A Blog is an opinion rather than an article. While CSM teaches through its articles and books, the CSM Blogs are efforts by CSM consultants to struggle with difficult ideas in Christian education and move to some kind of clarity. Please read any CSM Blog in that light.
The Lie of Competition
The lie of competition is that it somehow makes us better people, stronger, tougher, more successful. Can it do those things? I am a very competitive person. My heart races, my pulse throbs, my brain is going a million miles a minute – I definitely do not like losing. Is that a good thing? Culturally, in the USA in particular, yes. Interestingly, it seems that authoritarian countries are particularly interested in winning, to show how their form of government is the best, to somehow have bragging rights over other nations. In the USA, there are street parties and loud celebrations and lots of drinking and media interviews. Let’s look at an alternative approach to winning.
The Pyeonchang Winter Olympics were a fascinating set of competitions. The stupendous winner by far was Norway: “Surpassing its own lofty expectations, Norway has delivered the greatest performance in the history of the Winter Games, winning a total of 39 medals, 14 of them gold. A nation of only five million people has crushed all comers, including sports behemoths like Germany and the United States, in the events Norwegians care about the most.” (New York Times February 24th, 2018). Interesting language – ‘crushed’. Pertinent to this conversation is their reaction to their success – they aren’t sure it’s a good thing!! The same article goes on to say: “Marit Bjorgen, after winning bronze said: “Of course we were fighting for gold,” she said. “But it’s great to see the U.S. on the podium. It’s important for the sport.” Could we imagine a US athlete saying that? Or think of the following action Norway took: It has conceived the Alpine athletics version of the Marshall Plan. For seven years, it has invited competitors from all over the world to visit for a weeklong training camp. A separate camp is offered to World Cup coaches. Attendees pay to get there, and Norway covers all other expenses. “We show them what works for us,” said Erik Roste, president of the Norwegian Ski Federation. Of course, this is also the country that “placed a camera on the front of a boat called the MS Nordnorge and ran live footage for 134 hours of nothing but nature, quietly passing by. Half of the country tuned in.”
This is not to say that Norway is good and we are bad, or that we should all become Norwegians. They do give us pause however. What do we believe about competition? That it builds character and fosters excellence? That healthy competition is a good thing? That the person who is not “competitive” lacks moral fibre or some other attribute?
I am not competent to judge what the word competition means in other venues. I think the greatest athletes have actually moved beyond the idea of competition. Simone Biles, the great gymnast with five Olympic medals to her name, said: “A successful competition for me is always going out there and putting 100 percent into whatever I’m doing. It’s not always winning. People, I think, mistake that it’s just winning. Sometimes it could be, but for me, it’s hitting the best sets I can, gaining confidence, and having a good time and having fun.”
I believe I do have some competence when it comes to education and in our schools, competition is a big problem. Let’s think about the ways in which that is so:
- We don’t notice and/or take for granted academic competition. The Valedictorian, class rankings, the idea of the “best” student. I do not want to diminish the achievement of these students. They have achieved often great things. But it also teaches them to be at the top and thus diminish everyone else. Oh, I hear you cry, that’s surely not so! That’s not what we intend at all. We want every student to succeed. Really? You think so? The vast majority of schools I go into implicitly and sometimes explicitly bell-curve their students – the idea that maybe everyone can get an A is anathema to “rigor” and “standards”. Someone has to get a B, someone has to get a C, someone has to get a D, and someone has to fail at least occasionally “pour encourager les autres”. The vast majority of schools I go into have grading scales that students know they can’t escape – once a B student, always a B student. Faculty will say to themselves and to each other – that’s a B student. Research shows that the same level of work produced by students who are typically A and B students will result in grades of A and B. We actually like, God forgive us, the idea that someone is better than someone else. It is not accidentally that the writer of Ecclesiastes says: “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9: 11). There is much more to say about this but not enough time!
- We applaud and honor athletic competition. Nothing gives us more positive emotions than a winning team, particularly if it is football or basketball. “Better luck next time”, we say to the team that came second. “We are the champions” we cry when we have the winning spot and the quarterback is held high and the school/town/city has a parade. Why? Again, I love celebrating success. I love my success being celebrated. But I want to ask about the cost of that success for those inside it and what those outside of it did to get that success. I go into a multitude of schools where coaches are allowed to run practices longer than the School Handbook allows, where children don’t get home in time to eat with their families, where practices and games take up 6 and even 7 days a week, where the Sabbath is not respected, where a student’s desire to have a balanced life is met with accusations of ‘lack of commitment’. I look at a competitive world where club soccer goes 12 months of the year, where repetitive injuries are increasing every year, where the false hope of athletic scholarships to college are resulting in the big business of world series for 7 year olds, where fun and family time are replaced by sports camps, where ESPN touts Little League for 12 year olds on its 14 channels as if a stadium full of screaming adults is an appropriate developmental stage in a child’s life. There is much more to say about this but not enough time.
The Christian school has to take a different way. I think the Christian school has to become a revolution. St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). In the Christian school, all children are winners, all children are created in the unique image of God, all children can run to get the prize. The Christian school has no bell curves, no club sports, no regular practices or rehearsals that take the child away from the family dinner table, no ignoring of the Sabbath. The paradox will be that we will become more attractive and win even more championships because, as Jackson Scholz said to Eric Liddell, “for those who honor me, I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). And our children will be grateful.
“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).