Moultrie Observer


December 20, 2012

Fallacy of competition

ATHENS, Ga. — Dear Mr. President:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school's Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to review the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry's content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there.

 Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry "First Place Winner," one entry "Second Place Winner," and one entry "Third Place Winner." The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

 Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

 Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults' win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

 Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness.

A recent year's celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and legacy featured middle school children in a "Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Writing Contest." Where is the wisdom in turning the many children into essay writing losers in the name of Dr. King? I suggest there is none. When did Dr. King ever stand to make anybody a loser?

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children's intrinsic motivation for learning in school.

 To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

 Heavy reliance upon extrinsic motivation reflects a failure to understand that children were born motivated to learn. To see this, go get an infant, anybody's. Then risk blindness by peering deep into the fire in child’s eyes. Wonderfully amazing, those neurons firing!

  On the one hand, invariably, the few winner kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to perpetuate win-lose behavior as normal behavior, the way the “real world” works.

 On the other hand, invariably, the many loser kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to take on self-protective behaviors generally not conducive to anybody's well being, including their own. The continuing epidemic of school shootings exemplifies this behavior, in the extreme.

 Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.

 Neither have the many school shootings been senseless violence; in each case, the shooter acted quite rationally in devising and carrying out a plan to “win.”  Thus it is quite silly to continue blaming parents and teachers and otherwise holding them accountable for the damage being done to children by our educational system itself that reflects adults’ win-lose value system, however benignly or well-intentioned.

Now, how many once budding geographers, geologists, and maybe lexicographers have since turned their interests elsewhere in order to shake off the "loser" label bestowed upon them during the pursuit of just one winner?

Clearly, today's world demands as many winners as possible, not a many losers as possible. By managing them as athletic-style competitions with attendant rankings and such, our K-12 educational systems cannot possibly help produce the many winners the world needs.

  Ed Johnson

Athens, Ga.

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