Since, at least in many Western countries, most of the population has received some level of formal education, we’ve all been exposed to a competitive way of thinking about success, learning, and growth. Unfortunately, we know that competition has skewed these ideas into a very narrow perspective that only thrives within the context of competition. We see how it affects a student in education. But those students are also part of a wider local, national, and global collective. What are the implications of systematic competition in education on wider society?
Most obviously, the 21st-century workplace wants to hire people who can cooperate, collaborate, and work together. Competition undermines those qualities (though ironically enough, companies want people to be able to cooperate so that they can compete against other companies. It seems that we already know how to solve major problems, we just haven’t learned to apply it to every scope yet).
But just as, if not more importantly, since we’ve seen how it affects the way students perceive excellence and motivation, we can extrapolate how they may apply that perspective to the world. With a system that values individual success over the collective, what you get is people who judge their own success or failure in comparison to others. Why does this matter? Because it encourages us to be comfortable in the failure of our peers. I mean, if at worst, the failure of others doesn’t affect me, and at best, it improves my chances of success, then why not be complacent? When we’re never taught to work cooperatively, social issues rooted in empathy become difficult to tackle.
But the absolute most concerning thing for me is neither of those things. What concerns me the most, is that the search for truth and understanding, the innate human motivation that is the source for any sort of learning and progress in the first place, is mired. Truth, understanding, the solution to humanity’s problems, are no longer the goals. Rather individual success (which is relative), fame (which is relative), and glory (which is relative) is made center focus. When we’ve been taught our whole lives to compete to be the best, we’re forced to continue operating in that way, even when we no longer are asked to. And this is absolutely detrimental to any chance we have addressing the alarmingly growing list of scientific, social, economic, humanitarian, and spiritual ills that afflict every individual around the world.
So what happens when we spend a person’s schooling fostering cooperation? I can cite the Robber’s Cave study (Sherif, 1954, 1958, 1961), where they determined that putting two groups in competition for scarce resources put them in states of social and physical hostility towards each other. How did they overcome it? You guessed it: working together on large tasks that benefitted both groups. When solutions to collective issues become the prime focus, then tackling them becomes much more manageable, and the success of the individual is reflective of the well-being of the collective. That idea, the success of the individual harmonizing with the success of the collective, is fundamental to development on every level, whether in the classroom, or on the sports team, or in the nation, or in the world. And, contrary to popular belief, this cooperative way of serving the collective doesn’t make us homogenous, indistinguishable cogs in a machine, but rather allows for a flourishing diversity in excellence that makes the collective whole more beautiful and sound than before.
To conclude competition, whether in the classroom, in the school, or in society, is not a method fit to develop the kind of people who will ensure the progress of the world. Cooperation and unity on the other hand, develops better students (and better people) who can tackle the issues society is facing. The more we can focus on educating our students with unity and growth as the foundational principle, we will begin to see the emergence of a new generation of minds that will propel humanity forward.
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.
This is the final post of a three part series on competition. See also Competition I: In the PBL Classroom and Competition II: In the School System
Learn more about Learner-Perspective Coach Dayyan Sisson here.