On Rigor & Rest

Apr 8, 2015

A while back we hosted a conference called A Contemplation of Rest in which we asserted that a Christian education has to take place in a state, not of anxiety, but of rest. 

Others, like Christopher Perrin and Sarah Mackenzie, have also been highlighting this idea and I can't recommend their work highly enough. Dr. Perrin produces materials with Classical Academic Press, where he highlights the concept of "Schola" or leisure, and CAP has published a book by Sarah called Teaching from A State of Rest. You can learn more about the book HERE and about CAP HERE. 

Conventional education has taught us one lesson with extraordinary effectiveness, and by us I mean u-s us. As in, all of us. Us totus. You us and me us. The students in our schools us, and the teachers in our schools us. The homeschooling mom us, and the homeschooling student us. The civilian rulers us who make decisions about what to teach and how, and the administrators us who try to run our schools. All of us approach education with fear and trembling. Our anxiety has not helped us to think clearly.

I am troubled by this, like a mathematician thinking about a gnawing problem of advanced complexity. 

What does it mean to teach from a state of rest? Or, rather, what doesn't it mean? 

Rest does not mean laziness. Rest and rigor are not incompatible. You can have a very aggressive, personally, emotionally, and intellectually stretching educational environment while teaching from a state of rest. Indeed, I'm not sure you can have an emotionally and intellectually stretching environment if it doesn't take place in a state of rest. 

Rigor is not simply a matter of working hard and trying to cover a lot of ground. That is a subtle form of sloth, driven by fear (like me exercising when I should be writing).

Mental labor is like, but also unlike, physical labor. You can strive to run five miles, all the while thinking about the finish line, but you can't strive to learn Latin or understand Hamlet by concentrating on that moment when you are done. That is, at least partly, because when you were a little boy or girl, you concentrated so hard on each step that stepping has become your muscle memory.

Rigor, when you learn math or Latin or higher level reading skills, is not measured by how much ground you cover, but how closely you focus your attention on what you are learning.

You can cover more ground by getting in a car and driving - in fact, that seems to be what a lot of us try to do with our lives and learning. But you won't see much at that pace. You don't have time to look closely.

Consider these words from David Hicks in an interview with David Kern (The Mind is a Fire - follow the link to read the whole thing)

A "rigorous" education is for me one that saves souls one at a time and pulls that soul out of his socio-economic context, whatever that is  and gives him an "out of body" experience, so to speak. It frees him from his passions or at least puts him at odds with them, makes him aware of the assumptions underlying the arguments swirlng around him, causes him to recognize and detest cant and mediocrity, and establishes in him an insatiable hunger for whatever is good and true and beautiful. It gives him a star to follow, whatever the crowd is doing.

This is a noble view of rigor. Happily he continues by asking and answering the practical question:

How is this rigor attained?... Through the close reading of timeless literature and sacred texts, through the close study of history and the instructive lives of the saints and scoundrels who have made history, and through the close observation of nature whether through the lens of an artist, a scientist, or a mathematician.

Close reading; close study; close observation: that is a rigor worth practicing.   

Let me put it this way: rigor in learning is nothing other than sustained focused attention. 

You are studying Latin "rigorously" not when you are suffering grievously over the long list to memorize for tomorrow and to forget for next week, but when you are concentrated on the word or, better, phrase, in front of you.

People who do this sort of thing well find it quite enjoyable, so if the word rigor makes you think of pain and even mortis, you should know that they are not necessarily connected. Now, you do have to endure pain to become a good learner, as you do with any other unmastered skill. But the hunger to know is so great that most humans don't mind the pain unless they discover it to be a sham. 

To stay with the act of memorizing, let me add that it is a shame we don't teach our grammar school students more effective and transferable ways to do it. Right now we seem to focus primarily on chants, songs, and repetition, all of which are good. Repetition, in fact, is necessary, so the chanting and singing seem to be the sugar we add to "make the medicine go down."

But we need sugar only if the medicine is unpleasant. 

There is no getting around it: most people don't like repeating things over and over until they remember it - unless what they are repeating is itself beautiful or interesting and unless they know how to use each repetition to see more of the beauty or interest in the thing repeated.  

When I was a child I was constantly required to memorize things at church and at camp and I thank God for every occasion. Awards were usually available and I found the awards highly motivating. They were external stimulants, if you like.  But they weren't distractions, like so many silly prizes can be. They either reinforced the memory work or they were perfectly meaningless abstract symbols that could not be mistaken for anything but an honor given for my accomplishment (things like trophies, patches, etc).

Those work, but only for people who have a decent hope of winning them. Others need other supports.

More importantly, memorizing is a skill and everybody can learn to do it better. Our culture doesn't value memory so it doesn't mind using tools to replace it. This is not mentally healthy or ethically responsible.  

Now, this post is not about how to reward memory work, but I will suggest that it needs to be done wisely and in a way that actually supports the value of memory work, not in a way that seems to confess that we don't value memory work for its own sake but we want to trick you into doing it. 

So much for that. 

My real point is that memory work is rigorous when and only when the student is devoting his attention to what is being memorized. Rigor is sustained focused attention, not, ever, busy work. 

One of teaching's greatest challenges is that you can't control the child's attention, you can only encourage him to direct it at something specific. You do that when you tell him to read, write, calculate, etc. But you can embrace the challenge without compromising the child's infinite dignity. The most effective way to arouse and direct the child's attention is to raise questions in his mind, and that is done effectively when you create problems for your students. This is obvious in math. You also do it in reading when you lead them to ask whether a character should do or - or have done - something. 

You can teach children to ask their own questions by helping them identify the questions that arise from the nature of the study or lesson you are teaching. When you do this, you give them the authority to find the answers on their own, though you have to support them while they learn. 

For example, in literature, we keep reading a story because we want to know how the character will handle what Hamlet calls a "necessary question." That is what makes stories interesting, especially on the first read. So we can and should teach our students to identify the necessary questions and thus to avoid being distracted by boisterous clowns. 

The author usually puts that necessary question right up front in a story because it drives the whole plot: Should Hamlet avenge the ghost? How should Achilleus respond to Agamemnon's insult? Should Odysseus keep trying to get home?

Each character also has his own necessary question, though some are more significant (at least in the sense of being more closely bound to the development of the story) than others. Should Edmund have followed the White Witch? Should Tumnus have kidnapped Lucy? Should Mrs. Beaver have packed a sewing machine? Should Jayber have moved to the river? 

If you are coaching a student in a skill (reading, calculating, writing, etc.), you should teach and assess as if you are coaching a skill. Skills are not mastered through lecture or scolding. You need to see it modeled, you need to imitate, and you need useful feedback based on how well you imitated the model and what milestones you have reached. 

Perhaps you can see that there are three very different things students learn and ways teachers teach: perceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty; skills or arts of perception; and information. 

If you are going to teach from a state of rest with rigor, then, you have to teach according to nature. 

First, the nature of the student. Teach the way students learn. Truths excite the soul, since its primary purpose is to perceive and follow truth. Skills and information are valued by the student according to how much they help him perceive and follow truth. That's the key to meaningful education and a well lived life. 

Second, the nature of the subject. Teach the student to ask the questions the subject asks the way the subject asks them. For example, physics is physics because it asks a different kind of question than history asks and it uses different methods to find answers.

This is one of the most important things students need to learn. Just the act of asking how one subject is the same as, yet differs from another, would be one of the most valuable intellectual exercises for a student to explore. No time would be wasted. 

For example, both history and physics ask, "What happened and why?" But physics asks this about physical forces, while history asks it about human actions. What is common to both? Where do they differ? Should they be separate subjects? 

Third, the nature of the lesson. Is your goal to remember information? Then focus your attention on remembering. Is your purpose to master a skill? Then direct your attention to the exercises. Is your end to apprehend a truth? Then behold that truth in the embodied form in which it has been presented to you. 

The teacher will find that working with nature is much more restful than working against it. 

Rigor sometimes leads to exhaustion, but that is not its measure. Rigor is sustained, focused, attention. The single most important skill a child learns is the ability to pay attention. The most determinant thing about us as people is what we pay attention to. As they used to say when education was Christian classical: You become what you behold. 

The anxious mind does not behold. It is distracted by many things. It cultivates an antic disposition. 

I contend, therefore, that we must teach our children to behold, to enter into rest as they learn, to focus on the one thing that matters (which contains and orders all things), and to strive every day to enter more deeply into that rest - and we must do so ourselves. 

Then we can bring together rigor and rest in a way that proves the truth of our Lord's words when He said that if we "take My yoke upon you... you shall find rest for your souls." 

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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