Skepticism and Tradition

Peter Wood

The men’s house is the center of cultic ritual in numerous New Guinea societies, and the ritual invariably focuses on the initiation of boys into some of the secret knowledge of the elders. In 1968, the anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who was then forty, succeeded in getting himself included in the ritual initiation cycle of one such tribe—a group of only 183 people living high in a remote mountainous rain forest and pretty much untouched by the outside world. As Barth described the process in his classic Ritual and Knowledge Among the Baktaman of New Guinea, the tribe had evolved an elaborate system of initiation grades. Having passed though one grade, a young man could look forward to many more, if he lived long enough.

We might think of this as something like initiation into the Fraternal Order of the Masons—except that for the Baktaman at the time Barth was studying them, the initiation cycle was their key social institution. Almost everything else revolved around it: reproduction, warfare, subsistence gardening, hunting. In that sense, it was perhaps more like the series of jumps in our society from grade school to middle school to high school to college, to graduate school, to post-doctoral training…

Baktaman initiations were occasions in which the older, already initiated men revealed secrets to the novices. What secrets? Origin myths, magic, and what might be called tribal lore. The secrets have to do with the meaning of powerful visual, tactile, and acoustic symbols. Wild pork fat, for example, is equated with human semen. The dependence of the tribe on the intercession of the ancestors is revealed over and over. The secrets are conveyed not just by “telling,’ but by immersing the novices in vivid sensory experiences. But by far the most interesting secret was the revelation that the secrets revealed at the previous initiation were false. They had been a deception necessary to protect deeper truths for which the novices were not yet ready.

Apparently the entire Baktaman initiation system operated on this principle: each successive initiation revealed that the previous one had been a cheat, a subtle act of obfuscation. Of course, after one or two of these “now we will really level with you” surprises, the Baktaman novices could deduce the shape of things to come. But that didn’t undermine their interest in moving forward. It simply underscored that the deepest knowledge would be long in coming and difficult to attain and that it might be best to cultivate a certain sense of provisionality. The Baktaman initiated their young men into skepticism, or more precisely, they initiated them at one and the same moment into both respect for tradition and doubt about it.

I’ve long thought of this as a powerful model for how culture in general and education in particular work. We create a spider web anchored between a rock and a slender stem, between fixed tradition and uncertainty.

Too strong adherence to either one spells a certain kind of ruin.  No people can live entirely within a static tradition. Even the Baktaman in their rain forest fastness are constantly improvising, adapting images from other small tribes, forgetting some details and adding others, reinterpreting as they go. (One of Barth’s signal accomplishments was to capture this buzz of micro-innovation on the fly.)  But none can live without the stability of tradition either—not even anarchists and post-modernists, who no sooner cast off their cufflinks than they don brand new handcuffs and straitjackets. Think of the late Occupy Wall Streeters adopting the exact same images, tactics, dress, and slogans and repeating sentences word by word in their encampments across America’s cities. It turns out that ritual behavior reasserts itself in a heartbeat. Literally, we can’t act without it.

These days, the idea that tradition has a rightful claim on the university has little support.  We see this in decline of general education standards, which the National Association of Scholars documented in The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993We see it in the disappearance of Western Civilization survey courses, which the NAS documented in The Vanishing West: 1964-2010. We see it in the near total focus on contemporary writing in college summer reading lists, which the NAS documented in Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? 2011-2012I cite reports from my own organization because I know them well, but the disregard, sometimes edging over to disdain, for the traditional content and order of the curriculum is to be found pretty much everywhere in contemporary American higher education.

These are losses that we don’t really know how to repair.

I have recently exchanged views with several advocates of the idea of making “critical thinking” a more prominent part of the curriculum. Critical thinking is, more or less, the other anchor of the spider web: the willowy stem of skepticism.  Unanchored at the other end to the rock of tradition, critical thinking is a gossamer thing of no real purpose. Hence it has been appropriated by all manner of campus ideologies eager to assert some connection to higher academic goals.

The Baktaman initiation system doesn’t really have a termination. There are always new layers of knowledge to be uncovered, deceptions to be overcome, and coherencies to grasp.  To advance, the Baktaman must gain a sense of how skepticism deepens tradition and tradition deepens skepticism. That’s the same circle we need to turn to bring real improvement to American higher education, and it is a theme I intend to explore in my Innovations articles over the next several months.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on January 19, 2012.

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