Against Rigour

In favour of a responsive education

One of the defining characteristics of industrialised nations is that its people are 'educated'. But is a 'rigorous' conventional education actually fit for purpose in times of crisis? Is it time to uncivilise the classroom? Writer and somatic therapist Nina Pick explores the shift towards an education that prepares children for needs of the Earth and the requirements of a post-industrial future.  
has a private practice in Integrative Spiritual and Somatic Counselling, bringing a trauma-informed and heart-centred approach to her work. Her books includeThe Mind-Body Guide to the Twelve Steps: Finding Joy, Sensuality, and Pleasure in Recovery , a poetry collection At the Edge of the Dirac Sea and a children’s book, Tall Oak and Small Owl. Her writing has also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including issues of Dark Mountain. She lives in Massachusetts.
During my brief time teaching in a New York independent school, I quickly became attuned to how often I heard the word ‘rigour’ tossed around. Independent schools seem proud to offer a ‘rigorous’ education, frequently using this term in mission statements and admissions materials, at conferences and faculty meetings, and in emails to parents and guardians. In the midst of the Covid crisis and our subsequent transition to remote learning, it seemed especially important to reassure everyone of the continued rigour.

A look at the etymology of the word ‘rigour’ reveals that it evolved from Latin rigere, meaning stiffness, and that it was used as a shorthand for rigor mortis, the stiffening that occurs to the body in the hours after death. I can’t imagine we are promoting the quality of stiffness or death in our education systems, so what are we talking about when we talk about ‘rigour’ in the context of schooling? 

Generally it means a heavy load of homework and high expectations for student success (the child is on track to a top university and a high-paying job), and maybe an emphasis on STEM subjects, or on critical analysis, or on competitive sports teams, or a full slate of afterschool activities. Essentially it means the pupil will be very, very busy.

The use of the word rigour is an unexamined (essentially unrigorous) shorthand that prevents us from engaging with the deeper, structural questions about education in the age of climate collapse. Why do we assume that homework is necessary and a sign of student learning? There is plenty of evidence, both experiential and statistical, to the contrary. And what are we doing with our eight-hour school day that pupils then need to go home and continue their work late into the evening? 

We’re schooling them into high-pressure jobs for which they will need to work at home at night and on the weekends, as well as into low-paying employment that requires juggling long hours or multiple jobs in order to garner a living wage. And in a time when all known structures are rapidly crumbling and children will be faced with ecological and social crises beyond our capacity to imagine, perhaps a university education and a demanding work schedule will be neither appealing nor possible. Not to mention we are severely limiting young people’s own vision by imposing on them our adult values and our own outdated and limited scope. The future will require imagination, creativity, vulnerability, intuition, and a heartfulness that the mainstream education system is not providing. The busier the pupils are, and the more stressed they feel as a result, the harder it is for them to stay located in their hearts, bodies and imaginations.

The future will require imagination, creativity, vulnerability, intuition, and a heartfulness that the mainstream education system is not providing.

As a young person, I was lucky to experience many different forms of education. I attended a Steiner school until I was twelve, and then went to the local middle school and high school, where I received a lot of out-of-the-box training in things like civil disobedience from wonderful, out-of-the-box teachers. I remember one particularly radical teacher who had us climbing out of the classroom windows to challenge authority. 

I went on to one of most rigorous of all rigorous American universities, the University of Chicago (its slogan: ‘The Life of the Mind’) and, existentially depressed, dropped out one month into my sophomore year, later completing my degree at New York University, which offered an eclectic mix of artsiness and hardcore academia. For grad school I went to UC Berkeley to study Comparative Literature (very rigorous) and then Pacifica Graduate Institute, which provided me with a magical, experiential education, based on the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, in Counselling Psychology. Since then, my learning in adulthood has continued to expand my understanding of what education can look like, as I’ve learned how to make fire by friction, tan a hide, lead a ritual, and dialogue with my ancestors. These varied educational experiences eventually led me to the field of somatic (body-oriented) therapy, and to become a somatic counsellor working with clients at the intersections of body, mind, and soul.  

I’m very grateful for the many ways my own education, both rigorous and otherwise, has allowed me to navigate our society as it is. I can analyse a news story as well as a novel, listen to Spanish-language radio, and multiply medium-sized numbers, and I’m proud of my capacity to put the commas in the right places. I’m also anxious all the time and tend to see a problem through the eye of a straw, which is exactly the way my rigorous education trained me to think about a problem. It’s taken many years of unschooling, otherwise known as psychotherapy, to help me realise that our entire bodies are intelligent, which is something my cat knows already, no analysis required.

When schools offer a head-centred education focused primarily on developing childrens’ cognitive abilities, and left-hemisphere capacities in particular, they offer an education that is indeed rigorous: stiff and dead. A healthy organism is responsive, not rigorous. It breathes, grows, and moves to meet the changing circumstances. This is the goal of somatic therapy – to increase the body’s capacity for breath, movement, flexibility, and motion, with the idea that freedom of the body is also freedom of the mind and heart, which is the last capacity that schools actually want to cultivate. When we can move and breathe with less restriction, we become emotionally and psychologically flexible as well, and are more inclined to do (and be) sudden and wild things that challenge existing structures. 

When we can move and breathe with less restriction, we become emotionally and psychologically flexible as well, and are more inclined to do (and be) sudden and wild things that challenge existing structures. 

A responsive, rather than rigorous, education would be similarly characterised by range of motion, rhythm, adaptability, and freedom, and would nurture these qualities in pupils. With an education that offers room and time to breathe, young people can experience their own range of movement, freeing up their creativity and imagination, qualities that are nurtured in spaciousness and emptiness. (This is the great value of boredom!) In contrast to a rigorous education, which de-emphasises, or in some cases leaves out entirely, the pupils’ connection to themselves and the Earth, a responsive education centres these relationships. 

A responsive education might focus on developing childrens’ inner capacity for vision and intuition through meditation, imagery, and expressive (not academic) arts. It might educate them into a deep honouring of animals, plants, land, not through cognitive learning in a biology class but through developing a compassionate relationship with our fellow inhabitants. It might teach storytelling and myths – again, not as analysed in an English essay but as embodied around a bonfire – and provide meaningful initiations such as rituals and vision quests. It could offer movement and somatic learning, not just sports, and help children experience the cycle of the year through farming and gardening. It might teach crafts and wilderness survival skills, and facilitate beneficial exchanges with community elders. In this way, young people would come to face crises from the inside out, heart to world, and offer creative, empathic responses.

How would a responsive, rather than rigorous, education have reacted to the Covid crisis? Perhaps it would have sent the pupils, whenever possible, into the woods or their yards or even just the sky outside their window instead of into their computer screens. Perhaps it would have allowed children time to be with their families, to be bored, to create, instead of assigning them projects and worksheets and homework. Perhaps it would have acknowledged that pupils were experiencing an enormous grief, both individual and collective, and that assessment strategies such as grading – now in particular, and to a certain degree, always – are a measure primarily of a child’s support systems. Instead of merely pivoting to online models, we could have listened to this crisis as a call to assess our underlying assumptions and to reimagine and rework education’s fundamental forms. 

The manifold crises of our era have made clear that our inherently capitalist, racist, and anthropocentric educational models are indeed showing signs of rigor mortis. Is this what we actually want for young people – a deadened, and deadening, education that adheres to familiar forms at any cost? Or can we draw on our ancestral and human heritage of Earth connection, somatic wisdom, ritual, myth and storytelling in order to re-envision education as a vibrant and heartful living organism that can respond to the challenges of our times?

As the ecologist David Orr writes, ‘The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds’. If we listen to it, the living world, in all of its adaptability, imagination, generativity, and responsiveness, can teach exactly what is needed.


IMAGE: ‘Clear Cut’ by Bridget Rountree
This image was assembled in response to the devastating rate forests are clear-cut globally while grappling with how human beings are inextricably intertwined in the ecology we are destroying. Ultimately our children will be left with the devastation which exposes the deep-seated colonial constructs and the clear-cut problem of advanced capitalism, overconsumption and incessant progress.(from Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS)

Bridget Rountree was born and currently resides in San Diego, CA. She received a BA in Literature from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Her work has been exhibited and performed nationally and internationally. She is a trans-disciplinary environmental artist combining mixed media, performance and puppetry.


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