Recently a nationally published columnist wrote a thoughtful article concerning commencements, the COVID-19 virus, and the importance of tradition. The article reminded readers of the importance of traditions, such as commencements, because they connect the past, present, and future. While all that was written is correct, tradition, like many things of life, carries its own danger.
Having spent forty years working in independent and Catholic schools, I have a thorough understanding of tradition. I appreciate, as the columnist wrote, how it connects generations. However, I also have experienced the downward side of tradition.
During the mid-1990’s I became an administrator in a suburban New Orleans independent school. A new chaplain had also been appointed at the same time, and over the two years he and I shared in the school, his first lesson for me is the one I most remember: “Is it tradition or unexamined habit?”
Whenever I would suggest a new way of doing or change a way of doing something at the school, a teacher would say, “But it’s the way we’ve always done it,” or a student would say, “But it’s our tradition, Mr. Barbee.” As soon as possible after being given this excuse, John the chaplain would say to me, “Tradition or unexamined habit?” The school had some great traditions, but some were awful, especially the supposed ones concerning “rite of passage.” If those were not out and out dangerous, they were sexist, racist, or just hurtful.
Another school in Washington, DC carried the tradition of white dresses, long-stemmed roses, and more for its awards ceremony the day before commencement. Fine. But one part of that day seemed so silly to me. The tradition of white dresses began with the first graduation when about twenty-five students were honored, and a class photograph was taken with all the graduates standing on the south steps leading into the, at that time, only school building. When I arrived as an administrator about one hundred years after the school was founded, it had grown and the graduating classes numbered about eighty. Imagine trying to squeeze that many white dresses into the same space that so easily had framed twenty-five. My suggestion of finding a new site for the photograph was viewed as blasphemy, and I was no better off when for the following year’s photograph, I had the two huge bushes flanking the steps severely trimmed back.
One summer while at Oxford University, the program I worked for needed a large room for a meeting. I asked for and was granted permission to use the SCR (Senior Common Room). To facilitate the meeting’s needs, I slid a large, oak table about six inches closer to a wall. After the meeting, I replaced the table in its original position. The next day when I thanked the Head Porter for the use of the room, I told him about moving the table. He, by good friend Brian, rose out of his chair and said, “But, Roger, that table not’s ever been moved.” I could only answer, “Well, it has been now, Brian.”
Please do not misunderstand me. I value tradition and have been responsible for two traditions in a school in which I worked. Both involve the same school: One is the awards ceremony for the middle school and the citizenship award being named after a dear teacher and administrator; The other is for the upper school that a fellow administrator and I began almost by accident. It seems that we needed a way to bond the boys and girls of our newly merged school, so retreats seemed a sensible way to do bring the high schoolers together. I am pleased that both traditions continue.
But none of that justifies a habit of repeating something just because. Because is a dangerous conjunction when it is used to explain a lazy, poorly thought out manner of doing. It is unjust when used as an excuse for repeating what was done to us as a rite of passage. Most of all, it is dangerous when used to excuse our same old way of doing anything.
A connection with those who came before us and after us will be accomplished by traditions. However, when we become hidebound we will soon sink into unexamined habit. And a habit likely will corrupt our actions because instead of appreciating and enjoying what we are doing, we are like the lemming that just follows.