An examination question once read: “Tradition is a thing of the past — discuss”.
We can certainly say that the statement is an accurate description of tradition. Yes, tradition is all about the past; it speaks of the past, it reminds us of the past and it points to the past.
However, the statement can also imply that tradition should remain in the past; if not, we will be stuck in the past.
Dead Poets’ Society is one of the greatest films depicting school life, as it follows the lives of a group of boys in a boarding school who are inspired by their progressive English teacher to read the writings of poets long dead: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is full of passion.” Though the poets are now dead, their words live on.
In fact, the teacher urges his pupils, while they live, to listen to these poets because the poets are dead and can no longer “seize the day” for themselves.
Interestingly, and ironically, the school stands for the voices from the past. The school set great weight on its four pillars, “Tradition, Honour, Discipline,
Excellence”, with tradition very much at the front of the queue. They prided themselves on their traditions, their past and their achievements. Everything about the school was to do with tradition. Indeed, the film showed how their teaching was very much traditional: rote learning, repetitive exercises, textbook cramming.
Yet the pupils did not share the school’s pride; the pupils referred to the four pillars as “Travesty, Horror, Decadence, Excrement”.
Even today, schools place a great deal of significance on their traditions, be it by the Board, Head, former pupils, parents, pupils.
They can be quick to pull out their trump card and declare that something is “tradition” as if that one word makes it all acceptable and appealing. Such people might do well to heed the words of Warren Ellis, when he said: “Tradition is one of those words conservatives use as a shortcut to thinking.”
Let us think, therefore, for a short while about tradition.
Tradition generally is often not significant, like giving roses on Valentine’s Day or a family having trifle every Sunday lunch. Tradition is not written down anywhere; it is somehow passed on from one group to another. For the most part, tradition is not necessary, even if it may be nice to have. Above all, tradition is not law, otherwise it would be called ‘law’!
Then if it is not those things, what is it? In the minds of the pupils in the film, it is a travesty; it gives a false, absurd, distorted view of what the school is really like, namely horror, decadence and excrement neatly dressed up as honour, discipline and excellence. Is tradition simply habit, in the sense that “we always do things this way”? Is it merely an excuse to keep on doing the same old things? Is it purely a convenient custom that requires little real thought?
Is it in effect just superstition whereby we think because it has worked in the past, it will work for us in the present? Is it no more than “Do to others because they did it to you”? Are what we consider to be traditions still helpful, meaningful or relevant today, when the world has changed so dramatically and rapidly?
Defenders of traditions will declare the traditions are “good for the pupils” — but maybe other things can be better? Some will avow there is “no harm in the traditions” — but is there any good in them?
In the light of the film’s title, Dead Poets’ Society the words of GK Chesterton have greater interest and significance: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Why do we allow the past to determine what is happening today? Interestingly,
Mark Twain pointed out that “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” That would appear to be true in schools.
However, we would do well to heed the words of W Somerset Maugham who said: “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer.”
Is tradition little more than a travesty? Tradition may have helped us to get to where we are now, but will it help us to go forward into the future? The fact is, as Jose Andre points out: “The modernity of yesterday is the tradition of today and the modernity of today is the tradition of tomorrow.” We are to seize the day, according to the Dead Poets’ Society, not seize the tradition. If we do not, then, quite literally (as in by finding its anagram), tradition is simply a mixed-up “idiot rant”.
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.