In short, I’m agin’ it. Here’s what I mean.
This morning, a colleague sent me an article by a woman who is a young Harvard professor that I think speaks to the notion of competition in a compelling if slightly tangential way. For all success-a-holics, it is worth reading: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/
I remember a bright autumn day when I was around six years old. My mother took a friend and me to the park where all kinds of vivid leaves were strewn across the grass in every direction. My mother, surprisingly (as a special ed teacher, she usually didn’t do things like this!) challenged us to see who could find the prettiest leaves. Now, the little budding artist in me had already been enchanted by the hues and shapes spread before me and I had been about to run up and inspect them. But my friend — whose name I cannot remember, only that she had long, red hair and was nimble — immediately responded and ran around picking up all those beautiful leaves. Whereupon I retreated. I wanted to enjoy and ‘study’ those leaves in situ and somehow was offended by the idea of disturbing them, as their positions on the dark green lawn where they fell were part of their charm for me. I hung back behind my mother who, clearly dismayed, whispered gently, ‘Beth, why don’t you pick up some leaves?’. I couldn’t speak or move. I was paralyzed by disappointment that I was expected to perform even at the park! That scene has been replayed in my mind ever since. I have never understood the competitive spirit.
Now, that is not to say that I have never wanted to get recognition. But I have found that curiously, I never enjoyed the notion of ‘beating’ someone else. So, when it came to team sports, I was hopeless. I just didn’t care if we won! Likewise to this day, whenever I am about to ‘win’ the White Elephant game at Christmas, I inevitably find a way to lose, to make sure someone else gets the best gift (and I always try to bring something nice). I am not being noble, I just feel terrible when my winning means someone else loses.
Malcolm Gladwell has spoken out recently on college football. He, of course, is concerned about the physical harm caused to the student athletes’ brains by such a violent contact sport, and extends this to cover boxing as well. I heartily agree on that basis but I take it a step further. I think organized competition among children who are still formative in not only physical, but emotional, intellectual and social dimensions, is a mistake that redounds to problems over their lifetimes, with profound societal and even global ramifications.
Isn’t competition natural, we might ask? Yes! A clear holdover from our 5 million year developmental history as hominids. Like most living things on this planet, there is a drive for survival that has translated into a biological need to secure resources, sometimes finite, often at the expense of other organisms. It is instinct and the animal kingdom (as well, I assume, as the fungal, vegetal and viral) is impelled to act combatively as a result.
But, we are no longer merely animals. We have the cognitive ability to reason, reflect, and be self-aware. Thus, the natural drive is no longer an apt excuse.
When children are taught from an early age to compete, they develop that mentality often at the expense of viewing cooperation as a more effective way to achieve goals. This can be somewhat gender driven, as boys have a makeup that lends itself more readily to fighting. But that can be shaped into productive energy instead of conflict. This is one reason that women tend to be more effective project managers, by and large, not only because they apply novel approaches to problem solving but because they more easily see work as a collaborative effort.
My view is somewhat radical. If I were to re-imagine the educational system, it would be along the lines of Waldorf Education, which, over the past 100 years has proven itself worldwide. In Waldorf schools, there are no grades from kindergarten to sixth grade. The teachers write extensive narrative evaluations of the child, painting a portrait of the whole person, describing talents and areas for continued improvement, etc. Waldorf students typically work together on projects and while I am sure natural competitive instincts creep into the process, the system does not institutionalize it and thus it is usually crowded out as the children learn to help one another succeed. They do participate in sports, but don’t view it as essential to be the ‘champions’. And Waldorf parents tend to support this notion at home as well.
Another personal childhood anecdote comes to mind. When I was in the fourth grade, a new girl moved to our neighborhood and was in my class. Her name was Ellen, she was rather pretty and very quiet. Ellen was exceptionally good at two things: drawing and Jacks. I was fairly good at both too and so we became friends. Ellen came to my house one day after school and we immediately began to play Jacks. I will never forget, after she left, my father said that Ellen was an exceptional person, because, even though she was virtually a Jacks expert, she let me win. In my family, that generosity trumped talent. And Ellen was every bit as expert in drawing, far beyond anyone in our school, even the eighth graders. But Ellen was bound to drop out of high school later. Why? Because Ellen was a ‘slow’ student. She had been tested and immediately characterized, streamed into the lowest IQ group. Her advanced emotional IQ, digital talents with a tiny cheap ball and flimsy metal trinkets, her beautiful artistry with paint, pastels and crayons were all discounted. Ellen was considered by the system to be stupid. I have always wondered what Ellen would have achieved had she gone to a different school (for that matter, wouldn’t all of us have done better?).
If we eliminate the idea of competition, academic, economic, social, personal, artistic, etc. and instead concentrate on skill development, improvement, adding talents and abilities, sharing them and encouraging one another, from earliest childhood, we open society to a more varied pool upon which to draw, maximizing productivity and progress. I cannot think of an area that would not benefit from this approach.
As for sports, aren’t they meant to develop the individual in terms of strength, coordination, agility, endurance, flexibility, and the like? Can’t this be done without adrenaline-producing aggressiveness that accompanies the competitive impulse?
Seeking recognition is quite another thing. It simply means being validated, appreciated and understood, all positive outcomes of one’s individual or group effort. Being praised, assessed fairly and encouraged are rewarding. So why do we need to compete, which implies contesting, literally taking the opposing stance to someone else, as if there is one superior or ultimate way to do something and any one of us is in a position to decide what that best way is and award a sense of achievement to one entity and failure to another. Why is a Silver medal less valued than a Gold? Why not have Platinum, Diamond? Why not keep raising the stakes higher and higher?
When you think about it, making things into a contest or competition shifts the focus away from the intrinsic merit of the activity itself to the rather dimensionless binary win/lose axis. Don’t you also lose control of your own creative process that way by handing over the power of evaluation to others?
Will some people excel only in that way? Probably, but how many more would feel fulfilled, if we took those rather puerile incentives away? And how much more peaceful, joyous and enriching an environment would be created wherever that sense of achievement was based purely on productive and effective results, not besting others. So much wasted humanity could be redeemed and put to use moving us forward as a species.
How much bullying, depression, alienation, and even suicide would be averted? How much debilitating stress, dependency and addiction avoided?
I am not saying that all competition should be eliminated, even if there were the power to do that. I am suggesting that it not be taught, fostered, promoted or encouraged.
This is something to consider (and I am still working through the kinks in this concept myself).
I have been struck by the events of the past few weeks in a way that differs from past observations of society’s uneven treatment of our children. Then, last night I heard an educator comment that modern society views some children as being merely a ‘problem’. Once that occurs, dehumanization can be rationalized. If people simply become ‘problems’ as defined by society as a whole (through continual promotion of certain notions that support this labeling) –not just having problems as most everyone does –, their correction, punishment and even elimination can be legitimized – isn’t that what history has shown us?
This morning, I saw the disturbing article below. While its view may be extreme and the facts assembled into a somewhat strained opinion, it is worth considering.
Have we substantially unraveled the progress made since the Enlightenment? To quote from the above author:
“Marginalized youth, workers, artists and others are raising serious questions about the violence of inequality and the social order that legitimates it.”
Many thoughts have converged this past month, including my impressions from the haunting book by Gerda Weissman Klein (All But My Life), and the HBO documentary about Mrs. Klein, a holocaust survivor. As I read her riveting story, I had the uneasy feeling that we are living in times reminiscent of the run-up to WWII that she described from her once blissful vantage point of pre-war Poland.
When we stereotype people, put them in a category, we depersonalize them. What benefit do we derive from this? What economic advantage for humanity at large? Or is this of monetary profit to only a few narrow interest groups?
It starts by considering people as ‘other than…’, ‘not like us…’, then leads to seeing them only from that collective perspective and finally not only marginalizing them but isolating and then locking them away. It starts with ignorance and fear, progresses to anger and ends in, well, concentration camps. Only, today, we call them prisons, increasingly privatized and under-regulated. Is that civilization in the 21st century?
What happened to the sense of community responsibility for raising, literally, children to adulthood as a moral commitment, the democracy mandate, the recognition that we all rise when every single member of society is incentivized and given the tools to become productive and feel useful, appreciated, seen as an individual and kept safe from unreasonable harm?
We have a pernicious drop-out phenomenon in this country that continues unabated, yet we cast certain groups in a light that diminishes them in the eyes of the populace, but even worse, reduces their value in their own eyes. All this while our nation slips behind third world countries in STEM skills.
This is certainly first and foremost a parental guidance issue and we have people who take little interest in educating themselves as to proper child rearing based on the science of human development.
But, it is also an education system concern. Instead of gutting the public school system and degrading teachers, we need to do what Denmark, South Korea and Singapore do: treat educators as professionals on a par with attorneys and physicians, and pay them accordingly. Then have them in turn provide counseling and solid data to parents to elevate a child’s self-esteem, setting the bar at the right level for each individual child and then providing him or her with the tools to attain and surpass that bar.
Meanwhile, this trajectory is troubling in itself. Labeling anyone as a ‘problem’ is retrogressive and demoralizing. How do we expect to continue to be a forward-thinking society when we allow this insidious trend to continue, stealthily, and unchallenged? And just imagine what it is like to live your entire life under the shadow of a presumption of wrong-ness that you did not earn and from which you may never divest.
My primary aim in life has been to think through, long, hard and independently, for myself, issues of this complex nature and not to succumb to the influence, however overt or occult, of others who seek to manipulate me for any end beyond those I choose myself. Viewing the world through the harsh lens of reality, unfiltered, is almost impossible but it is the only way to real freedom and human responsibility at the highest levels. Again, this is where awareness and consciousness play a vital role. More on that, to come.
When I decided to start this blog, I thought about why I felt I needed another place to share my ideas and thoughts, when I have already done so on FB, Twitter, Tumblr as well as websites I have created along the way.
It boils down to: having a place to express considered opinions without stepping into the combat zone that seems to exist so many places these days.
So with that in mind, haters –you know or should know who you are — are not welcome here. Ideas, formulated reactions, thoughtful and constructive comments are.
When I refer to tolerance I am not suggesting that anything goes, everything is cool, if it feels good, do it. Not at all. I draw the line on lots of things. For example, I am a fierce child and animal advocate. I cut no slack to anyone who abuses either.
There are other moral issues on which I have a strong opinion and, I guess one would say, I am not particularly open-minded, like selfishness, violence, pornography – there will be more obvious examples as I continue posting.
But, for the most part I believe in compassion, sympathy, empathy, flexibility and understanding of what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. This is a big world and 7 billion other people have experiences that I cannot judge a priori. So, while I draw the line in certain areas, in most things I try to keep an open mind, be patient, and listen.
However, I do want to emphasize consciousness. If we have one purpose in life, if there is a goal that we can strive for that once attained should make the rest of life worthwhile, it is to wake up. Many people will know immediately to what I am referring. For anyone for whom this is unclear, I plan to talk about it as time goes on and where/when it is pertinent.
This is the background against which everything I will be writing about should be considered.
If you are a reasonable person who thinks before you speak, and who wants to share not react, vent, dump or attack, we will likely be able to establish common ground and I welcome you.
Anyone else, I don’t think so.
Well, here I am with yet another place to share. It seems I have been posting for a hundred years, all over. But, I finally decided I needed a spot of my own where I can voice my unvarnished opinions and observations.
Just preparing you :-).
So, stay tuned.