Much, not many

It recently dawned on me that one of the reasons for posting so little on this blog is because I have been writing an article a week for my school’s newsletter.  So I am now posting them here along with publishing them in our newsletter.  Enjoy.

A few weeks back, in his wonderful weekly column, Mr. Liebmann discussed the idea of multum non multa or “much, not many” as a principle in classical education.  It is not my intent to go back over his well written thoughts, but to extend them into the discussion you and I have been having regarding the nature of a great education.  “Much not many” certainly is a mainstay of the nature of a great education and has fallen on hard times in our specialized educational landscape. But to extend those thoughts, I have to develop another term first.

I talk to a lot of parents as a wonderful part of my job, and I am constantly seeking to know their own expectations for their child’s education.  In this context, they want to know that their child is being stretched, strengthened, and readied for a rather unforgiving world where high expectations demand that a student has been graduated up to such standards.  The word often used to define this kind of education is rigor.  While my dictionary mainly defines this adjective in negative terms, I understand most parents not be asking that their student be harmed by their education, but strengthened and stretched.  They want the education to be pulling out of their student enough effort and “work” that it can provide excellent returns.

In short, it is the desire behind my coach’s old adage, “No pain, no gain.”  The parent using rigor to define their sought after education for their child is saying they want it to be the best, to be that which readies the student for what comes next. Most of us know that excellence is born of sometimes Herculean effort and prolonged energy.  But this notion of rigor can be approached in two much different ways, and this will eventually get us back to our Latin phrase.

The first way to approach rigor is to view it from a quantitative point of view.  Rigor is defined here by numbers.  How many pages were read?  How many books were read?  How many pages were written?  How many AP courses were taken, and what was the score on the end test?  Higher numbers here indicate greater rigor.  And I am not for a moment dismissing this approach.  It is tried and tested.  But it is not the only form rigor can and should take. Without dismissing the question of quantity, we don’t have full rigor without an eye to the quality of the study as well.

Here we run into more difficulty in assuring ourselves of rigor, because it demands a subjective judgment.  Rather than seek to define this point of view, allow me to contrast the two side by side with one make believe assignment.  Janie has been asked to write a thesis.  Her teacher is going to influence the rigor of her paper through the rubric that is given at the start to the assignment.  By stating how many pages, how many sources are to be cited, how many words, and especially how much time is being given, the teacher is setting boundaries on the rigor.  But then Janie takes over the reins and further determines how much of each rigor will be pursued.

Janie will choose how close to the minimums or maxims she comes, and how she uses the time given.  The rigor of quantity certainly demands that she count pages, sources, etc.  But the rigor of quality demands that she first, even before putting pen to paper, researches deeply, wrestles with the thesis and any questions demanded by that thesis, and logically pursues out the possible rabbit trails her thoughts carry her down.  It is possible for Janie to correctly and rigorously exceed the number of pages by several, cite way more sources than required, and still turn in a nominal paper on time.  But such a paper does not address the equally important pursuit of quality.

And now we come back to one of the basic natural concerns of a great education.  We are going to practice multum non multa and limit purposefully the amount of material, pages, books, subjects, etc. so as to give us time and possibility for a deep and full pursuit of quality.  In the real world of marriage, career, church, citizenship, the quality of our thoughts and deeds are just as important as the quantity.  So this must be preserved in our education if it is prepare students who are ready for real life.  I hope we always know that we are doing enough in our classrooms, fulfilling the necessary quantity for a rigorous education, but we must preserve the quality of that rigor as well.  Our culture is impressed with numbers.  Let us be impressed with the breadth and depth of our student’s great Caldwell education.  Let us learn the lesson of Christ, when He addressed this issue with a lady named Martha, “You are busy with a great many things, but your sister has chosen the one best thing.”

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