So what is “traditional” education, anyway? (A historical perspective)

Another one of the cages that I think many educators or perhaps more accurately educational reformers are stuck in is the notion that there is some monolithic “traditional” form of education that we must push back against and change. You see this in the language of reformers of all stripes; you even seen this in the work of 20th century historians of education, many of whom invoke this term. I am thinking in particular of Larry Cuban, who I very much admire, but whose work does seem to leave me feeling stuck in this dichotomous bubble: “traditional” education on the one hand, with alternatively, politically-left “child-centered” or “progressive” reforms, or politically right conservative or “back to basics” reforms. It’s all very much the language of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it often leaves me wondering what exactly traditional education really means.

It’s a rhetorical term, in a sense: one that invokes tradition, which is, for reformers, antiquated and ineffective, possibly unjust. Press a little deeper, and it means a whole variety of things. Sometimes it’s synonymous with “teacher-centered” education. This is the case with Cuban’s work. Other times, it’s a particularly harsh kind of teacher-centered education, the sort brought to mind by “masters” who whip their pupils, insist upon “facts” rather than emotions as the center of education (as Dickens caricatured in Hard Times). Other times, it’s synonymous with the “factory model” of education — the legacy of the administrative progressives in the early 20th century. If the term is used by the right, it’s sometimes taken as a positive, commonsensical form of education, contrasted with the flighty, Romantic ideals of progressives like John Dewey.

Even in Dewey, you see it, this uneasy relationship with “traditional” education, and — in my view — some real disclarity describing what exactly that is.

Just because something is old does not mean that it’s “traditional” education, either. Rousseau, for example, surely doesn’t seem like anyone’s idea of “traditional”; he’s clearly rebelling against tradition himself, and his work is typically used to invoke educational reform against traditional ed even to this day (if not by name, then certainly in spirit).

But there’s something deeper there, some deeper groundings in where “traditional” education really came from. This thought had been gnawing away at me for some time.

Then a few weeks back, I picked up a copy of “A History of Western Educational Ideas” by British professors Denis Lawton and Peter Gordon. It’s one of those fairly dry but highly informative textbooks that you really have to stick with but which rewards persistence. It’s taught me a lot so far about a historical perspective on what exactly has shaped our understanding of “traditional” education.

For starters, the whole notion of the influence of religious traditions on education in the whole western tradition is fascinating to me. This importance simply cannot be overstated. It’s immense.

Lawton and Gordon describe the incredible extent to which formal education was largely religious during much of the medieval period. They describe the importance of the Judaic tradition, then the taking over of the Roman grammar schools by the Christians starting in the 300s, and the assertion that by 500 AD, educational was primarily religious in nature. Monastic education was an important influence on educational thinking and practice by the 500s, as was the development of cathedral schools, which were essentially a continuation the Roman grammar schools, but focused on educating the clergy. Education for the rest of the population, too, was also primarily religious, but very basic.

Later, by the 1100s, the need for even better educated clergy saw the rise of the first universities; bishops would license groups of teachers to prepare clerics. These universities were created in direct response to the fact that the monasteries and cathedral schools were not providing a good enough level of instruction for religious leaders.

The “dominant approach to education” during the period from the 1000s to the 1400s, that practiced in the universities, was Scholasticism — which the authors call a system of education derived with the goal of “harmonizing” the competing authorities, such as scripture versus an emperor’s rules, or the ideas of Aristotle. The method was for an instructor to read a text aloud (books themselves being scarce) — this reading was called the “lectio” — the origin of the modern “lecture.” This was followed by the master posing questions to check for understanding (the “quaestio”), followed by the “disputio” — a class debate using the strict rules of Aristotle’s logic. The goal was for “any inconsistencies could be argued away” — albeit logically, not empirically.

Although this process shared much with the Greco-Roman tradition of rhetorical training, it was focused on the concept of truth as represented by authorities, rather than by truth as existing externally to be discovered by man through reasoning or through observation and analysis. The importance of words and ideas was more important than that of “things” in the world.

Since I had never heard of this tradition, I found this fascinating — the notion that the modern lecture — really, the epitome of what most everyone means when they describe “traditional education” even to today — is specifically descended from a religious tradition. The other thing that stands out is that the debate during the entire medieval period in education (and even the cultural debate at the time) seems to be one between classical Greek and Roman ideas (“pagan” ideas) versus Christian ideas. Much of Lawton and Gordon’s book highlights this tension over and over again. There are, it seems to me, important similarities between the Greek model of the “academy” (which this book does not even mention, interestingly) and the monastic and scholastic ideal represented in the early universities.

It is interesting, too, to consider that universities have as their raison d’etre both a central focus on vocational education, as well as on a specifically religious vocational training. They were designed, in a sense, to promote, not the classical/Renaissance ideals of humanism, or the Enlightenment ideals of inquiry and tolerance, but a kind of reconciliation of competing claims with the over-riding authority of a religious tradition. It’s not so simple as the basic transmission of religious values or truth — not at all — but it’s surely not focused on pursuing the “truth” and questioning whatever stands in the way (which the authors allude to coming later — Renaissance skepticism and and empiricism — and which brought down the scholastic tradition in part).

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten now, but I can see there’s a whole chapter on the Reformation and the Counter-reformation, and a whole chunk on the Jesuits.

This whole notion of cracking open the black box of “traditional” education feels important. It gets you out of this box in which the only alternatives are the kind of freedom, on the one hand, represented by the romantics, and on the other hand, a kind of strict, harsh pedagogy represented by the Victorian squares. Either way, I’m learning a lot.