3 March 2023

In our heated culture wars, tradition ages like milk


When is tradition not traditional? When it is used in education. From a distance the landscape of British education seems unchanging. Its three ‘pillars’ – primary, secondary and tertiary – are still the unchallenged stages that children take as they develop into young, qualified, employable adults. Yet while these sectors seem outwardly to have remained unaffected by the passing of time, they have changed fundamentally from within, often consciously eschewing the cultural and academic traditions that formed them in the first place. 

Whether it is in the most ancient of our public schools, or the most academically renowned Oxbridge college, being described as ‘traditional’ is now akin to labelling an institution as anti-progressive. Even ‘tradition’, those collective actions, often idiosyncratic, frequently arcane (and archaic) forms of dress, behaviour, and language which make up our collective identity, is a word used with the linguistic equivalent of sugar tongs picking up something best not handled.

Take grammar schools. For a sector-within-a-sector that only educates 5% of secondary pupils in England, these schools continue to exert a disproportionate influence on educational debate. This week the BBC reported that, rather than being the social escalators that enabled the likes of Alan Bennett and Jeanette Winterson to ascend into the elite, they are now the preserve of the affluent middle classes. They are no more the engines of progress than Winchester or Harrow.

As Peter Hitchens writes in his surprisingly enjoyable new book, A Revolution Betrayed, rich parents ‘besiege’ most of the surviving grammar schools, fighting like sharks to get their offspring in; and they continue to survive, in part, because they allow Oxford and Cambridge universities, as they try to widen access and reduce the numbers they accept from independent schools, to ‘strive to prove how egalitarian they have become’.

What has warped grammar schools into something they were never intended to be, like all debates about schools in this country, is politics – another profession, like teaching, that values change over stasis, and reform over tradition. When Katharine Birbalsingh attacked public schools for being woke it resonated because tradition is essential to the appeal of those schools, and the fact that it is being undermined adds to the sense that powerful cultural forces, distrustful anything that is inherited, or gained without perceived struggle are debasing our institutions. What was long known has suddenly become unknown. Some independent schools, as Luke Tryl has observed, are going through a process of institutional ‘over-correction’, trying to distance themselves from themselves as they seek to atone for crimes they did not commit.

Perhaps this is because it is easier to operate within the ‘new’ that you have created and understand, than to adapt to the ‘old’ that you have inherited and fail to value. Hitchens is right to be ‘amazed’ by the ‘jungle of falsehoods and misunderstandings’ that exist about selective schools, but the same is true about most debates involving education.

Schools are long-established proxies for the class divisions that have always plagued our country. Now, in an age obsessed with ‘calling out’ privilege, and of being suspicious of what smacks of a past tinged by colonialism and exploitation, tradition is at risk of dying from that which it once encapsulated: namely, longevity. In our heated culture wars tradition ages like milk. But the benefits of traditions are that they are proven, over time, to work. 

Perhaps schools have always been wary of the past. After all, teachers work with young people who, by their very nature, are preoccupied with the present and invested in the future. But rejecting the past risks valuing novelty, rather than having the bravery, and patience, to preserve the valuable. The noise around ChatGPT perfectly encapsulates this: the excitement around it is tangible, not because it can write an A level essay in thirty seconds, but because of what it threatens to replace. For one of the leading awarding bodies in the world to state this week that it will accept work submitted by students which quotes from a robot, rather than a researched, academic journal, perfectly illustrates that in the rush to embrace the excitement of technology we reveal how little value we place on education.

Arnold’s barbarians are no longer at the gates, but are in open plan offices writing subject specifications and replacing dead writers with living writers simply because they are new and different, rather than old and familiar. But when we lose our pasts we forget ourselves, and without tradition, we risk being incapable of guiding those we teach through a world that has no shared, accepted memory. It is a cultural dementia that, ultimately, will infantilise us all. 

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Dr David James is the deputy headteacher of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.