Wrestling with the Word: “Traditional”

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

“School reform” in American history has a long tortuous history. Invariably, efforts to improve public schooling sprouted during widespread national reforms such as the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, the civil rights struggle in mid-20th century, and business-driven attempts to harness schooling to the economy in the closing decades of the same century.

Invariably, these reformers trotted out the word “traditional” for institutions and practices that had to change. For those familiar with Ngrams, note that the rise and fall of the phrase “traditional schools” track the above reform movements.

None of the language used and vigorous reform efforts to improve American schools surprise historians of education familiar with the century-and-a-half changes that have occurred in U.S. schools. Reformers have often touted innovations in education as ending “traditional” schooling or “traditional” teaching.

The word “traditional,” then, in a culture that prizes new ideas and gadgets, that richly rewards…

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