Like many people born after World War II, tradition doesn’t come easily to me. We’ve prided ourselves on making our parents justify every practice they tried to pass on to us. If it didn’t make sense to us, it was oppressive or foolish and should be stopped. Automatic acceptance of tradition was unthinkable.
Tradition was another way of saying “we’ve always done it that way” even though no one could explain why. Tradition seemed to be something someone made up a long time ago and everyone since had to follow along even though it made no sense. Unthinking robots adhered to tradition and impersonal society imposed tradition on people. Tradition was the civilization Huck Finn escaped from and Tevye complained about.
But gradually I’ve come to see the value of tradition. Let me explain. What is tradition? Tradition simply means practices handed down from generation to generation. Note that each generation must practice them in order to pass them on to the next generation. So tradition preserves practices through time. However, traditions are usually not unchangeable; every generation makes some modifications. Here are seven reasons why tradition is valuable.
Tradition is a good place to begin. We may wonder how best to do something but often it is something that has been done many, many times before us. Why go to all the trouble of coming up with a new way of doing things when there is a way that worked before? If no good reason exists to do things another way, go with tradition. The burden of proof is on someone who would change things to show that these changes are better than tradition.
Tradition is familiar. We learn many traditions growing up. We hear or read stories that show traditional practices. People know their roles and the roles of others. But new practices may be strange and confusing; they have to be explained to people who may be skeptical of them or comfortable with a well-worn path. Tradition is like a friend we’ve known for years.
Tradition is empirical. There is a history of experience with tradition. Many others have tried tradition and found that it works. There is a kind of science to tradition: traditions have been tested many times and the results are well known. New ideas lack the knowledge-base of tradition; they need years of experience to fully check them out. Tradition is “tried and true”.
Tradition is evolutionary. Each generation has an opportunity to make minor modifications so traditions are never out of date. Traditions can be adjusted to suit new circumstances. Major blunders are avoided because something that has worked before will work again more or less. There is change as well as continuity.
Tradition is non-ideological. Because tradition evolves and incorporates change gradually, there is no one ideology that drives the process. Tradition is far different from an ideology that would revolutionize things according to some rule or idea. Many things influence tradition over the years. No party or faction controls tradition.
Tradition is worth passing on. Life is short and each generation desires to pass on something significant to the next generation. Tradition is a valuable gift for parents to give their children. It allows each generation to feel part of a chain of events reaching back in time and forward in the future. Tradition connects generations across time.
Tradition is long-lasting. Many things come and go in life but tradition continues year after year. Traditions begin in the distant past and continue for a long time. Fashions change year to year. Many new ideas are short-lived. Tradition remains through it all.
In the end it’s not that tradition has been fully justified. But I don’t demand that tradition be justified anymore. I may still wonder why a tradition is the way it is but there are other things I wonder about more. Tradition simply is. It’s everything else that needs to be justified.