A willingness to compete is one of the highest virtues in our society. We make professional sports into a multi-billion dollar industry, lauding the highest achievers for what could be considered sociopathic levels of competitive spirit. We talk about schools in terms of competition and measure their quality on a scale of standardized testing. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we match up to those around us in terms of intelligence, social stature, athleticism, and more.
Let me be clear: I do not think that being competitive is a bad thing. Full disclosure, I’m a pretty competitive person who tends to do all right in most things I try. But I stand by that assertion. Competition and competitiveness, in and of themselves, are not bad things.
Competition can be life giving. In its purest form, competition is about two individuals (or teams) testing each other, pushing each other, striving to bring out the best in each other. I remember when I was in seventh or eighth grade my soccer team was near the top of our league, but there was one particular team that we always played best against. Every game against them was close and hard fought, and by the end of each one everyone was physically drained. We lost our share of those matchups, and although losing isn’t very fun I would have taken a season of those games over every game we won 3-0. They made us better players. Likewise in school, one of my closest friend always read more than me. I was challenged daily to keep improving, to read more, to think better, to be conscious about the way I engaged with the world.
Competition can be good. Where it turns bad is when the goal turns from seeking the best in yourself and your opponent to seeking your opponent’s utter destruction and humiliation. It’s the difference between respect and malice, between selflessness and selfishness. It should come as no surprise to anyone that our culture idolizes the selfish, and I think part of that idolization is driven by an overemphasis on competitiveness.
Look at how too much competitive drive has ruined our sports. Just today there was a new story about steroids in baseball. Cheating in sports isn’t about measuring yourself, it’s about winning at all costs. That’s selfishness. That’s disrespectful. Businessmen craving money above all else is competitive spirit gone awry as money is looked upon as the greatest measuring stick for the summation of one’s life. (I don’t believe that’s the case, but that’s somewhat beside the point; money is an internationally recognized status symbol. The rich get to say they’re winning at life because they have the empirical data – dollars – to back up that claim.)
But what I really want to bring up here goes beyond issues so explicit as PED use and corporate greed. I wonder how badly we’re handicapping our kids’ development with our overemphasis on competition?
As Sir Ken Robinson, among others I’m sure, points out so eloquently our education system tends to treat all kids the same age as the same, and they’re not. Human beings develop very differently from one another in a myriad of ways and for just as many reasons. The system works on an assembly line mentality that is simply not reflective of reality, and a large part of why it does this is that it promotes competition. We want to know which schools are the best, so we make up a game through which to pit one against the other in a battle for bragging rights (standardized testing). How can you measure intelligence when it manifests itself in so many ways? You can’t, at least not sufficiently, so we draw up lines and boundaries and rules and make a game out of it. It’s not true, uplifting competition. It’s artifice.
Our schools and education system exist predominantly in an abstracted space, well removed from the real world. I’m not trying to say that every piece of education needs to have direct practical application (I’ll rail against that too, sometime), but there’s a difference between education that exists to enrich students and education that exists to compare them.
Again, competition is not all bad, even in education. Just as sports can enrich our understanding of life so too can testing, properly implemented, enrich our education. But right now the system is pretending that life exists solely within the confines of a soccer pitch. From an early age we are implicitly drilling it into the heads of our kids that achievement as compared to someone else is the highest good. We can’t afford to keep doing that. Beyond making our society a much colder place, we’re surely squandering the brilliance of millions because the current rules of our school-game make touching the ball illegal. Soccer makes you stretch and achieve new things by forcing you to use your feet. But not everybody plays soccer. Some kids just need to use their hands.