Tuesday, January 05, 2016


I think sometimes we use words assuming they mean one thing when they actually mean another. Much like accountability, I think "tradition" is sometimes one of those words.

When schools use the word "tradition" they usually mean it in the sense of school pride, a kind of institutional memory of the things the school has done well and wants to continue to do well. But I worry that - in practice - our use of tradition ends up meaning something quite different from that.

Here's how Merriam-Webster defines tradition:
  1. a: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)

    b: a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable
  2. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
  3. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
  4. characteristic manner, method, or style
While there's nothing here that particularly conflicts with how schools define tradition, there's also much here that the school-ey definition ignores. Words like "inherited", "customary", "cultural continuity",  and "customs" all share a common element: they are accepted without thought. It doesn't matter whether the idea is good, bad, or in-between, because it's "tradition" it's what we do. Too often tradition ends up being - in practice - translated into "because we've always done it this way."

I know that folks who like using the word tradition would protest that that's not what they mean. What they mean is all the "good" traditions that we have, all the things we're proud of and that we think define us. But the problem is that tradition is more than that. If there are certain traditions that we are referring to, we should be specific and enumerate them, because otherwise we are endorsing all the traditions that we have.

For example, my school is (justifiably) proud of our relationship with the Arapaho Nation. Since 1993, we have had on-going dialogue and interaction with the Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, including taking a busload of our students up to the reservation, and a large contingent of Arapaho coming to our school for an assembly and to visit our classes. But we should also acknowledge that our "tradition" includes the 29 years prior to that when we didn't have the relationship, when our mascot was a caricature of an Indian (Native American) that we found out from the Arapaho in 1993 was actually closer to a Pawnee, and which (in addition to it being offensive in and of itself), we used in offensive ways (like putting it on the floor of the gym, offensive chants, etc.). What if in 1993 we had argued that "tradition" supported keeping our original mascot? (Which is the argument that many others are currently making, from high schools across the country to the professional football team in Washington D.C.)

To be clear, we have many great traditions at my school and we have done many things well in the past. But that was the past; we should be asking ourselves what we should be doing for our students today, and tomorrow, and for what the world is going to look like when they are our age. As John Dewey famously said,
If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.
That doesn't mean we just "throw everything out" or that we "don't respect our traditions". But it does mean that we can't blithely use the word tradition to unthinkingly continue on the way we've been going. It brings to mind the song from Fiddler on the Roof:
Hodel, oh Hodel, have I made a match for you.
He's handsome! He's young! All right, he's 62.
But he's a nice man, a good catch. True? True!
I promise you'll be happy. And even if you're not,
There's more to life than that. Don't ask me what!

(italics mine)
Don't ask me what. Don't question. Don't think about it for yourself. Don't spend the time to figure out what you truly value. Just do it because it's tradition.

We can do better.

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