“She can’t go there. It’s not rigorous enough.” This was my wife’s verdict after we visited a potential daycare.

At the time our daughter was three months old.

“You’ll make an excellent independent school parent,” I told her. My response was only partially in jest. Teaching in independent schools for years I have often heard rigor evoked, usually in cases where its absence is being bemoaned.

However, rigor can mean different things in different situations. In our case, it meant we wanted a daycare where our daughter would not be parked in front of a television, which is what we’d just seen at this particular establishment. Rigorous daycare simply meant one where children play and interact with the world rather than becoming little couch potatoes, or perhaps tater tots. We were not looking for an intense speed crawling program or board books in Arabic and Swahili.

Most importantly, we were not looking for rigor’s silent, implied companion: suffering

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The Myth of Sisyphus: Does Rigor Require Suffering?

While few, if any, schools would take Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s assertion that “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” as a guiding principle, there is still a popular notion that if students are not toiling under a heavy academic burden something is wrong and their education has been compromised, the notion that if students’ minds are not creaking under the stress of immense cognitive demands, they are not learning as much as they could.

This is the misconception that education without suffering is education without rigor.

Looking at rigor, suffering and their manifestations in education, I see three situations.

  1. There are cases where rigor takes an utterly unhealthy form with maximum suffering and little learning.
  2. There are cases where rigor does involve some unpleasant tasks but within reason, those tasks might lead to beneficial outcomes.
  3. Lastly, there are cases where there is rigor without suffering, where there is maximal challenge but challenge met with enthusiasm rather than grudging endurance.

When a task merely calls for fortitude and the ability to endure and perform, then one can question the value of its rigor. The classical example is Sisyphus doomed by the Greek gods to forever roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down. This is certainly a rigorous task, but the suffering involved does not lead to any notable learning.

In a more modern venue, there is the now discredited coaching technique of toughening players up by denying them water during practice.

This approach was detailed in Junction Boys a book about Bear Bryant’s coaching at Texas A&M.  A denial of hydration certainly makes a practice more rigorous on a basic physical level. However, it is rigor coupled with suffering of a potentially deadly variety.

One might reasonably argue that those are fairly clear cut, even hyperbolic, examples of rigor gone wrong. However, what about this situation, an elementary school student is told they cannot go out to recess unless they finish a grammar worksheet correctly. A friend approvingly shared this anecdote with me as an example of academic rigor, but I have my doubts.  

Depending on the student’s level of grammar competency, they might actually find the task Sisyphean. Depending on their need for exercise and peer interaction, the denial of recess might be akin to the denial of necessary hydration. To me, this is also a case of unnecessary rigor laced with suffering.

Stretch without Overstressing

There are, though, middle ground cases where the appropriate variety of rigor depends on the student and the activity. Going back to the athletic realm, as a former competitive long-distance runner, I know that much of what I did to train was rigorous and to many would be viewed as pointless suffering, but to me, it was enjoyable because I knew it would make me stronger. Consider for example my utterly enjoyable yearly twelve-mile Christmas morning run.

Heading back into the academic realm there are tasks of the sort Chang-Rae Lee describes a character enjoying in this passage from his novel Native Speaker, “The memorizing was more a discipline for him, like a serious craft or martial art, a chosen kind of suffering involving hours of practice and concentration by which you gradually came to know yourself.”

These are repetitive tasks leading to a desired outcome, tasks that involve some suffering but lead to a deeper understanding. I have talked with students in science classes who view problem sets in this light. They may find themselves working in the early hours of the morning, frustrated and frazzled, but in the end, they come to know the material, and they have confidence when faced with such challenges in the future.

Still, I wonder what would happen if the suffering were removed.

To be a good long-distance runner, one must train by running long distances. There are no other options. Likewise, to excel in a martial art one must practice that martial art.

However, to excel academically there is more leeway. While one must run X miles a week (roughly a hundred)  to be an international class marathon runner and there are no alternatives, one does not necessarily need to write Y number of sentences per week to be a skilled writer or solve Z number of problems per week to develop excellent scientific reasoning.

To separate rigor from suffering one must prioritize at student choice and student engagement. The character in Lee’s novel chose to memorize reams of information. No one made him do so. Choice can be a slippery concept. Behind what may appear to be choice could lurk other coercive forces. After all, the Junction Boys who were deprived of water at practice chose to join the team.

Still, building in student choice allows for rigor while minimizing the perception of drudgery. If I require students to read an additional novel outside of class, letting them make the selection from a roster of diverse choices rather than assigning them a book I see as valuable, produces the same learning outcome without the feeling of forced labor. Not everyone wants to read Moby Dick.

Some Lessons from the Field

In terms of engagement, I think of intensive classes at Hawken. These classes where students take one class all day for three weeks are certainly rigorous. Just this fall the Spanish immersion class spent all three weeks in Spain immersed in Spanish language and culture. In a quest for traditional rigor, those students could have spent a less enjoyable three weeks in Cleveland studying Spanish and taking oral and written tests every other day. That approach would do more to build a certain kind of academic fortitude than living with a host family and using their Spanish in a real-world situation. But would it be more rigorous?

Or consider this fall’s intensive Gerrymandering Democracy in which students had to plumb the intricacies of Ohio’s electoral system particularly how and why districts are drawn the way they are. In the end, students produced and defended their own redistricting map. My favorite was the group that not only presented their map in traditional form but also drew it in icing on a gigantic chocolate chip cookie.

Students had to master material ranging from the nuances of political science to the details of population statistics. It was a rigorous course. However, as I saw students around campus in small groups enthusiastically working on projects, and when I discussed their maps with them during the final showcase, I did not pick up any residual suffering.

Contrary to popular belief, academic rigor does not necessitate suffering. Sometimes students may be asked to perform a challenging task, but facing a challenge is not the same as being asked to suffer. If there are choice and engagement, rigor can, in fact, be pleasurable.

This approach to rigor is essential if students are to go out into the world, pursue their passions, grow as people, and, most importantly, enjoy life.

If we want to produce soulless cogs silently struggling to meet the expectations of a society they are helpless to change, then Sisyphean suffering should be the core feature of the student experience. On the other hand, if we want students to take ownership of their learning, their lives, and the society around them while finding joy in their existence, we must provide an engaging and challenging education, an education that is rigorous in the best sense of the word.

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Andrew Cleminshaw

Andrew Cleminshaw

I graduated Amherst College in 1992 with a double major in English and History. Since then I have taught at schools from Guam to California to Ohio and along the way earned an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. While I enjoy some level of suffering as a long distance runner, I work to make sure suffering is not part of the educational system.