Monday, December 08, 2008

Review: No Contest: The Case Against Competition

The Book

No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn


A must-read for every parent, teacher, manager, and game designer. Presents several revolutionary ideas that should be integrated into every level of our society.

Notwithstanding this, Kohn loses his way when discussing certain issues, such as play and self-confidence. He sets up some straw man arguments, and tries to claim that, since extreme competition is extremely bad, moderate competition must be moderately bad.

Overview, with Comments

Competition pervades our culture. Things are not enjoyed, they are evaluated and ranked (who's the best opera singer? what are the top ten games?). Competition is not only our instinctive attitude, but it is also built into nearly every structure or our society, with artificial exclusive attainable goals: who is the highest in class, the thinnest in the room, all or nothing politics and justice, best business, and so on. Everything is built around winning and losing. [Actually, this is not entirely true. There are many instances where an independent percentage score is relevant, where a middle rank is better than a lower rank, or where performance is not simply competition based.]

Competition, when structured, seems to be inevitable: only so many acceptances to a college, only one company can get your business, only one winner in a tennis match. But goals can be achieved competitively, cooperatively, or independently. People believe competition is a) unavoidable "human nature", b) motivating and drives success, c) fun, and d) builds character and self-confidence.

As to human nature, that argument is often a convenient one for maintaining the status quo, especially if many of our institutions are already built around it. Yet, train people to act cooperatively, show them the benefits, and they will take to it. Furthermore, many societies behave far more cooperatively than others; competition is built into the Western world because everyone thinks it's better. So we train children to become good at it. That's a vicious circle.

Consider the classroom: raised hands mean competing against fellow students. The right answer is rewarded, the wrong answer is punished. Grades set some students above others, some as triumphant, some as failures. This is not inevitable. Classrooms could be organizes so that a student struggling gets help from others instead of attempts to best him or her. Grades could instead be evaluations and recommendations; and schools don't have to be rigidly organized into years the way they have been for the last century and a half; they weren't always like that.

As to animal nature, competition exists, but so does vast amounts of cooperation, within families, herds, species, and between species.

As to competition motivating and driving success, one should be careful not to equate success with victory. If victory is the only measure of success, competition may sometimes be inevitable. But racing against oneself can be just as motivating as trying to best someone else. In fact, a lot more so, because once it's clear whether you're going to win or lose, your motivation disappears.

Rewarding everyone in a group for learning a problem is no less motivating or driving than rewarding only the winner. [Unless there are a few who are simply determined not to learn, in which case it could in fact be demotivating. In which case, independent rewards are still motivating. But intervention, separating out the problems and addressing them individually, can help to solve this problem.]

Competition for newspaper stories doesn't produce better journalism, nor does competition for most food sold equal better food, or most business earned mean better service. It produces people who are good at winning and losing, not at doing the actual tasks they are supposed to be doing "better". Competition benefits some people, but usually at the expense of many others, usually the poor or the ill-connected.

The canonical idea that competition will produce better vaccines and better cars doesn't hold up to the fact that competition really produces cheaper erectile pills and bigger hummers. And poorly treated workers. And safety violations.

When the object is winning, and not performing best, cheating is inevitable. Trying to deal with cheaters one by one is ignoring the structure that breeds cheating to begin with.

As to fun, here Kohn drops the ball. He defines "play" as a free activity, disconnected with the real world, not serious, and non-goal oriented. And then he shows how competition is antithetical to his definition of play. And therefore, competition isn't really fun. He then goes on to talk about the effects of extreme competition in child's sports and so on, which serve to make the game less fun and more work for everyone.

I must not be having fun when I play games, I guess.

As to building self-esteem and character, he brings in the cases of extreme competition which produces winners and losers, and can have a deleterious effect on self-esteem, even for the winners. However, trying to transfer the same argument to light competitions just doesn't work. If failing to achieve something is something that everyone experiences, and harder work will let you win more often than before - in other words, if failure is safe, then the effects of extreme competition don't really apply.

Still, a pervasive competitive society, where everyone tries to be the thinnest, richest, most beautiful, most admired, and so on are detrimental, not enhancing, to most people's self-esteem. And everyone knows people who are "so competitive", and we don't really admire their character.

Competition bred into our work and schools leaks into our personal lives. Many women, and some men, know the husband or wife who is always competitive, showing off, showing off their spouse, and otherwise ruining a good relationship. Competition between cultures and nations results in wars, disparate resources, dependency, aggression, mistrust, and so on.

Wrapping it up, Kohn states that our society is caught in a circle: we think we have to be competitive because that's the way our system works. And our system is built around competition because that's the way we think it should be.

Breaking this cycle is difficult, but not impossible. Kohn has written dozens of books on the subject of education and parenting, the best places to start undoing the learned competition. From the quality of this book, they're probably worth checking into.

- Unconditional Parenting

- The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

- The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards"

- The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools

and others.


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