In Education, Tradition does not have to be a bad word

In talking with many parents of students in the public education system, a recurring theme emerges around the issue of values.  Often, a parent has told me that they are going to let their child “figure things out for themselves,” in regards to ethical issues, because the parent had strict parents who told them what was right and wrong. They do not want to repeat this practice.

The effects of this laissez faire are twofold:

First, the child is left without existing ethical horizons from which they can determine what is good. Second, the student develops an inherent mistrust of authority, which hinders their educational experience because they believe learning begins and ends within their own experience.  These are significant problems because, as Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, “frameworks provide the background, explicit or implicit, for our moral judgments, intuitions, or reactions.”[1]  In order to make sense of moral decisions and to judge what holds value, one must be able to articulate a framework.  A good education must try and teach students that society is built on values that exist outside of themselves.  Whether or not their parents want to leave the students to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, it is up to the educational system to help them articulate a foundational perspective based on a historical tradition.

Teaching tradition does not mean that students are forced to accept a belief system; nor does it preclude other students who may come from a different society from learning the same tradition.  The purpose of understanding tradition is to provide a historical basis for comparing other civilizations, as well as the present society.  Giussani expresses this concept well when he says that students “use tradition as a sort of explanatory hypothesis,”[2] wherein dialogue and exploration takes place–yet always with a mind to the totality of the structure as a basis for meaning and interpretation.  The important point is that there is a tradition to work from. Understanding this point lends a positive result for the endeavors of the student.  By positive, I mean that it points towards an end outside of the student’s personal experience toward a greater meaning within which personal experience has relevance.  It is the educator’s goal to help students understand that the educational tradition exists as a necessary framework for the formation of their own unique individuality, and that assumptions about values and morality come from a particular perspective and are not simply instinctual.

This is exactly why the humanities–and particularly the study of history–is such an important subject.  History essentially is the outworking of humanity in time and space with the present day as the culmination of historical events to this point in time.  It is an expression of who we are as a society and, in turn, each society displays a unique aspect of humanity as a whole.  The important point students must realize is that their life experience exists with this historical framework.  One of the problems with historical studies in secondary school is a perceived detachment from the subject matter, which makes it difficult for students to really engage with history.

The past must then be presented in a suitable form so adolescents connect what happened in history to what is happening now.  For the younger adolescent, role-playing historical scenarios and characters is a way to not only engage students on an existential level but also generate an excitement about the learning process.  At the early stages of adolescent development, emotional centers in the brain are rewired more rapidly than those in the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with higher level thinking.  Therefore, activities that require students to move and act are more likely to elicit a positive emotional response. This will, in turn, imprint itself more readily in the student’s consciousness.  The resulting excitement creates a twofold effect, in which the student often recalls the activity in greater detail and for longer periods of time. Students also tend to form a greater attachment to the teacher because they associate an enjoyable activity with their teaching techniques.  If this evidence seems too anecdotal, there is a high correlation between these types of activities and students scoring higher percentages in these same content areas on exams.[3]  To reiterate, the key educational concept here is that the importance of teaching tradition is accomplished through the teaching of history. In order to engage adolescents in this process, the educator has to portray history in relevant terms.  Based on their psychological and emotional development, younger students respond well to these interactive role-play type activities that are emotionally appealing and often lead to higher retention and increased passion for learning.

A strong foundational teaching in history is necessary for the senior student to successfully realize the full importance of the tradition in which they live.  As the student’s critical thinking ability develops in later adolescence, so too does their awareness of the greater world outside of their own experience.  Often, this coincides with a desire to impact the greater society. It is a crucial stage where a real connection between their education and some kind of greater meaning is relevant to their lives.  While the younger student engages with the curriculum on an experiential level, the older student can engage on an intellectual level that requires them to interpret information and synthesize a response from their own perspective.  According to Bloom’s taxonomy, this would be on the level of synthesis and evaluation–where the student reads with an eye for the greater relevance and meaning within the greater historical framework.  Like what Augustine said, these students can read and understand if they do so within the context of their historical tradition.

Without a historical framework to work within, critical reasoning becomes difficult.  When students are asked to critically analyze a historical event, one needs to offer a point of comparison from which it is possible to analyze.  Too often, students critique actions form historical characters based on an emotional response that has been conditioned by the present day.  A better understanding of provides a meaningful frame of reference that allows the student to reflect on how the historical period is both different and similar while also encouraging a respect for humanity through understanding our common experience.  A respect for this authority and tradition is a bulwark against the skeptical mindset that mistrusts authority from the outset, and often leads to the belief in the subtraction theory of history.  This theory tends to view older customs and beliefs as archaic and castoffs in the modern era, while neglecting the understanding that cultures change while maintaining beliefs and customs in other forms.[4]  History is with us, and will always be a part of who we are as a civilization.  What is also needed in a humanist education is a better understanding of who we are as selves.

…go back to previous article “Why Study the Humanities”



[1] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, (Harvard 1989) page 26.

[2] Giussani, page 53.

[3] Personally I care little for exam scores when the anecdotal evidence repeatedly presents itself in the form of senior students and even graduates recalling role play activities that they participated in years earlier.

[4] An extensive analysis of this concept specifically how it relates to the belief that religion is a byproduct of previous ages can be read in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, (Harvard University Press, 2007).

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