can’t see the forest

Chomsky on Competition in Education

Posted in Education, Lifestyle, philosophy, Social and Politics by Curtis on 9/6/06

From Propaganda and the Public Mind (2001, South End), David Barsamian (interviewer) and A. Noam Chomsky


Alfie Kohn wrote a book called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. You wrote a favorable blurb for it. Football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” What kind of societal consequences result from that kind of thinking?

If anyone were to take that seriously, if you do it on the sports field, it’s just obscene. If you do it in the general society, it’s outrageous. It happens. I see it with children’s sports. Let me give you a personal experience. One of my grandchildren is a sports fanatic. He was describing to me with disappointment a game that was called off. Seven-year-old kids playing baseball, they’re all organized into teams, which is okay. You want to play teams, that’s fine. They had a game scheduled with another team. The other team didn’t have enough players. Some kid didn’t come that day. My grandson’s team had more than enough players. So they had to call off the game.

The kids were all disappointed. They couldn’t have their game. There was an obvious solution. Let some of the kids on his team play on the other team. In fact, you could have one team and still have a game, the kids that are in the field could be the kids at bat, just intermingle. Then they all would have had fun. But then it wouldn’t have been a game in which the team with one color won and the team with the other color lost. This way they all had to be disappointed. This isn’t a huge problem, but it’s carrying the cult of competition to childish absurdity.

What do you say to the argument that competition is intrinsic to human nature—and not only that, it builds character?

It builds a certain kind of character, namely the kind of character that wants to beat other people down. Is it intrinsic to human nature? First of all, anyone who says anything about what’s intrinsic to human nature is automatically talking nonsense, because we don’t know very much. But it’s a plausible guess that all kinds of characteristics are intrinsic to human nature.

I presume that every one of us could be a torturer under certain circumstances and a saint under different circumstances. All of these things are part of human nature. We don’t know any reason to believe that people are fundamentally different in these respects. So, many of the characteristics that emerge are a reflection in part of the kind of people we are but in part of the kind of circumstances in which we grow up and develop. I’m sure you can create social circumstances in which competition governs human nature.

But that takes work. It takes something, like, say, market systems. These are held to be intrinsic to human nature, but as Karl Polanyi pointed out in his classic work [The Great Transformation, 1957] almost sixty years ago, these are not only not common in human societies, but they have to be driven home almost by force.

Much of the educational system is built around a system of rewards based on grades, beating other students in tests, and then coming to the front of the classroom and being praised by the teacher.

It is, and it’s a particular kind of training. It’s training in extremely antisocial behavior that is also very harmful to the person. It’s certainly not necessary for education.

In what way is it harmful to a person?

It turns them into the kind of people who do not enjoy the achievements of others but want to see others beaten down and suppressed. It’s as if I see a great violinist and instead of enjoying the fact that he’s a great violinist and I’m not, I try to figure out a way I can break his violin. It’s turning people into monsters. This is certainly not necessary for education. I think it’s harmful to it. I have my own personal experiences with this, but I think they generalize.

How you deal with day-to-day situations is a complicated matter. But as far as schooling was concerned, it just happens that I went to a school up to about age twelve where there was no competition. I didn’t know I was a good student until I got to high school. I knew I had skipped a class and the other kids hadn’t, but it never occured to me that it meant anything. It was just the way it was. Everyone was encouraged to do their best and to help others do their best. You applauded them if they did. If they fell short of their own standards, you tried to help them meet them. I didn’t really know about the idea of competition for grades until I got into an academic city high school. And the educational level declined at that point.

Incidentally, going on to my last forty-five years of educational experience, which happens to be at MIT, it is not a competitive environment. In a graduate scientific department, technically you have to give grades because there’s some formalism that requires it. But people are working together. You don’t try to do better than the next guy. You have a common goal. You want to understand this stuff. Let’s work on it. It’s certainly the most positive way for an educational or a research experience to proceed.

If you’ve internalized a sense of competition, being number one, getting ahead, while you’re a student going through the educational system, by the time you get into the workplace it seems to be almost irreversible.

Maybe. If it is, that’s too bad. People ought to be working together in the workplace.


4 Responses

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  1. Drima aka SudaneseThinker said, on 9/6/06 at 10:03 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. You have hit the nail on the head with youre previous post about Labour Day. It’s for all those reasons hatred and anger towards America are increasing in the Middle East and Muslim worlds. People there simply can’t trust America’s intentions when America’s resume as you said is full of so many things contrary to what it preaches.

    Before this I was too lazy to read your posts and I would just glance. I now realize your posts are probably some of the best written in the whole blogosphere.

    You have my respect, cyber friend. It’s people like you whom I want all Muslims to know about. They must realize that there are Americans out there who understand how they fail and ones who don’t use a language full of hate. I might not agree with everything you say but please know I admire your honesty and humility. There’s one small concern I have though. In your post about the American Dream and Labor Day, you don’t seem to hold Muslim extremists responsible. I agree with what you said about America creating more of what it seeks to destroy but placing full blame on America is wrong. In my humble opinion, both sides are to blame. We Muslims are to be blamed for our violent terrorist reactions against innocent Americans while America is to be blamed for its brutal foreigh policy full of double standards.

    Again though, you have my respect. You have a new fan. I have linked to your blog and I shall try to direct more traffic to you.

    PS: Music is my number one passion. What kind of styles are you into? I’m diverse but I love the Ben Harper and Jack Johnson types more.

    Laters dude. C ya and Peace =)

  2. peoplesgeography said, on 9/7/06 at 10:40 am

    Kohn’s is an interesting book that I once thumbed through – so refreshing to read a robust challenge of Daarwinian precepts that competition is the overriding motivator in human behaviour – and it was interesting to read Chomsky’s response to it. Btw, the green re-do looks really good :)

  3. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/7/06 at 12:04 pm

    Drima — I agree with you. There are Muslim extremists who need to be held responsible for their actions. I think it’s also important to consider cause and effect. It may be my lack of understanding of Muslim history, but, other than general Ottoman imperialist violence, I can’t find a single example of widespread terrorism in the Muslim world before American and British interests began to involve themselves in the Middle East and elsewhere at the dawn of the oil age.

    So you raise a good point, and it’s one that I should have given more attention, as you suggest. But I don’t think Islamic extremists are the cause of the problem. They’re a horrible symptom of the problem, but not the root cause. I remain firmly convicted that American hegemony is the root cause, even if America isn’t the only one to blame in the scenario as it now stands.

    You have my total respect as well—always enjoy reading your blog. I live in Oregon now, but I come from the southeastern US, right in the heart of blues country in fact, so I’m a blues lover from way back. I’m more of an electric than an acoustic player as far as guitar goes, so I mostly listen to the Chicago guys like Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, and then Texas guys like Stevie Ray. Robert Johnson is my favorite acoustic blues player by far. It’s nice to see that the appeal of the music of my home reaches around the world—I think that’s incredibly cool. :-) Peace  

  4. Gracie said, on 9/18/06 at 5:30 pm

    This reminded me of you after reading it in my archives today so thought I’d pass it along your way. It’s another horrific story that’s only added to my cynicism. The article is from Common Dream re: Chomsky and Tillman.

    “The Meeting That Never Was……….”

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