Fits & Fugues

Education can be so much more.

Tradition and Change in Anatevka

Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. -Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

I recently saw Fiddler on the Roof at one of our local high schools.  The production amazed me; it was much better than the 1988 version I performed in high school. I took my son and as we spoke about the themes of the show on the way home, a few things struck me.

First, The show starts with the song Tradition. This song establishes everyone’s roles and the part they have to play in the community. It clearly defines the rules and perspective: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years,” and “And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

Immediately after Tradition, we meet Tevye’s five daughters and his wife, Golde, waiting for the matchmaker who is about to fulfill her traditional role in assisting the girls’ parents in arranging the eldest daughter’s, Tzeitel’s, marriage. Of course Tzeitel bristles at the thought of the arranged marriage; this being complemented with the arrival of Motel, the poor tailor, Tzeitel’s true love interest. Love, however, has no bearing on the choice of spouse, but this is about to change. The three eldest daughters will each choose for themselves a husband, each moving further and further away from established traditions until the thrid daughter elopes and marries outside of her “kind” and completely outside of her traditions.

The play sets two dichotomies against each other: Tradition and Change. These parallel education today. The play has multiple connecting points of application throughout, but the central themes of tradition and change are the most salient.

Our very traditional educational system has poignant illustrations in two of Tevye’s lines in Tradition  (one modified slightly) : “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years,” and “And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what [he is expected] to do.” Now, however, we find that we are off balance and many of us are seeking to discern our new roles in light of traditional, not necessarily wrong, expectations. We are still expected to educate our kids and prepare them for their uncertain futures; that hasn’t changed. The traditional ways of doing so must. Unfortunately, our concept of “school” is defined within the traditional boundaries of school where education is dispensed by a highly qualified expert during specific times of the day and year to arbitrarily sorted groups of disengaged learners craving relevance.

We’ve been arranging these educational marriages for so long that it has become our traditional definition of education.  To conceptualize education any other way seems “unheard of” and “impossible” as Tevye sang on more than one occasion as two of his daughters presented him with husbands of their choosing. Like Tevye, attempts to change the tradition are often met with stalwart opposition in the name of upholding tradition. The Tradition refrain winds its way through the course of the play like many themes in education. As Tzeitel begs to be released from the artificial betrothment bargain Tevye has made Lazar Wolf, we beg to be released from the artificial structure of seat time equating to learning. Anyone who may choose to respond here can probably list myriad traditions that stand in the way, but ultimately under the current educational tradition we arrange for our students educational spouses they neither love nor care about.

We simply must examine our traditional practices and determine how much has changed since their inception. Whatever doesn’t fit or has become outdated, we must cast off in order to adopt new ways. Those, too, may become traditional, and we must constantly examine and adjust our practices for relevant alignment so our purpose doesn’t become as “shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

What educational traditions are we holding on to that are getting in the way of change?


April 5, 2008 - Posted by | Education | , , , , , ,


  1. The following marriages should end:
    learning only equals = a good score on a test.
    demonstration of knowledge = a no book and resourceless 45 minute multiple choice assessment packed with crammed memorization.
    Engagement = worksheet from book
    Textbooks = valuable learning tool
    45 minute of 8 non connected carnegie units = best model
    Agriculture Schedule = American calendar for education

    Comment by charlie roy | April 5, 2008 | Reply

  2. Charlie, Thanks for the response. I hope to see more contributions. Some of these seem so obvious, bet we are so reluctant to give them up. Here’s my incomplete list that I posted on Will Richardson’s site.

    Grade levels. Cursive. Spelling lists. Photocopies of ditto machine handouts used as worksheet-based “teaching.” Teaching a book, a unit, a lesson because we always have. Schools that ostracize and drive out students with irrelevant, purposeless, and unengaging curriculum. Carnegie units. Time spent = learning policies, laws, funding mechanisms. Homework as a substitute for teaching. Letter grades, at least the lower threshold of F at 0. Tardies. Giving standardized tests where the data is returned 5-6 months later and is never used to inform/change instruction or improve learning. Tenure-type practices. Math classes that are only about the algorithms. Mandatory science fairs.

    Comment by Rick Tanski | April 6, 2008 | Reply

  3. Hi Rick

    I’ve written a book called “Anatevka” which is a fictionalised memoir of three generations of a Russian Jewish family and which is a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof. You can get more information on the book from the following amazon site:

    best wishes

    Jake Gomilny
    (“Anatevka” is written under a pen name)

    Comment by Jake Gomilny | November 4, 2008 | Reply

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