Traditionalist Education: Introduction


In 1953, Robert Hutchins, long-time president of the University of Chicago, argued that “an educational system without values is a contradiction in terms.”  Hutchins was a unique voice in Cold War education.  He was something of an intellectual child star, serving as the Dean of Yale’s Law School while still in his twenties and rising to the presidency of the University of Chicago at the age of thirty.  Like many child stars, Hutchins developed some unique ideas and pursued them with single-minded obstinacy throughout his career.  To Hutchins, the best education consisted of a thorough training in the Great Books, those classics that had withstood the test of time.  Hutchins loathed the notion that college should primarily train students for work; rather, Hutchins believed higher education should teach students in the arts of thinking and communicating.  The rest could come later.

Hutchins was an odd duck.
Unlike most traditionalist educators, he was not politically conservative.  But he still became
something of a hero to traditionalists with his insistence that students should spend their time with Aristotle instead of football.  Let me point out once again that in these arguments in favor of traditionalist education I will not necessarily be arguing for my own ideas.  I consider myself a fundamentally progressive educator, in that I think that the best education comes from inquiry and discovery rather than rote repetition and regurgitation.  I believe that schools ought to serve as society’s first line of defense against inequality and injustice.  But as with other topics, here I will be trying to imagine arguments that will make sense to people who don’t agree with them.  I will be trying to show that people can have good reasons for believing these things; they don’t have to be ignorant or wicked to do so.

Even though I don’t consider myself an educational traditionalist, I do agree that education must include moral values.  The real questions are: Which values?  And . . . Who decides?  For a lot of traditionalists, moral values are bundled into classroom practice.  School, in their opinion, should teach basic academic skills, the “three Rs.”  The process of teaching those basic academics should be tied up with proper moral upbringing.  For instance, students should be working hard, memorizing multiplication facts and diagramming sentences.  They should obey the teacher’s guidelines and accept her corrections humbly.  The morals are packed into that vision of classroom life: students ought to show respect for authority; they ought to work hard without asking why; they should learn that there is a right answer and a wrong answer—a transcendent good and a transcendent evil—and they should train themselves to choose the good, even when the evil seems more glamorous and enticing.

Traditionalists often package these recommendations in a vision of the past as a time when more people were brought up this way.  One of the stickiest problems for traditionalists is that such rosy visions of the past open them up to charges that they would also prefer other parts of the American past, such as race slavery and gender discrimination.  Do traditionalists notice, their challengers might say, that in their Mayberry vision of what America’s schools ought to be doing, it is only Opie getting an education?  That is, only the white boy is allowed full citizenship, while girls and black kids are only educated—trained—for a supporting role.  But babies should not be thrown out with the bathwater.  In
these posts, we can try to cull from tradition what we want and update it to remove what we do not.  We do not have to discard the entirety just to demonstrate our liberation from our pasts.

Once again, these might not be the arguments that traditionalist educators themselves prefer.  If you consider yourself traditionalist, weigh in.  What are more compelling reasons to promote traditionalist education?  How do you respond to charges that you want to return to a past of institutionalized white supremacy?  What values do you see in a “three Rs” approach that did not make it into these pages?



Robert Hutchins, The Conflict in Education (New York: Harper, 1953).

New Topic: Education

Recent posts have tried to describe reasons why intelligent, informed, well-meaning people might believe either in creation or in evolution.  These arguments haven’t necessarily been the only arguments out there, or the ones that advocates of creation or evolution prefer.  They have merely been my attempts to construct reasons for such differing beliefs.

In upcoming posts, I’ll try to do a similar thing with a new topic: education.  There is not as clear a divide in educational thinking these days; there is not a single bright line dividing educational ideas the way there is between creation and evolution.  Nevertheless, I’ll try to
describe two competing themes that run through educational thinking.  I’ll call them  traditionalism and progressivism.

The labels are tricky, since what I’ll be calling “progressive” thinking about education has a long and influential tradition of its own stretching back to the nineteenth century.  This is the chain of thinking that runs through Pestalozzi, Froebel, Vygotsky, and Dewey all the way through James Banks, Michael Apple, and Paolo Friere.

Traditionalist thinking is also hard to define, since many of its adherents claim to be the true progressives.  Still, there is a clear body of thinking that can be labeled traditionalist; an educational ideological tradition that has fought against progressivist changes since the opening of the twentieth century.

In general, I’ll look at traditionalism as the notion that education is about the transmission of ideas and values.  Traditionalists argue that schools exist to instill a set of information and morals into children.  In addition, traditionalists in this usage insist that a reform of schooling will lead to a general reform of society as well.  By bringing schools back to the “Three Rs,” traditionalists hope to bring American society back to its Godly, patriotic roots.

In contrast, progressives see formal, institutional education—the kind of thing that school is supposed to do—as properly being about discovery and transformation.  Progressives try to view children as persons in their own right, with a rich body of experiences that must be used in order to construct knowledge.  School should facilitate that knowledge construction in each individual, in this view.  School should also work to transform both individuals and society as a whole.  Schools, in the progressive view, have the unique ability to make society less racist, less unequal, and less authoritarian.

It is a muddy field.
American educational thinkers have tended to draw from both sides of these competing visions of education to formulate proposals for improvement in education.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to sketch out reasons why advocates of both sides might have reasonable,
intelligent beliefs, even though the two may disagree entirely.