Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Competition: Everyone Can't Be A Winner

Academically, one of my main complaints is the existence of weeded-out courses. These are typically introductory level courses, often in the sciences. They are intended to lessen the number of biology majors and show pre-med students what they are in for. This fosters an unhealthy competition within the class, and the difficulty of the exams and the amount of studying expected are too much of an abrupt shock for many entering students. What is the point of attending an "elite" school if they institutionalize oppressive amounts of work? Learning can exist in a positive environment, and some schools need to catch on to this concept. --Cornell Freshman

The above passage was the second paragraph of a letter written to the New York Times about college freshmen. The first thing that I noticed was that he should have said "weed-out" courses instead of "weeded-out," unless everyone in the class is high on marijuana. Then the term "weeded-out" would fit.

My second, and more serious, thought about that paragrah was the student's complaint about how courses designed with a high washout rate foster "unhealthy competition." It made me wonder how a person lived for 18 years without having to compete for anything. Does this person really expect to get an A in class for simply showing up, or that the class should be dumbed down so that everyone gets a good grade? There are a limited number of spots in medical schools. I personally want the doctor who's operating on my vital organs to be one of the best and brightest, not someone who thinks that he should get a good grade because he has a pulse or who went through watered-down classes. When I was in college in the late 1970s and early '80s, biology majors accepted that there was stiff competition for a coveted medical school slot. Those who didn't make it through the demanding pre-med courses changed their goals, then moved on with their lives. They didn't whine about the competition being unhealthy because they knew up front that only a certain percentage would make it to medical school.

I realize that I'm generalizing about the writer based on one letter to the editor. But it appears that this person never had to compete for anything in his life. Somehow over the past 20 years people in the States got it in their heads that zero competition promotes self-esteem. The prevailing wisdom has been that kids who don't do as well as their peers, academically or athletically, will suffer from low self-esteem. The way to make every child feel good about himself was to eliminate competition and any source of disappointment. The "everyone wins leagues" in the US are a good example of how competition has fallen by the wayside. Kids get a trophy at the end of the season, no matter how poorly they fared. This sends a message to kids that they don't have to give it their best in order to get an award.

The "everyone's a winner" concept is wrong, mainly because it promotes mediocrity and a sense of entitlement. People will believe that they deserve an award for lackluster effort. Kids need age-appropriate levels of competition to realize that not everyone can win. Competition is also a good way to motivate someone to try his hardest. Back when I was a kid, children had to try out to get onto a Little League baseball team or high school sports team. The kids who didn't make the team either worked harder to try and make it the next season or did something else. Yes, they were disappointed about not making the team. But they didn't complain about it or have their parents demand that they get put onto the team. Competition also prepares a child for real life. When kids get older, they have to compete for limited spaces at a university or for jobs. Having experienced a certain level of competition early in life makes a child better able to handle having to compete for more adult things like a job. I wonder how kids who have grown up without experiencing any competition, like the letter writer, will fare when it comes time to apply for a job.

I've seen the "we're all winners" effect in races that I've done. In the past, only marathon finishers got medals. A marathon finisher's medal signifies that the runner accomplished something that very few people can do. It is really worth something. Then medals began being given out for half-marathons. A half-marathon is still a long distance, so I have no problem with a finisher's medal for completing one. But I recently ran a 5 km race on base where all of the finishers, runners and walkers, were given medals. The top overall and age group finishers also received trophies. When I mentioned to the organizers that medals for finishing a 5K seemed a bit over the top, the response I got was that not everyone is a competitive runner and that the runners and walkers who completed the course deserve something.

My 11-year-old son also feels that non-competition is wrong. He was in the on-base ski program for three years. On the last day of the program, there is an informal race. The instructors record the times, but aren't supposed show them to the kids (some do anyway). After the race, there is a ceremony where all of the kids in the program get a certificate and medal. During my son's last year in the program, he had just turned 9, but was in a group of 12-15-year-olds. He placed second-to-last in the race in his group and was ecstatic about not finishing last. When he came home from the race, he asked why everyone got a medal and not just the top three kids. He then said that he didn't really deserve his medal because he wasn't one of the top three in his group. I tried to explain that the medal was for participation, but it still seemed wrong to him. He had been in both German and on-base ski races where only the top kids in each group got an award and the others left empty-handed.

Maybe our college freshman letter writer needs to learn from a child that not everyone can be a winner and that we can survive a little competition.

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