Tradition!

In Fiddler On the Roof, Tevye regales the audience with the values and ideals of TRADITION—the ways of Jewish village life back in the shtetl. Later, he bemoans the loss of many of these traditions as he and his family try to cope with the matrimonial wishes of his daughters and the consequences of future pogroms.

For Tevye, tradition is good. For his daughters, it can be a pain in the ass and the cause of much heart-ache and remorse.

We are nearing the end of a season of traditions. Family holidays like Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas are steeped in tradition. For some family members, this is good. For others—not so much. Sticking to a strict protocol of family activities, schedules, foods, and practices may be welcomed by grandmothers or by your younger children. Always having to spend Christmas Eve at Aunt Mary’s house may be dreaded by your sixteen year old. Meh.

Taking sides. Setting up contrasts. It’s a tradition.

In discussions about school improvement, some imagine that the people involved fall into two separate camps: the reformers and the traditionalists. Us and them. I suspect that it’s actually more nuanced than this. I know for a fact that, among various contributors, there’s a fair amount of overlap, that the lines can be pretty blurred, and that there are, in reality, many “camps”—many valid and interesting points of view. It isn’t just black and white—there’s a whole lot of gray. The gray may be where the most productive work gets done.

However, I suppose taking sides can be useful. One can simplify a potential debate. One can make a point. One can paint a picture. One can make one’s views appear more appealing than the next guy’s. Because, in this particular case, reform = good. And, tradition? Hmm, … not so good.

The terms tradition and traditional are synonymous with any or all of the following: customary, conventional, established, habitual, practiced, institutionalized, fixed, classic, orthodox, time-honored, handed down, familial, historic. In other words—b-o-r-i-n-g.  

The implications? Old, tired, time-worn, stodgy, old-fashioned, stalled, etc. Seen better days. The same old, same old. And, then there’s that always useful, catchy barb: the status quo. Kurt Adler, the Austrian conductor of classical music, described tradition in a clever way: “What you resort to when you don’t have the time or the money to do it right.”

Antonyms for traditional include new, untried, and unconventional. So, being categorized as a traditionalist these days is not particularly desirable. On the other hand, one could be on the side of education reform.

Synonyms for reform (n.) include correction, change for the better, improvement, advancement, betterment, renovation, progress, rectification. Implications? Reformers are fixers, innovators, and change agents. They favor progress, support advances, and make improvements. If one is cast as a traditionalist—if one is not on the side of reform—doesn’t that mean that one must therefore be against innovation and improvement, opposed to change and advancement, standing in the way of progress? That is distinctly where I and my colleagues do not want to be—either literally or figuratively.

Is it really necessary to create and uphold a dichotomy like reform vs. tradition? Is it helpful? Does it raise any one else’s hackles besides my own?

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