Sunday, May 2, 2010


Fiddler on the Roof, despite the notable song, not about the maintenance of tradition but its decline.  This election the UK apparently threatens tradition, resulting in this column.  While it was informative about the election, I really enjoyed it for the last few paras on tradition:

When you look at traditions closely, examine what they really are, you realize they’re made up of layers and layers of deferrals, delays, indecisions, tomorrows and long lunches. Their very weight and awkwardness defy examination and smother change. They are the immovable object that sits with its back to the unstoppable force.
Other people’s traditions look charming and decorative and exotic. They’re nice places to visit on holiday, but you wouldn’t want to live with one. They’re like having a mad, invalid aunt in the attic.
All too soon, the inertia of competing arguments can lead to a comfortable stasis. You find you do it this way because you’ve always done it this way, time flies and, before you know it, you’ve grown a tradition where there once was a view.
I have always, always, always hated doing things because they were traditional or interpretations of old traditions--one reason why I always had problems with religious events and services.  I have never found tradition to be a good reason by itself for doing anything.  I need to see the costs and benefits of today and for the future, the moral, ethical, political, and logical justifications.  Because it was always done this way is a poor reason. If x was always done because there were good reasons for it and those reasons still apply, then okey dokey.  But if x was always done because there used to be good reasons for it, then perhaps we should try something else. 

This is one of things that drives me crazy about academia and especially McGill--that things are always done a certain way because they were always done this way.  Of course, one could say that about tenure, but I think there are still good reasons for that tradition (self-serving ones, of course).


Jacob T. Levy said...

Harumph. Not every problem is the same problem. Some particular local suboptimal equilibrium is not "tradition;" it might be just habit, or it might genuinely be a local optimum, hard to evolve away from. (Path dependence matters.)

Academia inverts the old saying. Any grad student who is not an innovator and anti-traditionalist on matters on substance has no brain-- because they should be filled with grand ideas and ambitions for new discoveries.

But any professor who is not a traditionalist on matters of form and ritual has no heart. We inhabit grand old institutions-- the longest-standing institutions in the west besides the Church. We are the custodians of those institutions, which each have particular traditions and also share in widespread ones. The robes and Latin have their purpose; so do the dusty books in the library; so does the annual rhythm of students coming and going with the seasons. Even the technocrattiest of economists should be able to appreciate this and have some affection for the local traditions as well as the traditions of the university as such. And I've known a good many who can and do.

Without it, we all end up as business school faculty at the University of Phoenix right quick.

Steve Saideman said...

I knew I could count on you to defend tradition. I don't mind traditions that are cost-free or even have benefits. I do like rituals (pomp and circumstance always gets me where my heart should be, if I had one).

I just find the excuse of "we always did it this way" to get in the way of progress--yes, that enemy of tradition. And if you say that progress for the sake of progress is problematic, I will have to compare you to Professor Umbridge.

Bill Ayres said...

Traditions are useful things where they contain, hold, and maintain meaning for a particular group of people. The meaning they may contain may itself be unchangeable - there are many underlying constants in the human condition, else we would not see two thousand year threads in literature, for example. Tradition may be a means of capturing and passing on that meaning - for a particular group.

That said, we all know that meaning is very community-specific. My traditions don't apply to you if you're not a part of my community.

Academia's problem is that its traditions, for the most part, don't convey shared meanings, they are simply tools used (usually by administrators, sometimes by faculty) to block change or maintain control - a separate animal altogether.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Umbridge was appointed to an unprecedented position at Hogwarts, changed the governance structure of the school, disrupted tenure, changed personnel, instituted lots of new rules, and created a new student thug squad. She's an evil reformer, ignoring tradition at every step!

The proliferation of new codified rules and offices and titles is a sure sign that you've got an anti-traditionalist efficiency-minded reformer on your hands.