by Monim Wains
Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of tradition is the idiom in the title of this article; tradition is nothing but old habits that refuse to stay in the past where they first began. Of course, this sounds quite critical. With the constant need for change and improvement in the world, old habits seem like an unfortunate leftover from times and generations gone by: a relic as old as the buildings surrounding us in the city of dreaming spires.
Yet here we are, at home in buildings whose facades require constant maintenance to hide the crumbling interior. An interesting comparison, isn’t it? But it is this prestigious bastion of research and science that you signed up to, in large part because this university is a prestigious bastion of research and science. Clearly then, tradition cannot be inherently bad. Old habits became old habits because they were good habits, and so it is with tradition. It begins with good reason.
Wearing gowns and mortarboards to the Sheldonian Theatre for matriculation is one of the weird traditions in Oxford that is clearly a relic from the past. Yet I can’t help but admit that the tradition has a certain charm to it. It is egotistical, no doubt, to feel special just because you got to wear a silly hat and walked into a building so old the fire regulations aren’t even legal by today’s standards (seriously, check the signs around the building), but that charm does exist. Is it enough to justify traditions that showcase the strange bubble that Oxford refuses to leave? By pointing to the fact that it is fun? I think so. Not so much because it is fun, but because it is comforting – though literally becoming a tourist attraction for a day was something I’m going to remember for a long time.
One of the most powerful benefits of tradition is a sense of unity and culture. Even though flappy black cloaks unironically named commoner’s gowns are plainly silly, they are representative of a legacy of leadership and excellence historically attributed to the university. By wearing them, it is a not so subtle reminder that we have now begun the same journey through this intense system as classes of people before us. It is a symbol of the legacy we may now make our own.
Obviously, I can’t believe that I will really be part of the legacy of this university, unless it is in the most insignificant of ways. It is far too old and great for any individual to think of leaving a lasting mark except by luck. Instead of having to face that probability, tradition lets us bask in inherited glory and lets us pretend (quite unreasonably) that we might become part of that legacy. It is an excuse to lump together all the triumphs of the past and take ownership of them. An identity made up of everything no one today could possibly identify with.
Nevertheless, identity is important. It creates a community that you belong to, even if, at times, that legacy is as daunting as it is grand. This is something that extends well beyond university. Every show of nationality and culture is tainted with an element of the old, of tradition that has hung around to give support to and idea that has no certain merit.
There is no such thing as tradition, really. There’s nothing tangible and definable. Tradition is just a set of old habits that provide continuity. Continuity can be good. It lets us build on our previous achievements. We can only do that once we remember and hold on to those previous achievements. On the other hand, continuity often turns into stagnation. Tradition often becomes a hurdle to positive change. Old habits die hard.
How, then, can we strike a balance between the two? As a fresher just trying to work out how to get past my second term, I have no idea, but I think this is the first step: realising that tradition is fake and constructed. It is a farce that you willingly continue as easily as you could ignore it. With that realisation, we can begin to feel less daunted by these spires. We can begin to fix and rebuild the crookedness that has seeped into them with time. We can replace the bricks that built this legacy with new materials that reflect modernity a little more closely. We can keep the structure and pomp for the fun of it; laughing at the stupid bits and getting rid of the bits we don’t want any more; keeping in mind the grandeur of the history we have inherited without letting it become restrictive.
A silly hat, a flappy gown, and some old habits, all with a new life in you.