On the oppression of tradition

October 25, 2020

Tradition does not have to be an old, stagnant conception

The head of an elite boys’ school was asked two decades ago how he justified the continued use of caning his wards as a disciplinary exercise. His answer was: “By tradition!”

For students of English literature, the word “tradition” is specifically evocative of TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, a seminal essay in literary criticism. However, for me this time the word evoked the memory shared above, which represents tradition as a tool of oppression.

I was particularly reminded of this by two articles published recently in TNS (October 11, 2020). One of those articles quoted anonymous teachers to report that the current vice chancellor of a public university was not following the traditions of that institution. It also carried the VC’s detailed response. The other article, though it did not mention the word “tradition,” mused on how “outsiders” are not trusted by institutional hierarchies.

The “insider” is frequently preferred to better qualified “outsiders” simply because the former is perceived as someone who inevitably challenges the “traditions” of the organisation.

To get a better sense of how tradition works, I called on the two gentlemen alluded to here for a discussion of how they understand the concept of “tradition” and its place in the academe today. Let me introduce them. The first is Professor Asghar Zaidi, the vice chancellor of Government College University, Lahore, who holds a PhD in economics from the Oxford University, itself an institution steeped in convention. He has been recently awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz by the government of Pakistan, and works on policy frameworks informed by the economics of ageing. He retains an association with that highly prestigious university as a research fellow. Having spent his career away from Pakistan, Professor Zaidi is an “outsider” to the “insider” culture of Pakistani society, Lahori elite, and the institution he now heads.

Professor Tahir Kamran, who wrote the second article, is no stranger to the readers of these pages. Arguably Pakistan’s leading public historian, he represents a departure from conventional historiography (a la SM Ikram, KK Aziz and IH Qureshi) and writes extensively on the intersection of tradition and modernity. He has been a dean at GC University, and has held the Iqbal Chair at Cambridge University, an institution steeped in custom like Oxford. I could not have had this conversation with two scholars better qualified to comment on this topic.

Prof Kamran had recently remarked in casual conversation that the traditions of his former institution had become “too old”. This seemed to me to be a puzzling statement. If something is by definition desirable precisely because of its age, how can it be “too old?” Would that not make it “too desirable?”

I asked Prof Zaidi to respond to the critics who are unhappy with his “disdain” for the “traditions” of GC University. Prof Zaidi began by explaining that he has great respect for the century-and-a-half long history of the institution. Since it is his alma mater as well, he is always in awe of the magnificent history that GCU boasts of. Why would he want to be at the helm of an institution he does not like, he asked me. However, he said, he believes that this particular criticism is based in a false sense of history.

History does not allow institutions that resist evolution to stay constantly in one position. If tradition is to be used as an excuse for oppressing any challenges to mediocrity, tradition must be shunned. However, if tradition meets modernity, a new direction is born.

The VC of a university is not only the head of the university’s administrative structure; he is also the titular head of the faculty, a fact that Professors Zaidi and Kamran strongly stressed. For Prof Zaidi, though, the VC is, additionally, also the head of the entire staff of the university. This includes to him, the janitors, the guards, and the gardeners that tend to the university quietly, and whose day starts before anyone arrives on campus.

Prof Zaidi says that he occasionally joins a group of gardeners early in the morning as they pray before the day begins. He sadly mentioned that some representatives of the university’s leadership had met him and tried to dissuade him from associating so freely with the auxiliary staff. “My critics reminded me of how it is against the decorum of the VC’s office to be seen standing with the gardeners. They accused me of flouting traditions because I insisted on associating personally with everyone on campus.”

Since Prof Zaidi is a passionate believer that ageism is a form of discrimination, he fondly recalled the example of a 70-year-old gardener who insists on working daily at GCU not because he needs the money, but because of the habit of work. I am reminded of the late Murad Ali Shah, a peon in the English Department, who fondly recalled Prof Sirajuddin’s tenure as principal as his favourite because he had once ordered strict action against some students who had misbehaved with Murad, a lowly peon, in the principal’s hearing.

Prof Kamran interjected that it is traditions of this alternative kind which we must emphasise. The dualism of tradition thus is such that within the garb of oldness, the new is always born. Prof Zaidi also claimed that he is always accessible to his faculty and students on Whatsapp, and often directly communicates with faculty and students. “They do not appreciate this either, and consider it a departure from tradition,” he laughed wryly.

I asked Prof Kamran then whether the VC’s office is one that must necessarily follow such oppressive decorum. No, he replied, and with his historian’s lens, connected the argument of tradition with colonial conceptions of propriety. Prof Kamran does not entirely agree with Eric Hobsbawm’s theory that tradition is “invented” retrospectively. However, he stressed that tradition should be fluid and flexible. The VC, he claimed, should not behave like the British deputy commissioner, whose alienation from the public was a colonial design of government, unfortunately inherited by the bureaucracy of the post-colonial state.

Thus, when the bureaucrat ventured out of his office to discourse with the ordinary citizen, he was criticised by the structures of bureaucracy precisely in the terms in which Prof Zaidi is being charged. Tradition was a tool for oppression and for silencing dissent in the colonial dispensation.

Prof Kamran also explained how tradition at Cambridge is now facing challenges by a younger lot of faculty and students. Prof Zaidi also mentioned how the dons at Oxford have had to now reconsider their customs that have lasted centuries.

So, how do these two academics and scholars, widely published, internationally reputed, and with experience of administration, view the debate around tradition? For them, tradition is not an old, stagnant conception. Prof Zaidi stressed that “new traditions” is not an oxymoron. Prof Kamran reiterated that the old must interact with the new if progress is to be ensured. History does not allow institutions that resist evolution to stay constantly in one position. If tradition is to be used as an excuse for oppressing any challenges to mediocrity, tradition must be shunned. However, if tradition meets modernity, a new direction is born. To that end, the GCU now has clearly articulated goals for the current VC’s tenure.

The writer is a lecturer of English Literature at Government College University, Lahore.Currently, he is pursuing his PhD from the University of Oregon, USA as Fulbright Scholar.

On the oppression of tradition