by Zixin Jiang
At Oriel Choir this term, we are trying to revive (or rather, revive the enforcement of) the tradition of wearing cassocks (those red things we wear) during rehearsals before a service. I knew this was something we were supposed to do, but I never really knew why. Apparently, the point is to look a bit more professional during rehearsals.
It’s all too easy to forget what a tradition is for. Why, for example, does The Poor Print structure each issue around a single word? As someone who remembers when Poor Print editors had to beg their friends for submissions and end up writing half the issue themselves, I strongly suspect it is partly to avoid that situation by tricking silly people like me into thinking weeks about the titular word. I wonder if in future years, this pragmatic justification for the tradition will be forgotten and it will be assumed that it is simply a third-rate imitation of the old All Souls exam.
The good thing about traditions is that they can give us much more and much better than we can ever think of on our own. A tradition with a long history has hopefully been thought about carefully by many people in the past. The bad thing about traditions is that we haven’t thought them up on our own. Often, we forget why a particular tradition is a good thing; and even when we do know why, we tend to know only in a half-baked way. And here is the source of the paradox: tradition’s primary characteristic – its ‘given’ and ‘received’ nature – is at the same time its great advantage and its great weakness.
The principle that applies to Oriel Choir and Poor Print traditions also applies to the much greater traditions that govern our lives. What is good about democracy? What is good about the separation of powers (admittedly more of a dogma for Americans – and in my hometown of Hong Kong – than for the British)? Why do we have a rule that a person can only be put in prison if they are proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? When someone questions me on these dogmas I take for granted, I sometimes find it difficult to answer. It’s a sad irony that the most important traditions seem to be the least understood, precisely because one does not think to question them. The trouble is that because of this, when they are questioned, they end up being the most fragile.
Oxford is full of traditions. But the most important traditions are often ones we don’t tend to think of as traditions, precisely because they are so pervasive. Lately, with the invitation of Steve Bannon to speak at the Union, and with the petition to remove Professor John Finnis from his post, the traditions of freedom of speech and academic freedom have come under closer scrutiny. We are reminded that we need to take a closer look at the meaning and justifications of freedom of speech, partly to be clear about its limits, but also if we are to protect it.
Perhaps the most central and unquestionable of all Oxford traditions is that of the pursuit of knowledge. Why do we see the pursuit of knowledge (often very arcane knowledge) as a good thing? Is our study truly meaningful? An outsider might think – echoing Augustine and Milton – that the characteristically Oxford pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a vain and worthless kind of intellectual athleticism. I wonder if we take the pursuit of knowledge for granted so much that we don’t really know how to articulate its value to such a person. (Or is it rather that such fundamental things simply cannot be further justified?)
The paradox that results from all this is that traditions, which are normally thought of as passively received, in reality have to be perpetually rethought and reformed in order to survive. So, in response to those who admonish us to hold on to the traditions we have received, the paradoxical reply is that a person who tries too hard to hold on to a tradition will lose it, and it is only by questioning traditions that we might be able to preserve them. As Mill says, ‘a questioner [‘of things established’] need not be an enemy’; rather, they are more like tradition’s best friend.
Which means it might be a good thing that every few years, freshers don’t realise that we have to wear cassocks during rehearsals, and our Director of Music has to remind us all why we have this tradition. This way, at least we won’t forget why we do it in the first place.