Traditione Innititur Timore: Why School Traditions Are a Really Bad Thing


The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself. (BRUCE LEE, Tao of Jeet Kune Do)

I happened to be involved in a Twitter chat a while ago where concept of ‘tradition’ raised its ugly, wrinkled head. My immediate response to this was a slight case of the mental dry heaves. It took me a few days to process this reaction. Why did I react so badly to a concept that on the surface seems to be a good thing?

I think, in essence, it was because the mindless throwing about of the term by a group of exciting, dynamic teachers hurt my sense of irony. Twitter chats are about exchanging exciting new ideas in education. Tradition is about keeping out-dated and dangerous practices on life-support.

What do we mean when we talk about a school’s traditions? Some argue that it is like a safety blanket for students, teachers and administrators alike. They say it helps kids to ‘fit in’ and to feel like they belong, and it gives staff a sense of continuity. It’s an ‘ethos’ that gives a school its character.

This is all a lie.

Traditions are simply archaic rules that you want to entrench by calling them traditions. Tradition means doing what you’ve always done and obscuring the real reasons you’re doing it. You don’t question a tradition. Traditions are inculcated by schools simply because they make students easier to control. Students can never criticize any of these traditions because they’re traditions. They’re trapped in a circular argument designed to be self-reinforcing.

It is no coincidence that most traditions are about archaic rules. Tradition means you are able to strictly enforce uniform regulations and that you worry more about the length of a student’s hair and what’s stuck on their faces and in their ears than you do about what’s in their heads. Tradition means war cries and tribalism. It means group-think and conformity, and students become so brainwashed by a school’s traditions that they begin enforcing it themselves.

It’s classic social engineering.

Traditions reinforce fear and hierarchy rather than cooperation and intrinsic motivation. It means threats of detention and being ostracized if students don’t comply with the masses. It’s no coincidence that traditions become more venerated as you go up in the hierarchy. It’s also no coincidence that schools label those who push against their traditions as ‘problem cases’.

Tradition means the subtle sanctioning of bullying through ‘initiations’, ‘senior privileges’, ‘last days’ and other forms of student-on-student violence.

Tradition means cute Latin mottos that teachers always seem to know better than students, because they use them like mothers use stories of the boogeyman: “Remember, Harold, ‘Progress Through Fortitude’!”

Give me a break.

By painting a vague veneer of historical significance over what you do, and calling it tradition, you also give credence to outdated practices and pedagogies. You trap the entire school community into not progressing. And sadly, many of them like it this way. Mostly because it’s easier just to fit in than it is to fight.

In fact, show me any school tradition, and I’ll show you a thinly disguised piece of fear-mongering, psychological manipulation and social engineering.

And don’t talk to me about ‘Visions’ and ‘Expectations’ and ‘Core Values’ and whatever other word you try to use to mean the same thing.

And if you still think there are some traditions which are ‘special’ and ‘beautiful’, think about the true purpose which underlies them and then tell me if you still think they have value.

If you really want your school to be a hive of innovation, meaningful learning and personal growth, then know that such an atmosphere emerges from intentional and sincere collective action, not coercion and mass manipulation. Before you put it on your school’s prospectus and your marketing material, put it into your classrooms, your assessments and your school’s wider curriculum. Develop meaningful school habits that are open to debate and criticism.

I think for myself, thank you. And want my students to do the same.

You can keep your traditions.

Thank you for reading. Please post your responses in the comments box below.

Every tradition grows ever more venerable – the more remote its origin, the more confused that origin is. The reverence due to it increases from generation to generation. The tradition finally becomes holy and inspires awe. (FRIEDERICH NIETZSCHE, Human, All Too Human)

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  1. I have long felt the same way but never delved deeply into my thoughts on this topic. Instead, I carried only a vague sense of distrust and a general loathing of tradition and ritual. Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts into words. It was as if I had sneezed and my thoughts appeared on the screen before me.


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