Is traditionalism right-wing?

Traditionalism is often characterised as ‘right-wing’: indeed, some have gone so far as to label supporters of educational traditionalism as members of the far-right. I have seen teachers who proclaim themselves to be ‘left-wing’ accused of being traitors to their political affiliations who, through their traditional views of education, show their ‘true colours’. I think this reveals a deep misunderstanding of what traditionalism is, and I want to use this post to put my view on this forward. I should be clear from the outset that what I offer here is a personal take: I am confident that some other teachers who call themselves traditionalists will reject my take on traditionalism here, and I am also sure that critics of educational traditionalism are unlikely to be persuaded of its merits, though I would ask that readers appreciate that this is offered in the spirit of bringing nuance to a debate that, through polarisation, has tended to see each side work with simplistic caricatures of the other.

Let’s start with conservatism. Conservatives are often defined as people who want things to remain the same (to be ‘conserved’), but it does not take long to realise that this definition is hopeless in determining someone’s political stance. As Arendt put it, ‘the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.’ There are many things in society that were once revolutionary, and which I now seek to conserve. I want to conserve the principle that the wealthier people in society should pay a higher proportion of their income in tax. I want to conserve the NHS. I want to conserve a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. I want to conserve a homosexual couple’s right to marriage. I don’t want these things to change: our society has fought long and hard for these liberal ideals, and I’m up for a fight if anyone tries to change them. But, just from these examples, it should be clear that a desire to protect something we value is not in and of itself right-wing: it is what we seek to protect that determines this. The same is true of traditions. It is simply not sufficient to say that someone who is traditional is right-wing: instead, we have to ask which traditions they value. Trade Unionism and Fabianism are both examples of rich and vibrant traditions stretching back over a century. When we talk about keeping our NHS in line with the founding ideals of Aneurin Bevan, we are talking about maintaining a tradition of the welfare state that has stood against numerous attacks over the last seventy years. In all of these cases, one is left-wing because of the traditions one wishes to sustain over time.

And so we get to traditionalism in education. A traditionalist might well argue that passing on knowledge from one generation to the next is important, but this does not in itself make someone left-wing or right-wing. It is what we choose to pass on that determines this. If all I chose to pass on were the benefits of the British Empire, Britain’s victories over other countries in war and the benefits brought by Thatcher’s economic policy, then I could with some accuracy be called ‘right-wing’. But if I chose to teach only the oppression of the working class, the successes of post-war social democracy and the benefits of the welfare state, then, with some justification, I might be called ‘left-wing’. In both cases I might be called ‘traditional’: it is just that the tradition being passed on differs in each case. I call myself traditional because I believe our culture has a number of traditions worth passing on to children. As a history teacher, I see the discipline of history as one of these traditions. Our society has spent centuries building knowledge of the past and has honed the tools we use to find out more about the past, and I see it as my job to pass on both of these to the children of today. I do this by inducting children into the tradition I value, teaching them what they need to know so that, by the time they finish school, they are (hopefully!) able to see the value of that tradition. Some, I hope, will promote the study and pursuit of history to a future generation.

On this argument, I think most teachers would see themselves as traditionalist on some level: many of us became teachers because we believe that we have something worth passing on. So what do I see as the opposite of traditionalism in education? Following my reasoning here, the opposite of traditionalism can be seen where someone does not value what has been passed down through and shaped by past generations. Perhaps the traditions are seen as not being relevant to modern life. Perhaps the traditions are seen as limiting the ability of a child to form his or her own ideas about the world. Perhaps the traditions are seen as so ridden with the power structures of the past that it would be better to cast them aside and start from scratch. Perhaps the traditions are beyond the lived experience of children. All of these positions are a rejection of tradition in one form or another. Importantly, a rejection of tradition is also not by definition left-wing or right-wing. Fascist dictators are more than happy to cast aside traditional structures in society. What determines whether someone is left-wing or right-wing is the traditions one chooses to reject.

At this point I want to take a direction which may not be fully supported by other teachers who call themselves traditionalists. I do not happen to think that the process of teaching, the particular methods I use, can necessarily be understood to be traditional per se. Take the idea of children sitting in rows in a classroom. I don’t sit children in rows because that is how children sat at some point in the past (true though that might be): I sit children in rows so that I can look at their faces when I am speaking to them without them having to turn their heads. I do not insist on silence when children are working on writing because I have some vaguely romantic notion that this is how all children used to be in some past ‘golden age’: I do it because I think everyone can concentrate better that way. I do not hand out sanctions to pupils just because pupils got given sanctions in the past: I do it because I think everyone flourishes better in a culture of rights and responsibilities. These are not aspects of my traditionalism: these are things I do because I think they allow me to get on with the job of teaching. I am a curricular traditionalist, but pedagogically I am driven more by (small-p) pragmatism than anything else. If you could show me that group work, discovery learning and role play are more likely to achieve my curricular ends that my current approach, then you might well win me over.

Nor does being a traditionalist imply that I think what ought to be taught is fixed and unchanging. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is spot on with this in his analysis of tradition in After Virtue: when traditions stop evolving, they become dogma. All living traditions change: they are, in MacIntyre’s words, ‘continuities of conflict’ that incorporate their own fault lines and disagreements. I do not seek to teach a fossilised dogma: I want to teach the living, breathing thing we call history. This means I need to update my knowledge, stay abreast of new ideas in the discipline and be willing to change my teaching as time goes on. I seek to engage with my changing discipline not in spite of my traditionalism, but rather because of it.

This is a slightly longer post than I usually write. My hope is that, having read this, you might have a slightly clearer idea of what I mean when I talk about traditionalism. It should also show why I am far more interested in discussing curriculum than pedagogy, for whereas the former provides me with purpose, the latter is in just a means to that end. These are points that I shall be raising in a panel discussion for the East London Science School Choosing Knowledge event this weekend, and I hope to see some of my readers there. Alternatively, if you want to read more about some of the ideas that underpin my thinking, I have written a couple of papers on this which unpack in more detail what I understand educational traditionalism to be. If you have journal access, these papers can be found here:

Teachers and the academic disciplines, Journal of Philosophy of Education

Tradition, authority and disciplinary practice in history education, Educational Philosophy and Theory


7 Comments on Is traditionalism right-wing?

  1. Perhaps the difficulty is that ‘traditionalist’ isn’t a very good name for traditionalists, and ‘Conservative’ isn’t a very good name for Conservatives, though they may have been, once.

  2. Stuart Roper // 6 February 2017 at 19:05 // Reply

    As usual Michael a carefully considered piece of writing. If a traditional education is the only way to give disadvantaged pupils the cultural capital to compete then it must by definition be the most progressive form of education. My students sit in rows, write in silence for the reasons you give but l have never voted Conservative and my mother kept a picture of her with Scargill above the telephone whilst l grew up.

  3. Tom Burkard // 6 February 2017 at 20:09 // Reply

    Studying English History at UEA between 1989 and 1993, I studied under John Charmley, Colin Davies and Geoffrey Searle. All three were first rate scholars and brilliant teachers. Charmley, whose works include “Chamberlain and the Lost Peace”, was an unrepentant apologist for empire and an avowed Thatcherite. Davies, the Chair, had a portrait of Charles I behind his desk, and although he never once alluded to his own political sympathies, he was certainly a centrist. He believed that the study of history only became interesting when you understood why people acted as they did. Geoffrey Searle was a brilliant scholar of the Labour movement, and although he kept his admiration for Kier Hardie under wraps, he was a scholar first and a man of the left second. Although he alluded to Neville Chamberlain as ‘Charmley’s boyfriend’, the two were on quite cordial terms, and Charmley (who was my academic adviser) urged me to take as many of Searle’s seminars as I could.

    Closer to home, the only time I ever met Andrew Old was at a conference organised by the Tory Schools minister John Nash. He told me that before he came out, some people thought that I was Old Andrew, mostly because of the policy papers I’d written for the Centre for Policy Studies. In reality, he’s played a major role in trying to keep Labour Teachers alive, and I don’t think there’s a single conservative educator who thinks the worse of him for it.

    There are so many examples of left-wing opponents of progressive education that it would be pointless trying to cite them. In any case, any true socialist should abhor progressive doctrine, which celebrates the individual above society. The true dichotomy is between post-modernists and traditionalists.

  4. Thank you, Michael, for a thoughtful and well-reasoned piece. Your point about conservatism as conservation is an important one: it is not connected to political beliefs or policies, just as pedagogy and political beliefs are not equivalent. Gramsci teaches us that, clearly. (To be honest, though, conservatives like Oakeshott place a great deal of emphasis on conservatism as a psychological disposition. In that regard, I, despite my social democratic politics, am also conservative.)

    There is a point where I might split some hairs. You argue, “I do not happen to think that the process of teaching, the particular methods I use, can necessarily be understood to be traditional per se. Take the idea of children sitting in rows in a classroom. I don’t sit children in rows because that is how children sat at some point in the past (true though that might be): I sit children in rows so that I can look at their faces when I am speaking to them without them having to turn their heads.” I use rows myself, and for the same reasons you do. The only people who say we use rows “because it’s always been done like that” are progressivists who are looking to score a cheap point. But there’s no point in denying it: 100 years ago educators tended to value individual concentration much more than they do now, hence their use of rows. I am a traditionalist because I share many of the same values as older educators. Therefore, my pedagogy is traditional because it mirrors an older time when these pedagogical values and practices were hegemonic.

    In any case, you do eloquently point to a continuing challenge for “modern traditionalists” in education. It’s something we must all be mindful of as we struggle to make our voices heard.

  5. The whole thing is brilliantly argued Michael. The most important point for me is that we can’t ever be closed to the fact that there might be a better way. Phonics, of course, is interesting as the traditionalists have adopted it’s newer form while the progressives resist it and stick to their reading methods.

  6. I’m afraid I’m going to have to concur with grapeman here. I don’t support traditional teaching methods because they were used in the past, I support them because they work and because I believe that past educators had the best interests of the disadvantaged child at heart. I also think it’s very important to refute the erroneous and somewhat disrespectful stereotype of past teachers being somehow evil or cruel; just as we trads believe in passing on the best of what has been thought and said to the next generation, I think we should also be passing on the best of how and what to teach to the next generation of teachers in a positive, confident and committed way.

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