The reluctant traditionalist

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When Daniel Andrews won last weekend’s Victorian election, he claimed that Victoria was the most progressive state in the (Australian) nation. He meant this to be a good thing. The word ‘progressive’ has become associated with the political left and connotes positive change; a move forward.

However, I suppose we are all in favour of positive change. The trouble lies in working out exactly what that would look like. When I examine my own political beliefs, I wonder whether progressive is the right word to describe them. I supported gay marriage in the recent Australian postal referendum and you could perhaps describe that as socially progressive. I also favour the re-nationalisation of utility companies on the basis that where monopolies exist, and genuine competition cannot be introduced, they are better in the hands of a democratically accountable state. Is that progressive? The fact that my lifetime has seen a flow from state ownership of utility companies to private ownership means that I am actually calling for a return to a previous time.

Old Andrew has been blogging about whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are the right words to describe the two main educational philosophies. He thinks they are. One of the reasons he cites is that any other word than ‘traditional’ tends to be hijacked by progressivists. He gives examples such as ‘knowledge led’ and ‘phonics’. Indeed, it has been a successful strategy by proponents of progressive whole language reading instruction to re-badge it as ‘balanced literacy’ and claim offence when anyone calls for explicit phonics teaching on the basis that all teachers supposedly teach phonics already. I would add the term ‘explicit teaching’ as another example. As awareness of the value of explicit teaching has spread in Australia, I am seeing more statements along the lines that inquiry learning contains a lot of explicit teaching.

Yet it is hard to imagine progressivists ever trying to co-opt the term ‘traditional’.

Still, I don’t really like it. It implies that traditionalists hold the views they hold because it is a traditional view, not because it aligns with evidence about how we learn and the value of knowledge. Horrors such as eugenics were once thought of as progressive, but hardly anyone remembers this now and progress has come to be linked in many people’s minds with science. “Questions of science, science and progress do not speak as loud as my heart,” sang turgid trust-fund rockers, Coldplay. In the case of educational progressivism, this link with science is entirely wrong, but you have to have gained quite a lot of knowledge to grasp this point. Politicians, journalists, parents and others who happen to venture into one corner of the debate cannot be expected to have such knowledge.

‘Traditional’ also connotes ‘old-fashioned’ and this does not play well against the alternative of ‘progressive’. However, there are instances when the label ‘traditional’ is seen as a positive and I think one such example is instructive. Food producers who use traditional methods and ingredients are likely to trumpet this on their labelling. Why? In this case, tradition signals quality; that the process has not been rushed or substandard techniques and ingredients substituted.

This is true for education. Progressive approaches promise shortcuts to expertise. Rather than having to spend years mastering knowledge from a range of domains, students can learn critical thinking skills. Rather than going through a long apprenticeship, students can think like mathematicians and scientists from day one. Attempts to implement such shortcuts lead inevitably to lower quality. Traditionalists reject any such shortcuts and are therefore guardians of high quality, slow education.

Nevertheless, the label of ‘traditionalist’ is hard to wear. It requires constant re-explanation to every new audience and to every new teacher who enters our world. From a public relations point of view, it is a poor choice.

But this is not public relations. Higher than matters of spin lie matters of truth. I believe that many become traditionalists because they value the pursuit of truth, both in the curriculum itself and in discussions about teaching. The most accurate labels are the ones that have been used for over a hundred years to describe the debate.

I don’t have to like it.


5 thoughts on “The reluctant traditionalist

  1. Sarah G says:

    Food for thought there. I watched Daniel Andrews say Victoria is the most progressive state in Australia and inwardly cringed. Exactly what does ‘progressive’ mean? And as you point out, is it always a good thing?

  2. Stan says:

    You would go bonkers with the Canadian political parties. We have the Progressive Conservatives on the right and the New Democratic Party founded in 1961 on the left. To keep the Americans confused we have the Liberal party in the centre.

    I do think you have a good label in traditional if you pay attention to the image you want to deliver. Your food analogy hits the mark. Another would be furniture – you can have traditional or you can have ikea or worse ikea knockoffs.
    Boiling things down to one word is always problematic – hence our Progressive Conservatives and I am sitting at an Ikea desk right now.

    It is worth asking what words describe the teacher that values the traditional ideas you describe in this post but also wants to include the latest information from cognitive science and drop some ideas such as a bit of bullying just toughens people up.

    You could follow our NDP line and call yourself a modern traditionalist. You value the ideas that have stood the test of time but you are thoroughly modern in terms of appreciating new information is constantly appearing. I know modern has been used before in education but you can make it yours or pick something better.

    But whatever labels you pick you have to own it and take on the job of telling people what the label stands for. You have to call your next book The Modern Traditional Teacher or whatever better term you come up with. You have to put it as a byline in your blog and tweet about it at least once a week. It is not too difficult to change a word from pejorative to positive but it is work.

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg, I’d call your attention to this excellent piece in the LARB on neoliberalism and the digital humanities, which hits the main points in your post.!

    I’d argue that much of “progressive” ed is closely tied to neoliberal ed policies and practices (disrupting institutions, fostering individualism and choice, promoting ed tech personalized learning, pushing “21st C skills” via PBL and other constructivist pedagogies, etc.). It also focuses on anti-authoritarianism, undermining or eliminating the traditional teacher-student relationship (something Arendt pointed out in the 1950s).

    For me, I’d use the term neoliberal education instead of progressive for those believing in this.

    • David F says:

      And for the record, I think the authors of that article misinterpret Hirsch, though they are right that conservatives in the US jumped on his cultural literacy concept in the 1980s.

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