The majority of Martial Arts are based upon traditions. In fact, many of the arts place heavy emphasis upon the fact that they are of direct lineage and go all the way back to the founder of the system. This is supposed to somehow validate their system. Taking this a step further, certain teachers claim that their style has not been altered in any way, while being passed down across the ages, for the sole purpose of enhancing the reputation and the credibility of the teachings.
Taking a closer look at all this, something should strike you as strange. The whole world is in a constant state of evolution and tries to improve upon yesterdays work. Enormous amounts of resources are used for research in all kinds of fields (IT, medicine, chemistry, etc.) to find new products and solutions to problems. At the very least, some of these efforts are directed at improving what exists today to make it more performing.
Yet somehow Martial Arts seem to work differently. People are willing to believe that what was invented hundreds of years ago, is still the most efficient solution today. Some even claim that recent additions to the Martial Arts are of less quality because they don't have the same heritage. Following this type of logic leads us to the conclusion that the aeroplane invented by the brothers Wright is vastly superior to all those DC10s and B747s that are flying around the globe at this time. "Traditional" styles are not inherently on the wrong track, but some moderation is perhaps in order.
To state that a certain style has not been altered since its origin should also be regarded as being somewhat strange. We all remember the childhood game of sitting in a circle and passing along a whispered phrase from one person to the other. By the time it has gone full circle, hardly anything is left of the original sentence. This example illustrates a very basic way of communicating and how it can go wrong. A complete system of fighting techniques is much more complex to hand down : many different techniques, body-mechanics, forms, specific skill enhancing drills, theoretical knowledge, philosophy, "secret" techniques and the list goes on.
Even with private tutoring, this is a vast body of knowledge to absorb. If we take into account the tendency in Eastern countries to mystify and obscure knowledge, the task seems even greater still. Some teachers even refuse to give disciples access to all of their teachings, when they feel the student doesn't deserve it or wouldn't be able to grasp it. The student is rarely aware of this and is under the impression that he "knows it all". This leads to a situation where it is very probable that a given student may have been practising a certain style for decades and still lack certain aspects of what was originally there.
Another aspect is the personal evolution one has. Mr. Dan Docherty, of Wudang Tai Chi Chuan, once explained that this idea of unchanging styles is not very realistic. The more you progress in learning a specific style, the more refined your practise will be. The way you perform a form or kata you learned early on in your studies, will change because of increased ability and comprehension, the study of other forms, age, etc. It will still be the same movements, but performed differently, as you will have changed over time. When starting out in a Martial Arts style, having an experienced/novice or young/older teacher will therefor very much affect your own evolution.
I tend to agree with this and would even go a bit further. In recent years, availability of different Martial Arts has been on the increase. It is not uncommon to study several ones at the same time. This should also be taken into account. Having a background in a specific style will affect what you do in another style. The effect can be both positive and negative. I'll use my own experience as an example: Having studied a hard, external Chinese style for years made it very difficult for me to be relaxed and soft when practising the Tai Chi hand form. This felt very awkward to me and it took quit some time before I felt comfortable with this way of training. On the other hand, the Tai Chi self-defence techniques were enhanced as I already possessed a certain amount of timing, striking power and reaction speed.
The end result is that I use part of the knowledge obtained elsewhere to blend in with my Tai Chi practice. This isn't so much a choice, but more an inevitability. I cannot ignore or undo years of conditioning just as it is not very plausible to force yourself to drown once you have learned to swim.
Tradition is not necessarily a dangerous abyss for martial artists. Obviously when 300 years ago, certain techniques have proven to be effective in a combat situation, chances are they are still useful today. Mankind hasn't grown an extra couple of arms or legs, so the basic offensive and defensive possibilities are more or less the same. In the spirit of not trying to fix what isn't broken, why should any attempts at improvements be made? There are many instances of teachers creating new styles or altering the curriculum of their style, with very little positive contribution besides ego gratification. I seriously doubt if the world needs more martial arts when there are already so many.
Perhaps more effort should be applied to a more scientific way of teaching what is currently available. While you are reading this, practitioners are still engaging in training exercises that are archaic at best and counterproductive or dangerous at worst. Ballistic stretching, certain pain control techniques, mental indoctrination and sadly much more. Much progress has been made in the field of sport science. Training methods that were considered state-of-the-art 20 years ago are hopelessly obsolete today. Martial artists could do well by taking a moment to contemplate if what they are learning and teaching is more than just mindlessly repeating what they have learned themselves.