Appealing to Tradition for All the Wrong Reasons
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Appealing to Tradition for All the Wrong Reasons

Appealing to Tradition for All the Wrong Reasons

A lot of lesser conservatives fall into the common argumentative fallacy of appealing to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem). This usually goes along the lines of ‘we should do this because that’s how it’s always been done’. An appeal to tradition makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:

1) Since the old way of thinking was prevalent, it was necessarily correct. And;
2) The past justifications for the tradition are still valid at present.

In many cases however, the premise on which the tradition was based was in fact false, or the circumstances which justified the practice may have changed.

Now, there is something to be said for custom, as long as you can prove the value of an institution to democracy or humanity as a whole.

Thinking conservatives don’t just protect tradition for tradition’s sake. They usually defend established practices because they see a benefit in that institution for their country’s politics. Conservatives defend Australia’s constitutional monarchy because they see that this system, developed organically over centuries with a well-oiled system of checks and balances, is beneficial for everyone.

Conversely, there is no benefit to Australia’s political culture if the Speaker of the House wears stockings, flowing robes and a frilly cravat. Hence conservatives don’t bother preserving this aspect of parliamentary custom. When people do revive ostentatious practices for no apparent benefit beyond that to their own sense of importance, such as we saw during Peter Slipper’s Speakership, this is symptomatic of a tendency far more superficial and self-serving.

Many readers will be aware of the recent decision to hold a “mass gathering in the Great Hall”. This has followed a consistent push by certain Senate fellows, including former State Labor Minister Verity Firth and undergraduate fellow Patrick Massarani, to revive a dead practice known as ‘Convocation’. This practice is dead, because as the Vice-Chancellor put it in July, “Convocation could be considered an anachronism, commonly used in the 1880s and 1890s, at a time when the graduates of the university were members of a small professional class, few in number and largely based in Sydney.”

Despite this, lefties at our diminishing rival Honi Soit constantly relied on the crutch of ‘argumentum ad antiquitatem’. I never expected to hear from leftist progressives the catch-cry ‘but we used to do this’ as a justification for something completely ineffective, unrepresentative and anachronistic. In July Christina White wrote that “the looming petition (to hold a convocation) has the University’s administration eschewing its own history.” How dare the university administration ignore our inherited traditions? One might ask.

Curiously, the initial move for a convocation did not include any undergraduate students. Not much was made of this huge omission from an ostensibly democratic process. Once again Ms White justified the convocation by reference to a presumption that “graduates lie at the core of the University in law and tradition”.

The President of SUPRA, Timothy Scriven wrote in July that he considered the university “a creature not entirely of this age”. He didn’t so much mind that it may be “elitist to its core” as long as it wasn’t “neoliberal”. He has his hopes pinned on the “strange ceremonies and customs” which will help make “a new enemy for the government’s anti-student agenda”. Mr Scriven is clearly delusional.

It’s important to note that the ‘town hall’ style meeting which has since been agreed to by the university senate is quite different to the idea of convocation pedalled by Firth, Massarani & Co. The main difference being that students are included. Massarani said in an Honi Soit report that “students both undergraduate and postgraduate must be at the centre of any discussions around responding to these changes.” This seems disingenuous considering he never questioned the exclusion of all undergraduate students from the much-touted convocation.

A lot has been made of the fact that this “mass gathering” consults the entire community of the University of Sydney. This of course ignores the fact that the university community does not exist in splendid isolation. It never has, particularly in Australia where universities have traditionally been publicly funded. No, Mr Scriven’s ‘creature’ of Sydney University cannot nestle away under dusty books in an ivory tower. As members of the USyd community, we should not rely on arcane practices (or their imitations), jealously guarded for our own kind. The debate over higher education is one for all Australia.

Questions as to the capacity of this “gathering” to be at all representative remain. Let us also remember that this rapidly devolving plan is, in the end, impotent. It’s a good opportunity for some chest-beating, back slapping and an exercise in ostentatious university ceremonial. That’s about it.

As for those in Honi Soit who supported the convocation, I can only pin it down to the infantile ‘Hogwartsization’ of Sydney University in the minds of the left, rather than a genuine desire to have a democratic representation of the university community’s wishes.

Photo Credit: Jason Tong

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