Meanings: “Rigor”

April 27, 2011

The Hechinger Report recently had an article by Richard Lee Colvin and Joanne Jacobs called “Rigor: It’s All the Rage, But What Does It Mean?”  They mean it’s become all the rage in education reform circles.

I think I know what educators mean when they use the term: they use the word to refer to an education with high standards, that is demanding of students, that embraces high expectations.

I’d quickly want to add that if “rigor” makes any education sense at all it also has to mean an education that brings all (or at least nearly all) students along.  To demand a great deal and to have students reject those demands would be a kind of rigor we don’t need. (No, I don’t think there’s a necessary tension here: my experience tells me that students will respond positively to high expectations if they understand the purposes and the fruits to be expected of the high expectations.)

That said, I think “rigor” is a very bad word choice to describe a demanding, high expectations education.  Educators may know what they mean by the word, but to most non-educators, the word conjures up something offensive and distasteful.  Take the first definition offered in the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

rig·or     noun \ˈri-gər\

a (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :severity(2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :strictness(3): severity of life :austerity

Or take the definitions offered by the Free Online Dictionary:

rig·or  (rgr)     n.

1. Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.
2. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship. See Synonyms at difficulty.
3. A harsh or cruel act.
4. Medicine Shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill.
5. Physiology A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.
6. Obsolete Stiffness or rigidity.

Take any dictionary: the words “harsh,” “severe,” “inflexible,” “rigid” and “cruel” show up as synonyms for “rigor” over and over again.  (Note, too, that “high expectations” are never mentioned as a meaning.)  I do not think we will help draw students to a demanding, high expectations, successful educational program through the use of the word “rigor.” Rigor mortis anyone?

By all means let’s aim very high.  Let’s have high expectations for all.  But let’s choose another word.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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