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Invitation to the Pain of Learning

By April 30, 2024No Comments

There is much discussion in the classical Christian school movement about “rigor,” a word many of our schools no longer employ. Every school must contend with the appropriate levels of engagement. It is worth a thoughtful, prayerful, collaborative conversation with one’s school community. Below I have included an excerpt from Mortimer Adler’s essay, Invitation to the Pain of Learning. Adler understood that if we make education about who we become and less about what we do or know, the cost is much higher for the learner. What Adler decried in his time was the desire to make learning entertaining and not come to terms with the reality that the higher the aim, the more resistance one will feel, and the more effort must be exerted. What one must accept, he said, is that “learning can promise pleasure only as the result of pain.”

Of course, this can easily be misconstrued if one is not prudent. Merely making things hard can mask a host of pedagogical errors. Rigor does not mean sheer quantity of work, loads of homework, or piling on math problems every night. Mere masses of anything do not ensure quality learning or understanding. Rigor does not mean the student will always be frustrated and exasperated beyond their developmental or academic abilities. Rigor is not an excuse for a teacher to revoke their responsibility of teaching for understanding. Rigor does not mean the child is only occupied with school and nothing else.

What Adler argued is that the content and aims of a liberal education are what makes it challenging and meaningful. Choosing great texts, discussing questions of ultimate significance, and seeking the Good are inherently and necessarily difficult. Thomas Aquinas said, “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult. Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious; it must be more difficult in such a way that it is at the same time good in a yet higher way.” A classical Christian education is necessarily challenging due to the complexity and depth with which truth, goodness, and beauty are revealed in the ideas, events, masterworks, and great conversations that compose our curriculum. At the same time, the pace, scope, and sequence of the curriculum are moderated by the nature of the learner at each grade level. The result is an appropriately challenging educational experience. Adler understood this and articulates the principles in a clear and cogent way below:

Invitation to the Pain of Learning, Mortimer Adler

“…we do not try to deny the fact that taking care of a household or holding down a job is necessarily burdensome, but we somehow still believe that the goods to be obtained, the worldly goods of wealth and comfort, are worth the effort. In any case, we know they cannot be obtained without effort. But we try to shut our eyes to the fact that improving one’s mind or enlarging one’s spirit is, if anything, more difficult than solving the problems of subsistence; or, maybe, we just do not believe that knowledge and wisdom are worth the effort.

What lies behind my remark is a distinction between two views of education. In one view, education is something externally added to a person, such as his clothing and other accouterments. We cajole him into standing there willingly while we fit him; and in doing this we must be guided by his likes and dislikes, by his own notion of what enhances his appearance. In the other view, education is an interior transformation of a person’s mind and character. He is a plastic material to be improved not according to his inclinations, but according to what is good for him.

Anyone who has done any thinking, even a little bit, knows that it is painful. It is hard work- the very hardest that human beings are ever called upon to do. It is fatiguing, not refreshing. If allowed to follow the path of least resistance, no one would ever think. To make boys and girls, or men and women, think – and through thinking really undergo the transformation of learning-educational agencies of every sort must work against the grain, not with it. Far from trying to make the whole process painless from beginning to end, we must promise them the pleasure of achievement as a reward to be reached only through travail. I am not here concerned with the oratory that may have to be employed to persuade Americans that wisdom is a greater good than wealth, and hence worthy of greater effort. I am only insisting that there is no royal road and that our present educational policies, in adult education especially, are fraudulent. We are pretending to give them something which is described in the advertising as very valuable, but which we promise they can get at almost no expense to them.

Certainly, so long as the so-called educational directors of our leading networks continue to operate on their present false principles, we can expect nothing. So long as they confuse education and entertainment, so long as they suppose that learning can be accomplished without pain, so long as they persist in bringing everything and everybody down to the lowest level on which the largest audience can be reached, the educational programs offered on the air will remain what they are today – shams and delusions. 

Unless we acknowledge that every invitation to learning can promise pleasure only as the result of pain, and can offer achievement only at the expense of work, all of our invitations to learning, in school and out, whether by books, lectures, or radio and television programs will be as much buncombe as the worst patent medicine advertising, or the campaign pledge to put two chickens in every pot.”

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