1. The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.
2. severity or strictness.
3. (when pluralized) harsh and demanding conditions
In education (as in other walks of life) the word rigour is usually meant in sense (1) when applied to one’s own thinking or the thinking of one’s friends or allies: “I am being rigorous. However, you, sir, are merely pedantic.”
These days, sense (2) seems to require the insertion of a prefix, as in “The moderation of our controlled assessments was over-rigorous.”
Rigour is therefore a good thing, right?
However, in my opinion it seems to be used more and more as a talisman rather than as a genuine description.
Mr Gove told the Commons: “The new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science.”
— The Independent, July 2013
I am not sure if Michael Gove* is using the word in sense (1) or sense (2) here. If he meant it in sense (2) then it is a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the idea that GCSEs will be more challenging. If he meant it in sense (1) then the promise of “extended writing [and] more testing” doesn’t tell me how the new exams will be more thorough and careful. This is not saying that the examination system does not need to be more thorough and careful, merely that “extended writing [and] more testing” won’t necessarily make it so.
Let me emphasise that I am not opposed to rigour. I like rigour and being rigorous, at least in sense (1). I would perhaps favour the words consistent and fair rather than use rigour in sense (2) in an educational context, but that’s a personal preference.
In short, I wish people would be more rigorous in their use of the word rigorous. You shouldn’t just use it because you think it sounds good. A is rigorous while B is not should mean more than I like A and dislike B.
And as a final thought, I strongly suspect that many of the people who are most keen to bemoan the lack of rigour in education would have to step out of the kitchen when push came to shove, as in this little vignette:
[I listened] to magazine columnist Fred Barnes . . . whine on and on about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for why students are doing so poorly. “These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!” he bellowed, as the other panellists nodded in admiration at Fred’s noble lament.
The next morning I called Fred Barnes at his Washington office. “Fred,” I said, “tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.”
He started hemming and hawing. “Well, they’re … uh … you know … uh … okay, fine, you got me—I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?”
No, not really. You’re one of the top TV pundits in America, seen every week on your own show and plenty of others. You gladly hawk your “wisdom” to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens, gleefully scorning others for their ignorance.
— Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (2001), p.58
* His successor Nicky Morgan look set to continue Gove’s use of the term.
Postscript: For the those (including myself) who are classically undereducated: The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer about the Trojan War. The Odyssey is another epic poem by Homer recounting the ten-year journey home from the Trojan War made by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.