You hear it everywhere nowadays. Rigor, rigor, rigor. Schools need to be rigorous. Rigor is good. Beef up academic rigor!
When it comes to learning, I think rigor is a terrible idea.
Okay. Before you come after me with your torches and pitchforks, note what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that holding high standards is a terrible idea. Nor did I say that slacking is a good idea. I know the principal well enough to know he meant well, and I know the parents were pleased because they have high expectations for their kids—as well they should. I have high expectations for my own kids, as well as for my students.
When I seek professional services, I want people who hold to high standards. I want to be treated by doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are masters of their field. I want a lawyer who‘s known for winning cases and negotiating workable solutions. I want an auto mechanic who knows how to fix my car the first time, and an accountant who doesn’t take shortcuts, and a hairdresser who fusses over details, and a bus driver who follows traffic rules, and a plumber who repairs leaks the right way. I want to listen to musicians who know how to keep time and play in tune with expression, and I want to read work by writers who know how to craft a sentence, a paragraph, a full story. I have low tolerance for slackers. I don’t like it when my students don’t show up. I want more of everybody.
No matter what the field of endeavor—educational, occupational, creative—I want to work with people who have been well-trained by teachers with high standards, and who have internalized that high-quality teaching so that they now hold themselves to the highest standard possible. If anything, I think our standards as a society need to be higher. For too long, we’ve accepted the mediocre as “good enough,” and I for one am pretty fed up with that.
Excellence, yes. And we're falling far short. But rigor? No.
To explain, I’ll crib from some of my own work—an article I published in a peer-reviewed academic journal last year. (Because this blog is semi-anonymous for reasons elucidated elsewhere, I’m keeping my name, the title of the article, and the name of the journal out of here, but you’re welcome to message me privately if you’d like the reference.) In that article I pointed out that the term “rigor” derives from the Latin “rig(ēre),” meaning “to be stiff” (hence the term rigor mortis, to mean “dead”). Definitions include:
(1) strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people; (2) the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.; (3) severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity; (4) a severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.”; “obsolete rigidity” . . . “the inertia assumed by some plants in conditions unfavorable to growth”; “rigidity or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli” (World English Dictionary; italics mine).
Severity, harshness, hardship, austerity? Obsolete rigidity? Inertia? Conditions unfavorable to growth? Rigidity that prevents response to stimuli? Is this what we want in education? Especially if we want people to be performing at higher standards? If we’re truly going to foster excellence, aren’t growth and response to stimuli what we need, rather than what we want to prevent? As I stated in my article: “If we make the ‘organs or tissue’ in living organisms so 'stiff' that they are incapable of responding to stimuli, and if we encourage conditions that are 'unfavorable to growth,' just how is learning supposed to happen?”
Incompetence, it seems, is rife everywhere. As a society, we need to set the bar higher. But then we also need an educational system that teaches people what they need to know to jump over that high bar, whatever their endeavor may be. For that to happen, the educational environment needs to create the conditions that are most favorable to growth and response. What we need is not rigor, but vigor.
It’s a cute rhyme, but it works. As defined by the WED, vigor is “an active strength or force; healthy physical or mental energy or power; vitality; energetic activity; intensity: force of healthy growth in any living matter or organism” (WED). That sounds to me like the kind of environment more likely to lead to deep learning, mastery, and enthusiastic engagement with one’s field—and, I’d add that excellence rarely happens when people do not enjoy what they’re doing. Enjoyment and excellence are companions, not opposites.
Of course moving from “rigor” to “vigor” would also mean moving away from unimaginative approaches to education, over-emphasis on that which can be quantitatively measured, and standardized tests where teachers are judged not on the basis of whether they create environments conducive to growth but on how many students fill in the right bubble with their number 2 pencil.
That, in turn, would mean cutting into the yield of the for-profit testing-and-test-preparation behemoths that now have their tentacles into virtually every aspect of our educational system, and eschewing the dehumanizing corporate business model that places utility before humanity.
Enough with the so-called "rigor. "