Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 3

December 1, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. In Part 1 and Part 2, I shared blogposts relevant to this topic written by others. Here I will put forward my own views.

I am happy to be described as an educational traditionalist. There are three reasons I don’t have a problem with the term.

Firstly, although in recent political discourse “progressive” is seen as a positive word, meaning little more than liberal and supportive of change, these are not the only way to view it. Firstly, I accept the arguments in Part 2 about not wanting to support change for the sake of change. It is okay to consider yourself left wing, yet want to conserve some things. Just because you want political action to make society more just, does not not mean you have to believe that everything needs to change or that the very fabric of society needs to be torn down. Although I do believe we can change society through politics, ill-thought-out change can destroy trust and divide. More importantly, political progressives don’t always appreciate the history of the word. The “Progressive Movement” in the United States, from which we seem to have inherited the word, while having many achievements to be proud of, was associated not only with progressive education but also with Prohibition and eugenics. Even in this country we often forget that “enlightened” left wing intellectuals supported eugenics. If you feel uncomfortable being on the side of G.K. Chesterton, rather than Bertrand Russell, on education; you can reassure yourself that you probably also side with Chesterton over Russell on eugenics.

Secondly, the word “traditionalist” implies something more than “old fashioned”. Tradition is something that is passed on. The origins of the word “tradition” are in the Latin for “handed over”. Those of us who think the basis of education is in handing over knowledge from teacher to student, should not have a problem with that idea of a tradition. While some subjects may teach things that are being handed over to the next generation for the first time, some of us share knowledge that has been being passed on for over two thousand years. If we celebrate the passing on of knowledge, then we are loyal to a tradition. We need to be clear that the tradition is “the best of what has been though and said” rather than simply what’s oldest, and that we don’t necessarily believe that what is old is always better, or that values and knowledge shouldn’t change. But there’s nothing wrong with seeing teaching as being about handing over something which already exists. Nor is there anything wrong with being sceptical of the idea that we can force the world to “progress” by changing what we teach to fit in with contemporary concerns. Those who want to throw out great books and great thinkers, or even great thought, in order to save the next generation from thought crime are not really seeking to educate. The tradition changes with culture, but the point of education is not to change culture through selective ignorance. Those who want to engineer utopia through schools, may be more progressive than traditionalist, but they are the enemies of education.

Thirdly, even if “traditionalist” is not an attractive name, that’s not without its advantages. Whenever traditionalism is repackaged to emphasise some element of traditionalism, such as “knowledge led teaching”, “a knowledge rich curriculum”, “high expectations of behaviour” or “whole class interactive teaching” it seems to take about 5 minutes before progressives claim the title for themselves. Progressives have a remarkable knack of being able to explain how the ideas they have supported all along are actually “knowledge led”, or are also “high expectations of behaviour” whatever the evidence to the contrary. In fact, it has almost become a cliché in education debate that the moment traditionalists get the upper hand in the debate for and against X, then progressives will claim that “nobody was ever against X”; “all teachers support X”; “we should stop having this divisve debate about X”, and before too long they will be promoting an expensive training course about X which somehow seems to be indistinguishable in content from the very same ideas they had back when they were against X. If the opponents of systematic synthetic phonics now claim that everyone supports phonics, why would they not do the same for any other part of traditionalist education? An attractive name for traditionalism actually ends up being devalued. The single best reason for calling traditionalism by the name “traditionalism” even if it might put some people off, is that the only reason to call yourself a traditionalist is because you actually believe it. I cannot say the same about any other title or aspect of traditional education. Whatever momentary advantage there is in saying “I don’t consider myself a traditionalist, I believe in X” is immediately diluted as a hundred progressives tell you they also believe in X.

So let’s stick with the name. If you really believe in passing on knowledge, explicit instruction and discipline based on adult authority, call yourself a traditionalist, and at least then we’ll know you really mean it.




  1. […] Andrew has been blogging about whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are the right words to […]

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. […] Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Pa… […]

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