Wednesday, August 6, 2014

'Rigor' is the new 'wholesome.'

Anyone who has dealt extensively with major corporations knows that corporate culture does strange things to language. I've got a half-finished post sitting on my hard-drive which argues that this process is Orwellian in the sense that if you go through "Politics and the English Language" and the relevant portions of 1984, you will find them remarkably applicable to the way language is used in the business class.

As mentioned before, the education reform movement is the product of business leaders and management consultants and free-market theorists and in most areas it hasn't yet developed a distinct culture of its own. This is particularly true with language. Even the reformers who aren't former management consultants, tend to talk as if they were.

One of the defining traits of this kind of corporate language is the constant repetition of certain words and phrases that are vague but which have strong emotional connotations, especially connotations of quality and/or toughness. Excellent/excellence is the obvious example, but in many ways, rigor/rigorous is an even better one.

'Excellence' is a fairly general term; 'rigor' has a much more specific meaning. Here's what Google says:

the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate.
"his analysis is lacking in rigor"

severity or strictness.
"the full rigor of the law"

demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions.
"the rigors of a harsh winter"
All three of these could reasonably be used in a number of educational contexts (though it should be noted that the third is generally something we want to reduce). They make little sense, however in places we normally see them.
At the same time, we need a frank discussion about the shortcomings of the current system. At the heart of the matter is that CTE [career and technical education] programs need to strengthen their rigor and relevance – and deliver better outcomes for students.
Arne Duncan

For the last four years, the Obama administration has provided funding and incentives for states to help build a teaching profession that is both respected and rigorous.
Duncan again.

What exactly does it mean for a program to have stronger rigor or for a profession to be more rigorous? I'm not sure and I don't think Duncan is either. I don't even think he's trying to make meaningful statements in the conventional sense. 'Rigor' and 'rigorous' are used so frequently (satirized here by Edushyster), because the speakers are trying to build an association between their proposals and the qualities associated with the words (hard work, competence, discipline).

An explicitly Orwellian part of this process is the way words with strong connotations are made increasingly vague so they can be applied to more and more situations.

From the Glossary of Education Reform.
While dictionaries define the term as rigid, inflexible, or unyielding, educators frequently apply rigor or rigorous to assignments that encourage students to think critically, creatively, and more flexibly. Likewise, they may use the term rigorous to describe learning environments that are not intended to be harsh, rigid, or overly prescriptive, but that are stimulating, engaging, and supportive.
And a bit later
One common way in which educators do use rigor to mean unyielding or rigid is when they are referring to “rigorous” learning standards and high expectations—i.e., when they are calling for all students to be held to the same challenging academic standards and expectations. In this sense, rigor may be applied to educational situations in which students are not allowed to “coast” or “slide by” because standards, requirements, or expectations are low.
To strictly adhere to a rule is one of the definitions of rigorous, so 'rigorous standards' are meaningful in the traditional sense, but even here the treatment is somewhat vague. Note the way that the more specific 'thorough, exhaustive, or accurate' are replaced with the more general 'high' and 'challenging.' More to the point, any definition that covers both paragraphs (not to mentions Duncan's usage) would be stretched to the point of nonexistence.

Most of the time, 'rigor' in an education proposal is like 'wholesome' in an ad for a snack cake. The word means almost nothing and the very fact that you're seeing it means someone is trying to sell you something.

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