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The Challenge of Traditionalism

‘Traditionalism’, so far as that label catches anything, has had something of a fraught time of late. It has been put to all manner of uses, positive and negative, from those who seek to attach legacy and prestige to their latest innovation, to those who wish to dismiss a proposition by rendering it already unworthy of consideration. Still, if words mean things, then we might as well try and find agreement on what they mean, lest we simply talk past each other even whilst claiming to debate.

To my mind, traditionalism is a positive moral vision more than a pedagogical claim (I don’t like the term, but that’s for another blogpost). Of course the latter can and often does flow from the former, but ultimately it is a code which allows more pedagogical freedom than it does ethical. Or put another way, virtue-signalling about VAK need not make one a traditionalist, but maintaining the teacher/taught relationship is rightly shaped by particular accounts of authority and obedience probably does. Thus the split, between those who might claim to be traditionalist because their pedagogical preferences neatly align with what has been labelled as such, even whilst dissenting from the ethical and moral underpinnings of traditionalism itself.

Of course, not everybody agrees with the detail of that moral vision, and the features of its claims are more often implied than explicitly stated. Partly this is because one risks an unsympathetic and indeed hostile reception in declaring oneself an advocate (‘shy traddies’ are a thing too, mostly confined to DMs); partly because of this tendency to force the discussion into tick-list claims about classroom practice. Further, there is space for competing, if broadly united, accounts – no catechetical formula exists to which one can simply subscribe.

Still, that there exists something approaching coherence, and that this is identifiable across particular interpretations, casts its shadow and demands opponents take account. And ultimately it must provoke a reaction – sometimes rational, sometimes emotional –  from those who recognise that the challenge it offers is not a debate about process, but a positive claim about reality. And not an inconsequential claim, but one that strikes at the very heart of the presumptions and beliefs of many an educationalist.

Of what does it consist? As tricky as this is, common themes present themselves, and we can identify just a few here. Particular accounts of hierarchy – of knowledge, especially, but also relationships and status – can certainly be found, whilst the virtues of authority and discipline are recognised and build upon the frameworks put in place by those hierarchies (some insist there is a straw man here, and maintain they too favour authority and discipline, though in a manner so fundamentally unlike as to make the suggestion appear more rhetorical convenience than serious claim).

The capacity to legitimately judge between competing truths, and indeed the moral duty to do so, is also affirmed – not only in the realm of fact, but also judgment; that the correct and the incorrect, the right and the wrong, actually exists, and are not all simple expressions of individual preference or habit, and that we should seek one over the other. Similarly, the belief that a canon should exist, and is constructive of who we are, and should be passed down to the next generation for nourishment, and that there is virtue in both the bequeathing and the inheritance. And of course, the long view – that education should stand aloof from the transience of the now, or the demands of the market, or the convenience of the employer, and instead cherish the gifts of our forebears as of inherent worth – artistic, aesthetic, moral – with value to our ongoing and changing conversation about who we are and what we believe.

Which brings us, almost inexorably, to Michaela School, as so many current education debates tend to do. Whilst I would not wish to put words into the mouth of Michaela School, or make claims about it that are misjudged or inaccurate, it is from here that I believe the Michaela project, or more precisely what it embodies, has such value, and the reason why it draws such stark reactions. In short, Michaela has not billed itself simply as creators and exporters of a particularly efficient model of practice, though it might also wish to claim that; it has instead openly advocated a moral vision, not only of learning, but of society itself, and the relationships that reside there.

And it jars. Badly. Comparisons that have been made, whether later defended as being in jest or not – with Nazism, with fascism – are the protests of a group who instinctively recognise the fundamental moral challenge Michaela has set, but who lack the ethical and even linguistic categories to meet that challenge. This traditionalism, banished from normative discourse within the education sector and university departments for so long, presents itself as simply alien: when faced with something that defies normative categorisation, the imprecise and the hyperbolic is simply what comes most easily to hand. There is no abiding guilt in this, and perhaps even reason to celebrate – it at least shows the magnitude of what is at stake truth has been grasped, even if instinctively.

To my mind, Michaela are doing what a traditionalist education must do if it is to stand in a system so generally ill-disposed toward it – it draws a line in the sand and invites its interlocutors to make their choice. In this sense, Michaela embodies a very real culture war in education, even it is not the one that dominates our largely technocratic discussions, debating the efficiency of group work or the effectiveness of drill – it is about the fundamentals: who are we? how should we live? how do we know?

I should add at this point that, whilst I have sympathy for the Michaela project, I cannot say I agree with all of its offer, so far as I understand/know what that is, though without having visited I could not claim to base my view on anything more substantial than what I have read to date. For example, as much as I commend Michaela’s recovery of the inherent value of knowing, and the worth of our literary and artistic inheritance, and the absolute ethical claim that all citizens (regardless of wealth or background) have on that shared inheritance, I do nonetheless wonder if it can be prone to the educational kitsch, rooting itself in the superficialities of broad knowledge as a safer bet against the controversies of deeper wisdom. But then, I’m a Catholic, who defends and advocates the unique gifts of Catholic education – I would say that.

Nonetheless, so far as traditionalism offers a competing vision of society and those who comprise it, a vision largely redundant in the state sector, then Michaela’s foray is to be welcomed. The impacts of traditionalist dormancy have been keenly felt, especially in those layers of society for whom such an absence can be all the more life-constricting. If Chesterton, Burke, and even Tacitus were all right that moral laxity is always to the benefit of the already powerful, and if traditionalism is indeed a moral account that counsels against such (educational) laxity, then one might tease out an explanation of why that might be the case. In education, as in society, demands to cast aside strictures ring loudest from the mouths of those best sheltered from its social consequences – what some use as ladders, others declare to be chains. And the poorest really have lost out here; Gove’s liberal authoritarianism at least recognised this, even if his cure was to cast aside as irrelevant those contextual features that were actually fundamental to the insight.

So far as traditionalism in education means anything, then, I hope the debate can coalesce around these moral claims, since focusing on the pedagogical is ultimately a hostage to fortune that elevates an inexact science into certitude and leaves us prone to the fashions of research and the politics that reside therein. We should know why we do what we do, before constructing the system to deliver it, informed by research but not captured by it – without that, teaching is just task design, and we, the teachers, become marginal players in a drama that is not ours.

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