Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Rigor Mortis: The Death of Education

“ Con sangre, la letra entra.” — Spanish proverb (“With blood, the letter enters.")


What is the most important thing to know in this world? If you’re a student or a teacher, I believe this fact should be at the top of the list:


“The brain stem is designed to react in situations of emergency, helping us survive through the instincts of fight, flight or freeze."


In that state, we are incapable of higher thought. We cannot access feelings of joy, happiness, belonging. We cannot love. In short, we are but a narrow slice of our humanitarian promise. 


Now consider that any level of fear, shame, anxiety, stress sends us toward the brain stem, away from the higher levels of thought and feeling. If we’re in the field of educating human beings, our purpose is to elevate each other to our higher and better selves. Any educational structure that creates, purposefully or ignorantly, a constant state of the above emotions, works against itself. 


Read the above again and think about the state of education. This is always on my mind, but came to the surface in the past few days, as follows:


• Conversing with my niece about Medical School, she painted a picture of a cruel system in which people above her who are required to mentor, help and assist, routinely ignore, put down and verbally abuse her. And are rewarded by a system that considers it part of some bizarre “initiation” practice. Is this how we create compassionate, caring doctors?


• An Orff colleague described her experience in a parallel alternative music education pedagogy. As she described it, she and a friend “went through (the hell that was) a Kodály master's together at Loyola Maryland, in Baltimore. We felt like we went through a war together—a lot of trauma bonding in that class.”


• A few years back, I talked with some Orff Level graduates who described the agony of completing their orchestration assignments. 2 or 3 hours a night spent fretting and all they remember from their Level I training was the stress and agony.


• On Facebook today, another Orff colleague in a Music Ed Masters wrote of how lost he felt in the first week of the program and no one was willing to help him.


Keep in mind that these are not soldiers being trained to kill or survive in life-threatening situations. They are future teachers entrusted with the minds, hearts and souls of our precious children, future doctors entrusted with healing. What is going on here?


One way people justify this kind of toxic education is to defend it in the name of “rigor.” The field is worthy of only the best and we must weed out the slackers, the unfit, the weak. And so it continues.


Looking up the etymology of “rigor,” I found this one description in Wikipedia:


Intellectual rigor is a process of thought which is consistent, does not contain self-contradiction, and takes into account the entire scope of available knowledge on the topic. Furthermore, it requires a skeptical assessment of the available knowledge. If a topic or case is dealt with in a rigorous way, it typically means that it is dealt with in a comprehensive, thorough and complete way, leaving no room for inconsistencies.


Excellent! I’m all for it. We all would be better for it if our thinking were marked by such rigor. It well describes the kind of teaching I try to do. But I don’t accept that the way to such rigor demands fear, anxiety, sternness and relentless work. 


And that brings up the first Wikipedia definition:


"Rigor" comes to English through old French meaning "stiffness", which itself is based on the Latin rigorem (nominative rigor) "numbness, stiffness, hardness, firmness; roughness, rudeness", from the verb rigere "to be stiff." Rigor mortis translates directly as the stiffness (rigor) of death (mortis).


There you have it. A educational system based on the fantasy of rigor is death to meaningful learning. My experience is that human beings thrive best  not with numbness but alive sensory involvement, not with stiffness but with flow, not with roughness but with gentle assistance, not with rudeness but with welcoming encouragement. There are times when the material is hard and offers some firm resistance that needs our concentrated effort. But it is our innate drive to inner mastery that overrides the outer carrots and sticks and yields better results. 


And so teachers and school systems, stop excusing your cruelty in the name of rigor and do the rigorous work of softening, inspiring, encouraging and loving the students you have been entrusted with. Learning does not enter with blood, but with love.  

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