Tradition Keeps Us Irrelevant

But Relevance keeps us re-inventing the wheel.

Tradition! Tradition!

The opening lines of “Fiddler on The Roof” echo in my childhood memory as a call from my ancestors to honor my past, but also conform to it. I imagine that the three sisters at the heart of the musical felt the same way, because each in their turn fought between those dichotomies.

For the uninitiated, and the non-musical people who are missing out on a world of wonder and fun, Fiddler on The Roof is a musical about a 19th-Century Jewish village in Russia. The protagonist is Tveye, a dairy farmer with three teenage daughters. It is the age of matchmakers, arranged marriages, strict family roles, villages run by the local Rabbi, and – you got it – tradition. If you haven’t heard the opening song of this iconic show, stop reading right now and take a listen. Although the musical opens with this great, ringing call from the past, traditions start unraveling almost immediately. Tveye is persuaded to let his eldest daughter marry for love instead of the suitor arranged for her. The tailor brings a sewing machine – yes! how heretical! – to the village. One daughter leaves home for Siberia, another marries a Christian (and is, btw, shunned), and in the end this little pre-Bolshevik Jewish community is banished from their home by oppression from the ruling class.

Yes, it’s a cheery one. But, oddly enough, a story I felt a personal connection to.

I grew up in the 80’s, an era in which you would expect that things like loyalty to God and a household run by the “Papa” would be a non-existent thing of the past. But I also grew up Mormon, a religion that to this day upholds those ancient “traditions.” I was raised to become a “mother of God,” not like Mary, the literal mother of God, but a mother of as many children that God would deem me to have. My only worth, and it was a “big” worth, was to marry young, have lots of children, be a homemaker, and maybe, if I was lucky, to die and be resurrected with my husband. For eternity. Even at the age of 15, I began to question this plan. My life decided for me by old men in Salt Lake City, Utah? I don’t think so. I felt like the youngest Fiddler daughter, Chava, who began questioning this demand for tradition as soon as she was old enough to understand it. (She was the one that married the non-Jew.)

And yet, thousands, even millions, of young LDS girls all over the world follow these instructions blindly. They do their duty and they marry a young man who has returned from their two-year mission and they have kids and they deny themselves a career and they go to church and cook Sunday roast and smile for the pictures in perfectly matching clothes. Quite frankly, it makes me kind of sick. And sad. Mostly sad.

Why do they do it? (Bet you can see this coming) Yes, Tradition! Because it’s easier, even in the face of a changing world around you, even with the inner voices telling you something else entirely, to stick with the status quo, honor those who came before, stay in the village, keep things the same. Nevermind that you don’t know why those traditions are there in the first place.

I left the Mormon church when I was 17. Too many contradictions, too many clashes with the reality of the world, and too many demands for my soul.

We can make this same mistake. Tradition doesn’t always look this obviously oppressive. Sometimes it disguises itself as nostalgia, or a longing for the “Golden Age” when everything was better. Sometimes tradition comes wrapped in comfort, safety, the status quo, the natural desire not to rock the boat or move away from what has worked before.

Tradition, nostalgia, comfort zones, whatever you call it, keeps us stuck in irrelevancy.

What if the village elders in Fiddler had refused to allow something as dangerous, and helpful, as a sewing machine into their homes? How long would those mothers slaving at home remain satisfied with hand-sewing their spouses’ and childrens’ clothes? The sewing machine flew in the face of tradition. But nostalgia for the hand stitching that ruled for centuries (even millennia), would have left them uneccesarliy keeping a practice that is irrelevant to the times.

This is where we stand in education. Choosing what has worked before over what we need now.

We are so steeped in the traditions of past teaching that our practices have ceased to be relevant to the current state of the world. At the same time, there are those who are jumping ahead of us by abandoning the establishment and providing an education that is relevant to our changing times.

Public education, meanwhile, is left in the dust by the nostalgia, the status quo, of a centuries-old system.

Public education is stuck in the place where Tevye is stuck – upholding tradition for tradition’s sake without understanding the how and the why. We keep banging our heads against the same wall, all the time watching as those with the resources and the understanding speed past us in private and alternative systems. Our students at the bottom remain at the bottom because we can’t get our heads around the reality that we can’t keep hand-sewing our clothes. We can’t keep expecting things to be the same when they are not the same as they were before.

On the other hand, though, ignoring the past entirely doesn’t work either.

Striving for relevancy in this changing world makes us deny what the past can teach us.

A brand-new-sparkling-million-dollar school was just built in my district. I work in a school district with a huge range of socio-economic situations, many different colors, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and an ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” And yet, this new school was not built in a central location to serve a diverse population, nor was it built on the “poor” side of town to serve the kids who need it the most. It was built in the most wealthy part of town. But – don’t worry – they’re going to provide an equitable education to the entire city. By bussing. By taking kids from the other communities across town and placing them in a school far away from their friends. So they can have this glittering new fangled education as well.

Sound familiar?

How about America in the 1960’s, post-Brown vs. Board of Education, when segregation was deemed unlawful and schools attempted to integrate. Did they spend money on the black schools that were already thriving? Did they mix black and white children equally in both black and white schools? NO. They bussed black kids to the white schools. And what happened? Exactly what you would expect to happen. Black students felt isolated and displaced. White students felt imposed upon and invaded. Black communities were divided, white communities were provoked into hostility. From there it’s white flight, red-lining, defunding of “bad” schools, and a national average graduation rate of 50% for the very same schools that thought they were being “equal.”

But here we are, doing it all again.

Building fancy schools that give easy access to the higher parts of society. Bussing kids across town in the name of providing that access for lower parts of society. And we expect it to be different this time. An attempt at kicking “tradition” in the name of “culturally-relevant” education results in making the exact same mistakes we’ve done time and time again.

This is only one example. Here’s a few more examples in a nutshell:

  • As a music educator, I think it is a sin to remain entrenched in the practices of the Western music trifecta of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. I also think it is a mistake to ignore the strong influence they had/have on music today. It is not “selling out” to include music and musical practices that are more recent than 1900. What about connecting the rhythms of Eminem with the rhythmic patterns in Bach? What about showing students that electric guitars and sound mixing boards and auto-tuning are the same as Mozart playing on a pianoforte instead of a harpsichord, and Beethoven changing the pianoforte into the modern piano?
  • What about reading? The new science of learning to read says that students learn to read by putting together individual sounds (phonemes) with combinations of sounds (syllables) to decode language. And yet, we still teach whole-word memorization, spelling tests, and rote learning that doesn’t help someone read antidisestablishmentarianism.
  • While I’m on the subject of reading, how about content. If we want to raise diverse populations to read and lead in the future, we HAVE to include texts that appeal to the kids to keep them reading, and books that equally represent cultures and peoples all over the world. But do we have to abandon the traditions of Shakespeare (and others) at the same time? There is nothing inherently oppressive about Shakespeare. In fact, he himself was controversial and culturally relevant at his time. And we wouldn’t have most of the literature that provides equal representation without him. Teach about the dangers of gangs with Romeo and Juliet, show what a strong woman can do in Taming of the Shrew, and talk about bullying with Merchant of Venice. And, also, give kids texts that include people that look, live, and sound like them.
  • Math education – don’t get me started. Finding new “relevant” ways of teaching math is LITERALLY reinventing the wheel, or, rather, reinventing the mathematical practices that weren’t invented by the old, dead, white, guys but discovered by them.
  • Finally, insert your field of study or your teaching content and I bet you can provide equal examples of either tradition or relevancy winning the day.

Can we achieve balance between the past and the future?

I hope we can. Tevye couldn’t. That’s why he lost his daughters, one by one. The Mormon church can’t. Their only hope is that they own Utah. And Pepsi, although I’d have to fact-check that.

I hope that education can balance our insistence on remaining stuck in the mud of the status quo on one hand with our forward progression toward relevance at all costs on the other hand.

The future of our children depends on this.

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