“Rigor”, They Say, in Schooling for the Young!

Just the other day, came the conclusion stated in no uncertain terms by several commentators on a televised news show. They were reflecting on the latest data about young people in the United States not having a competitive advantage over the young in many other countries around the globe. Especially in writing, math and science skills. If those data are reliable conclusions, which from the citations of the studies I heard (but did not make note of) appeared to me to be excellent sources, then I thought of my own experience in the public schools.

I received a diploma in three and a half years on the basis of extra credits earned from extracurricular activities. Good thing, too, because I was drafted after three and a half years of secondary school. I got my diploma the day I was required to register. A month later I was going to basic infantry training. My high schooling was not rigorous. There were several easy ways out of those (for me) rigorous courses. I was not then ready for the rigors of serious learning, lacking motivation and skill.

The service increased my motivation and gave me the G.I. Bill for three and a half years of college. So far so good. I was highly motivated to study, military service inspired. I had a brain craving, probably from, o, uh, inheritance, and a self-developed prudence, too. I think prudence and inheritance came from my mother who let us boys develop without much fuss, or “officiousness”. Motivation is what moves you to go after something you want to have. Beyond grunt, grinding labor. Before being drafted, I worked in a factory making raincoats (the heavy smell of rubber) for the army, and before that glueing joints (the noxious, piercing smell of glue) for putting together chairs in a furniture factory.

Two weeks after separation from the service, I was enrolled in college taking two courses in the summer session.

Now Comes the RIGOR

My beginning higher education would be a model of RIGOR in education. In high school I had read only one or two simple novels. I simply brought nothing to the first university course I signed up for. I had a comic-book background. Literally.

Those two beginning courses launching my tertiary education set the table. There was no better beginning for introducing me to the nature of higher education, a German language course and a course in the English novel.

The German course taught me a foreign language as well as the basic structures of language, with transfer of training to a better understanding of my native English language, and fine writing skills in matters of form. That course in the history of the English novels, as they say, blew my mind. We read one novel for every two meetings of the class, that being every week of the session, taking them chronologically. It was an elegant introduction to the many niceties and refinements of the English language. My vocabulary zoomed into the stratosphere! The stories were those you may see on PBS television, Masterpiece Theatre. (Theatre, the art. Theater, the building. Me, ever the didactic!)

  1. Daniel Dafoe: Moll Flanders
  2. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
  3. Samuel Richardson: Pamela
  4. Henry Fielding: Tom Jones
  5. Tobias Smollet: Roderick Random
  6. Lawerence Stern: Tristram Shandy
  7. Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield
  8. Jane Austin: Pride and Prejudice
  9. Sir Walter Scott: Quentin Durward
  10. Charles Dickens: David Copperfield
  11. William Thackeray: Vanity Fair
  12. Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
  13. Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers
  14. Charles Reade: The Cloister and the Hearth

And I was just out of the army! My associations there were, well, unrefined, coarse, unelegant. I later took a course in the Russian novel in translation, against the background of our cold war after the war, with the same setup for a lot of reading. Have you ever read War and Peace? Later I found it easy to tackle on my own Moby Dick and From Here to Eternity, both huge tomes.

Later I took a similar, but not as rigorous course in the American novels. Also, a good way to get a sense of history, of England, Russia, United States.

Today I have three university degrees, the B.A., and two advanced degrees. I really learned how to study, and read, and write. I learned not to shrink from heavy educational undertakings. I think back with the satisfaction of having taken on all that academic work. Me! I failed the fifth grade! They said it was because of my attitude toward school. My family had moved from the Northside to the Southside, and I missed all my friends on the Northside. It was attitude that did me in. But I went on to eventually teach at all the higher levels of education. Even now, I cannot believe it, in reminiscence. A lot of very hard work studying.

To me, that is what is meant by “rigor” in intellectual development and study. Rigor has its rewards. The moral of the story? Rigor in educational pursuits is ultimately not the system coming down hard on the young and imposing a harsh regimen. No. Rigor has to be mostly the choice of the learner finding within himself or herself the energy of motive power to take on the educational tasks with the most rewards in the end. Rigor should be self-selected. It is there for the taking.

Rigor as Second Nature

Before seeing my first bullfight in Mexico, I read thirteen books about it. I knew the bullfight pretty well when I enetered the plaza for the first. “Suerte, Matador!” I once went to a Spanish class in the high school where I taught to discuss it with students. I have not seen one for a very long time.

In another case of a reading approach to problems, I adopted a habit of “bibliotherapy” that has helped my almost curing and definitely controlling a diagnosis of adult-onset diabetes. All thanks to that rigor-inducing English novel course.

O, yes. One more thing. I am not a speed reader. I read very slowly, word by word. I know there is much to be said for speed reading even beyond the fast pace. Sometimes I try to skim as speed readers do. I had the feeling of missing a lot, of missing the depth. But time was surely saved. My old habit will never be replaced. Also, as a typist, I am a hunt and pecker, more pecker than hunter, I say, for a chuckle. I have typed that way the equivalent of, o, perhaps, two or three or more huge books. A rigorous dedication is necssary, for all that. If I lack some essential skill, there is always rigor pushing for an adequate work around.

Incentive

The young person should have incentives, yes, positive motivational influences. There are two sources, internal and external, or intrinsic and extrinsic. Motivation that comes from within the person put alongside inducements coming from outside the person appear to be what I had, first, in my desire to rise above what I had in the service and in my labor experiences, wanting something immensely better, and second, the G.I. Bill assistance to get me started came from the government, I was ready to go, and go I did!

Thank you, America! The American government helped make my life what it is today. Not only with the public school system, but with the assistance toward a university education. (All emnating from the often overlooked General Welfare aim of American society as provisioned in the Preamble to our social contract. And I am thinking here of all the Vets coming back into the American society, battle scarred or horribly maimed.)

Something else lifted me. In the background. Something pretty. Something that helped me get the spirit of poetic beauties of language and of society. There is plenty of roughness in life. You see, hear, and feel something that grates against your spirit, gnaws at your disposition, fragments your emotions, chafes at your equanimity, irritates or tries your patience. You feel you are coming apart. You want something to reintegrate, pull yourself together. I found early in life the emotional lift that comes from advanced and classical culture. (I am not a snooty, stuck up person!)

Whatever that may be for you, for me it was something that put me in a minority, what most people do not favor. I discovered creations of the highest forms of excellence in music that have lasted many generations and never appear to fade out with time, the classic forms of music. The people who propagate this music from one gneration to the next are faithful and dedicated in a passion that will not die. They, like me, are lifted by this experience knocking off the rough edges of everyday life, with beautiful music.

The young have to be eager to take on the rigorous school work that will make them the highly cultured person that they may become, and enjoy being for a lifetime of knowing what they have risen to, and become. They also have to exhibit aspirations, to aim high, and for that they need encouragement, not so much from others, but from the success they have felt from their own exertions and successful advancement which they may look back and see. Listen for the evidence in their own observations and evaluations about where they are with success. Modesty does not have to be complete self-effacement.

Now, regarding the math, which is part of the demand for rigor. I had not much acquaintance with math; I was at the arithmatic stage. But later, as a professor, I felt that I should not shirk doing scientific types of studies. So I dove in the numerical soup, a study that looked at the probability of relationships of variables. I learned a lot, enough to hone a scientific approach to problems, in a study with colleagues having sophisticated skills, as teachers helping me understand the control of observations or control of variables. I did not remain an outsider to that type of knowledge.

My purpose has been to write about submitting myself to the rigors of mental effort. For that, you have to be a self-starter. Submit yourself. Do not go like slaves scourged to a dungeon of rigorous toil. But, sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach the rigors of your task like one who wraps the mantle of seeker about himself and rises up to the rewards of expert proficiency. (To paraphrase the last verse of “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.)

Sounds like I’m boasting. Well, that may be. I did it! I do not know who or what was guiding me. My intuition perhaps. A desire for going with the higher and heavier culture that started with classical (heavy) music at a very, very young age, “sensitizing” me to something extremely complex and beautiful, energizing me like a shot in the arm. Because something in my mind recognized such harmonious complexities of instrumented stimuli having something extraordinarily difficult and “artful” varieties out of the ordinary to present. Being high culture does not mean I lost any common touch. Those gears are shifted like gears in a car engine, making one bi-cultural. And I believe others might take the hint, taking on a big load of language immersion. The brain has to be trained, disciplined in diversity. I recommend others see the basics in language proficiency, foreign and domestic. My after-thought is, I did it right! Culture is in the code systems; music and language are code systems. Remember, the fetus has been observed in the womb responding to classical music being played near the mother. How’s that for starters!

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