Classical Education: Rigorous or Vigorous?

Some say that classical education is rigorous. My response to this is both “yes” and “no.”

In one sense, we want rigorous education for our children, but in another sense we do not want it at all. The words “rigor” and “rigorous” are used in different ways, so we need to be clear about how we are employing “rigor” in reference to the cultivation and education of our children.

Here is my “yes” and “no.”

Yes to Rigor
In our modern moment, we have greatly lowered our expectations for what children can do and achieve. If by rigor we mean raising expectations and standards for what children can achieve, then we want a more rigorous education in comparison with the paltry standards and expectations for student learning we so often see in contemporary education.

We might also employ the word “rigor” as a virtue that contrasts with student laziness. We want our students to be industrious, attentive, disciplined, and engaged, and we might use the word “rigor” to include these student virtues. In this case, we certainly want our students to be rigorous.

Finally, we might want rigor in the sense of displaying precision and care in their work. Students should employ careful, focused attention while doing math exercises or translating Latin sentences.

No to Rigor
Sometimes rigor connotes both “working hard” and rigidly severe and harsh adherence to rules and conduct. While we do want our students to “work hard” in the sense of being diligent and industrious, we do not want them to only work, or work beyond their capacity, or work to excess and exhaustion. In other words, we want temperance to inform the academic work of our children so that they are neither lazy nor excessively ambitious. Both laziness and excess are forms of intemperance, a lack of proper proportion and balance in one’s studies. While we could call upon Aristotle or Aquinas to make this point, why not cite the preacher in Ecclesiastes:

My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Eccl. 12:12)

I think using the traditional language of the academic or intellectual virtues is best for describing an engaged, faithful student. If you look up the word “rigor,” you will see that our dictionaries retain connotations of harshness, severity, austerity, and strictness. The classical tradition typically has not used “rigor” as the characteristic word for describing student activity, but rather has used the common virtue vocabulary of “diligence,” “constancy,” “industry,” and “discipline.” Because of the ways we can easily misapply the word “rigor” to classical education, I suggest we use it with qualification or not at all.

Rigor in Latin means “stiffness, hardness; numbness, cold; strictness, severity” (Collins Latin Dictionary). We all recognize the phrase rigor mortis as the condition of death; it literally means “the rigidity of death.” There are some poor examples of the classical tradition, say, during the Victorian era, when crusty and severe schoolmasters beat children with canes and conducted forced, sterile recitations. We might call those distorted examples of classical education “rigorous”—they certainly were hard and severe.

Another Latin word comes to mind that sounds much like “rigor.” Vigor is another loan word that has come directly into our language. In Latin, vigor means “energy,” “force,” “strength,” and, well, “vigor.” Our word “vigorous” means “strong, active, robust.” What if we substituted vigor for rigor?

Whereas rigor suggests rigidity and austerity, vigor suggests academic strength and vitality. Whereas rigor may call to mind rigor mortis, a word like “vigor” suggests something like vigor vitae—the vigor of life.

Perhaps we can continue the tradition of speaking about the academic virtues of diligence (from dilegere, “to love, esteem,” and diligentia, “carefulness, attentiveness”), constancy (from constare, “to stand firm, remain constant”), industry (from industria, “energetic, devoted activity”), and discipline (from disciplina, “training and exercise to learn skill”). If we did this, we could dispense with “rigor” and all of its confusing connotations of severity and harshness.

Finally, we must remember there are several other student virtues that we seek besides this focused attention and tempered industry. We also seek to cultivate wonder in our students’ souls, an unquenchable spirit of curiosity and inquiry. Wonder is cultivated by leading students into the world as a cosmos (something adorned, ornamented), that is, a living museum that must contemplated, pondered, and savored. This means the student’s life is a harmony of industry and play, discipline and contemplation.

Sometimes, therefore, a student’s activity should be slow, leisurely, and contemplative—the opposite of rigorous as the adjective is commonly understood. It means, in fact, that the student’s life is a melody with some variations in rhythm and tempo. There is a time for vigorous, energetic activity. There is also a time for restful reflection, contemplation, and conversation. To quote the preacher of Ecclesiastes again, there is a time for everything under the sun.

Here is my nine-minute video paired with this post:

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