Tradition and Traditionalism

The word tradition comes from the Latin for ‘to transmit’: it is to hand over something historical, a whole culture perhaps, so that a new generation may keep safe those customs and ensure they are maintained through the generations. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who is an awesomely clever writer, has something both simple and profound to say about this. He identifies that this transmission isn’t for the benefit of the people being transmitted to but for the culture itself.[1] We pass culture down through the conduit of education not in order that it might benefit the people in receipt of that education, but so the knowledge of the tradition, the recorded identity of a civilisation and its people – our collective memory, if you will – is maintained. The children to whom we introduce it are to be its future guardians.

According to Scruton, ‘high’ – or, as Pierre Bourdieu would have it, ‘legitimate’ – culture is distinguished from what he would regard as common culture because it contains more significance and knowledge than anything one might absorb through mass communication channels. It is, therefore, high culture that Scruton argues should be passed on to our children in educational institutions, so this intellectual realm doesn’t die off. This seems unarguable in its simplicity, but it can occasionally possess some darker tinges at the edges. Freire writes that a teacher’s role in any pedagogy that is is focused on the transmission of a culture, is to ‘fill’ the students by depositing within them a form of knowledge that is held to be true and important.[2] The question is: what knowledge is true knowledge, and whose culture (or cultures) are worthy of being passed down?

An interesting point is the difference in the function of education in developing and developed societies: in the first you are taught what you need to learn and in the second you learn what someone else thinks it would be good for you to know. This secondary knowledge has been invented.[3] So, the curriculums in schools in developed societies such as the UK or the United States are devised because whomever is in charge of the curriculum at the time of its construction thinks it would be beneficial to teach children certain things. 

Scruton regards culture as being political by nature. This is true. He then goes on to stereotype the opposing position, arguing that education valorises those individuals who reject or disparage traditional culture, who are awarded with positions of merit in a system that is biased against anything traditional and that such people also venture the view that objective quality doesn’t exist; that one thing isn’t objectively better than another.[4]

This argument seems little disingenuous. I very much doubt that anyone has ever said that teaching the elements of culture that Scruton values is a pointless act. In fact, there a tremendous tradition of working-class engagement with the literary canon. As Jonathan Rose writes in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, “Contrary to all the intentions of the authors, classic conservative texts could make plebeian readers militant and articulate.”[5] Scruton makes a genuinely interesting point that an intrinsic part of the canon is the battle over what belongs in it.[6]

Teachers are alive to this debate. Most of us don’t believe that the content of canonical texts makes them, by their nature, oppressive. Quite the opposite. Many literary works examine a human frailty we empathise with because we suffer from it ourselves. What we sometimes question is their exclusive use; that, for all their exquisiteness or their ugliness, their fragrance or their foulness, there are other versions of literature, and these too could and should be valid objects of study.

While emotion is universal, politics change with time; things shift. This external urging towards devotion to our inner lives and to the study of canonical texts has always been at least a partial distraction technique designed to stop us noticing the difference between our living conditions and those inhabited by those who rule over us; to give us consolation; to delude us into believing in the existence of some transcendental version of justice. The notion of the division of the body and the (arguably non-existent) soul is a genuinely clever means of social control. By making us focus on the kingdom within and having this as an urged, pre-eminent motivator, conservative forces, such as the clergy, distract the attention of the people with the least resources from the kingdom without.

This dualism of body and soul, which children are taught is truth at a very young age, is taken as gospel and written into sacred texts and theological studies: 

"The living soul and the creating spirit are not one, but divided, the one looking after a kingdom without him, the other drawing him to look and wait for a kingdom within him, which moth and rust doth not corrupt and thieves cannot break through or steal. This is a kingdom that will abide, the outward kingdom must be taken from you".[7]

As the kingdom within is the only part of us that will survive (it won’t by the way: it isn’t a thing; the only thing that will last of us, albeit extremely briefly, is the reverberations of our kindnesses), we don’t have to attend to the grievous injustices of the kingdom without since, after our shortish lives of relative misery, the body will die and the soul will receive its reward. (Don’t worry your empty little head about the resources. They aren’t important. We will keep them, though, and look after them.) It is kids’ stuff, the stuff of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, but people buy it and live according to the teachings and claims to morality of a church that repudiates “morality while laying claim to it”.[8]

The classic rebuttal of this somewhat obvious revelation is to reach in the direction of the Bible: “Ah, but young sir, ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’.” People forget that this glib patter is followed by, “but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”.[9] Focus on the world within. Devote yourself to your eternal salvation, to the spiritual world, to perfecting your internal landscape – and don’t focus on the physical world, the hardships that must be endured because of the way our society is organised – and your soul will be in receipt of some of the stuff in the ridiculously imagined classical paintings.

A cultural offer in schools that has no real political relevance, as none of it was written in lifetimes of the students, serves the dominant class very nicely. First, the valorisation of it as the only legitimate culture for study puts it above any form of popular culture. The ruling classes struggle with popular culture, which they view as a ‘fake’ version of culture, because they cannot control it (or sometimes even understand it) and, more than anything, they seek control. Above all things – above even well-articulated opposing political perspectives – totalitarian movements fear the arts; they fear popular culture; they fear working-class creativity. 

Freire writes that “the capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed”.[10] In its higher forms, popular culture and working-class engagement with the arts analyses or describes how society works currently or in the recent past. Popular culture speaks of working-class conditions and can be a means of protest – and protest is bad; therefore, the culture that embodies it must be illegitimate or vulgar.

There are forms of popular culture other than the sugary pop tune. It includes political movements such as the Labour Party and other instruments of political change. Engagement with these is clearly bad because they are such terrible, uncultured brutes, so shut up, ignore their fearful noise, sit in the corner and read Keats instead. No one is against the poetry of Keats (I like him), but the use of the traditional canon in schools does serve several functions in terms of how the social space is organised.

There are, of course – how could there not be? – racial and gender elements to this cultural offer. Women are permitted to feature in canonical texts as characters or as the deeply sexist figure of the muse but, with very few exceptions (Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barratt Browning, George Eliot, the Brontës), they aren’t trusted to do the writing. Also, high culture can only come from Europe. Seen through this lens, white culture, and therefore white people, are innately culturally superior to other cultures and races. The sole use of European literature as the only writing sufficiently ‘intellectual’ to be worthy of study seeks to neuter the worth of the literature produced by immigrant cultures, and thereby writes off the literary traditions of such communities. Furthermore, it acts as a silent technique of coercion for Black and minority ethnic communities to unconsciously assent to white dominance.

The next and smaller of the reasons that the dead white male canon is prescribed is that the children of the dominant are indoctrinated into this version of ‘legitimate’ culture at an early age. It is their home territory, and its exclusive use partially fixes the fight. In the culture wars, one side has a horseshoe in their glove. Many working-class children, even when they grow up, find classical music anathema and modern art to be meaningless. The children of the elite are taught very early on that classical music and abstract art are the legitimate forms, so they learn to develop expertise in these fields, which distinguishes them from the brutish proles who think modern art is a bunch of squiggles that could easily have come from the paintbrush of a four-year-old. (Who is right here?)

Consider why the children of the rich are educated separately from those of the poor. Is it so they can avoid our beastly behaviour? No. It is not. Is it because the teaching in private schools (where you don’t need a teaching qualification) is better? No. The idea is indefensible. Is it so they don’t get to know how clever we are and so can continue to regard us as animals to whom they can do anything they like? 


[1] Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (New York: Encounter, 2007).

[2] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 57.

[3] Sweller et al., Cognitive Load Theory, p. 8.

[4] Scruton, Culture Counts, p. xi.

[5] Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, 2nd edn (London: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 39.

[6] Scruton, Culture Counts, p. 4.

[7] Gerrard Winstanley, Fire in the Bush, in Selections from His Works (London: Cresset Press, 1944 [c.1650]), pp. 30–31.

[8] George Orwell, 1984 (Jura Edition) (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2021 [1949]), p. 42.

[9] Matthew 4:4.

[10] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 54.


Added Mon, 13 May 2024 18:46

web site by island webservices