Tradition Without a Last Word

In yesterday’s comments on the second chapter of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, I ended with a conundrum: “When a school lacks such a tradition [of literary study], and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it.” Three paragraphs into the third chapter, Bromwich brings up a similar but more complex problem:

But a difficult paradox holds together the idea of a nonrestrictive tradition. Before it can be reformed intelligently, it must be known adequately; and yet, unless one recognizes that it can be reformed, one will come to know it only as a matter of rote—with the result that the knowledge of a tradition will seem as unimaginative a business as the knowledge of an alphabet or catechism.

In his book, Bromwich is talking mainly about higher education, yet the paradox of curriculum and tradition applies to K–12 education as well. The problem is this: in the loudest diatribes of the right and the left, tradition is either upheld as an authority or bashed as an authority. Bromwich defends tradition not as an authority but as a context for thoughtful discourse, solitude, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Unfortunately such an idea of tradition has been losing ground in higher education; instead, universities have been rewarding specialized and marginal knowledge in the name of professionalism. If you have a niche, you are marketable. Your work may not be understood by your colleagues, but that’s part of the point.

At the same time, many academics have come to see their institutions as microcosms of society; thus they attach great political importance to their choices within the classroom. The outside society, in the meantime, has lost much of its former nerve for informed discourse, so it relegates this formerly public activity to closed institutions. Thus, in a twisted way, the most virulent academic opponents of authoritative tradition have an entrenched authority of their own.

Like the book as a whole, the chapter is subtle and intricate; a summary does it poor justice. But I would like to take on this idea of tradition versus authority and suggest that, while no tradition should have ultimate authority, a certain kind of authority may be necessary for an open and changing tradition.

At the start of the chapter, Bromwich distinguishes between “the traditional study of the humanities” and “the study of tradition in the humanities.” The two concepts, he observes, are too often confused and mixed together. “Attacks on the first,” he writes, “tend to shade into attacks on the second, without understanding the very different challenge this entails. At the same time, defenses of the second often try to cover the first as well.”

The confusion he describes has grown worse. People on the right and left attack “traditional schools” (which of course house traditional pedagogy and traditional curriculum) as though they even existed and were all of a kind. The very word “traditional” carries negative connotations. Many proponents of free-market education use it with disdain today, implying that some thuggish gang of recalcitrant teachers has been thwarting rapid change and “results.” Many progressives distrust it too; they hold that traditional things impede the creativity and initiative of the child. So, when defending tradition, one ends up defending, willy-nilly, both traditional pedagogy (if there is such a thing) and traditional curriculum. In fact, under current conditions they are often of a piece.

The reason is this: to read anything of substance, you have to be willing to quiet down and listen—not only to the teacher, but to the book itself. I mean “listen” in the sense of taking the words, sounds, patterns, structures, and ideas into your mind, making sense of them, raising questions, following those questions as far as they will go, and reading again. So, for a little while at least, the book or the teacher has to become the authority—in that you will shut up for that short stretch of time to hear what it or he or she has to say.

It is temporary authority, yes. But it is still authority. If a student does not believe that he has anything to learn from a book or teacher, then he might as well keep on talking and talking and talking. For me, that has been the most dispiriting aspect of being a teacher: that some students will not stop talking, during class, about matters that have nothing to do with class. They see neither the subject matter nor the teacher as an authority. Most of my students over the years have not done this, but a few have. Such talk, when it persists, can ruin a lesson. The common “strategies” go against the grain of what I am trying to do. Keep them busy at every moment, some advise. Hold them accountable for every step. Never leave them without something to do, something that will have consequences for them. I reject this as an overall approach (though I have to use aspects of it for survival). It is unfair to the students who come in prepared and willing to learn. Not only that, but it shortchanges the subject matter.

So a certain sense of authority, a certain kind of respect, is essential even for intelligent questioning of authority. To question authority well, you have to know what it is. To know what it is, you have to pay attention to it. To pay attention to it, you must give it temporary authority (which may seem like a lot of authority to some).

There’s even more reason to uphold a certain kind of authority. I wish I could take one of Bromwich’s courses. I wish I had done so long ago. I would do this not just to be in the midst of the thoughts and insights of peers, but primarily to hear what he had to say, to read the books he had chosen for the course, and to sense the effect on class discussions and my own thinking. A professor brings something to the students’ own thinking that wouldn’t be there otherwise—and so, in a different way and at a different level, does the schoolteacher. Our best teachers’ words and gestures stay with us, even after we begin questioning aspects of what they say. They have a lasting authority of a kind.

But Bromwich is criticizing a different kind of authority–a rigid, closed world, be it a “culture of assent” (that clings to a “canon”) or a “culture of suspicion” (that rejects anything suggestive of a canon). Both have a set of “socializing codes.” Neither one is tradition as it should be. “Traditions are made of something more,” Bromwich writes. “They offer, in fact, a kind of solitude, and a kind of company.”

Yes–and the solitude and company require a sense of measure:  a sense of when to listen and when to speak, when to question and when to hold back from questioning. This is not a question of propriety; it does not follow absolute rules, except for basic ones. The proportions come with time, and they are not fixed. They require, at the outset, a willingness to defer (in some ways) to something that one does not yet know. I don’t think Bromwich would disagree. This is, indeed, an aspect of the paradox that he brings up at the start of the chapter.

Note: I revised this piece on November 20.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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