all sight about what education really is. I’m really not convinced that we need any more defined an objective than those which you and I have discussed.

  5. Hello again ij (or is is Sandi?!) You might see from the above pingback that I linked to this post with my own post “Why we get so confused about the purpose of education”. Having read a few of your posts now, I feel sure that you might find it intriguing, if flawed in some way! I would be very pleased if you were able to give it browse, and even comment on it (for good or for ill) if you felt it warranted it.

    Thanks a lot,


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