The Bog of Lost Scholars

May 20, 2011


Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 9:01 pm

On various articles discussing the problems of education, and in discussions among my own relatives, I keep hearing the opinion “They’ve taken all the competition out of education, and that’s a bad thing. We keep protecting kids from losing, and then when they get to the real world they can’t cope, because some people are better than others, and you shouldn’t get a position or accolade just because you happen to show up.” Which I’m generally in agreement with, but then their solution is to rank kids and not worry about someone who loses; that kid just needs the incentive of losing to make them work harder.

And I’m not convinced they’re right.

Or rather, I think it’ll work fine for some kids, and will be an utter disaster for others.

When I was in school, I played clarinet. I was very good, but I figured out early on that I wasn’t nearly as good as a couple of the other students. According to the “let them fail” crowd, this should have given me incentive to practice my butt off and try to beat them. Instead, I decided that there was no way I was ever going to be as good as them — let alone good enough to actually pursue a career in clarinet — so I shouldn’t even try to be.

Oh, I still practiced; I liked the music and wanted to do a good job. But in retrospect, because I knew there was a level I wasn’t going to reach (and I still think that assessment was correct), I didn’t try to be as good as I could get.

The attitude of “I can’t be the best at this, so I’m not going to even try” is a dangerous one, and one that a competitive environment can encourage. Have some competition with others, certainly, as a reality check for where everyone’s skills lie. But the most important competition shouldn’t be with the fellow student who’s a genius in this area, or with the student who’s hopeless at it. It should be with yourself.

Are you better at this skill, this task, this technique than you were last week? Are you doing as good a job as you can reasonably do (or, if it’s something that’s actually worth it, as good a job as you can possibly do)? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you may never reach the highest levels, but you’re a lot more likely to reach the “good enough for my daily life and my community” levels. I don’t have to be good enough to play for the New York Philharmonic in order to be good enough to play for fun with my friends.

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