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DAVID BLUNKETT, echoing his master's voice, has told the schools they must spend more time teaching what one newspaper called "traditional moral values". Taken by itself, this is an unhelpful phrase. It's not so much the moral that's the problem; if you ask almost any teacher what he or she means by moral they will probably say they mean things like keeping out of trouble, standing by the pregnant girlfriend and observing as many as they can remember of the Ten Commandments. Not much disagreement there, provided that they keep the lesson simple. Nor need we linger over values, which, as I have said here before, is just a cant word for what grandfather would have called virtues.

No, traditional is the fuzzy one. It started off all right, though there was a slight blip in the 15th century because the Latin traditio meant a delivery, or surrender, and some people took tradition to mean betrayal, as to an enemy. But mostly it meant what it roughly does today: less of a handing over, more of a handing down, probably by word of mouth, like traditional folk music. A tradition wasn't something you argued about. It was passed from the parent to the child who passed it on in turn. It was received wisdom.

There came a point, however, when this perfectly simple and generally understood meaning began to lose its shape. Instead of thinking of traditional as being about something that had survived, established by time, people thought of it as meaning "old" if not positively old-fashioned and out- of-date. It's hard to say when this happened. Shakespeare has the Duke of Buckingham in King Richard III telling Cardinal Bourchier that he's "too ceremonious and traditional", but we are expected to be on the cardinal's side here, because the Duke was a baddy who wanted to kidnap the queen's little son, and Shakespeare was a traditionalist himself. The big 1989 Oxford English Dictionary has "bound by tradition" as one of its definitions, with an ill-tempered quote from Milton about people who were "as ignorant and traditional as their forefathers", but it labels this use "obsolete" and "rare". I wonder. It must have been rare enough then, but it's surely no longer obsolete now. The OED defines traditionalism as, among other things, "excessive reverence for tradition" (my italics) and dates this meaning from 1860. Chesterton called tradition "the democracy of the dead" in 1908, and 40 years later there was a scramble to be less ceremonious and traditional among the traditional public schools, when they realised that education was not, after all, a matter of Greek paradigms and when to do up which waistcoat buttons.

To be traditional, then, is as often a bad thing as a good one, with the balance slightly in favour of the bad. Those who ask for a "return to traditional values" are implying that tradition is good, but also that it is old-fashioned, values having changed. The problem for the hapless teachers now being lectured by the Education Secretary is therefore obvious. How far back do they go? How traditional do we want them to get? Who knows? Leave 'em alone, Mr Blunkett.

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