Education and Competition

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We often look at competition through the lens of winners and losers, but sometimes, in competition, even the winners lose.

Consider boxing, a sport where the greatest champions are almost guaranteed a life of cognitive decline, the necessary price of those championships. Something similar is proving true in football.

Of course in sports, we recognize that this kind of sacrifice may be necessary to achieve or even attempt greatness. We don’t wish for the competitors to be harmed, but we understand and even honor those sacrifices.

But our reverence for competition as a method for fostering achievement has limits, and I believe we’ve been witnessing those limits when it comes to education for quite some time.

Writing in my local paper, The Post and Courier, Paul Bowers illuminated the local competition to land in one of Charleston county’s public magnet, charter, or Montessori schools, where being on the wrong side of the selection process can be “heartbreaking.”

12,991 applications for 2339 available seats, submitted by parents who believe it’s necessary for their children to “escape” their neighborhood school. Schools such as Academic Magnet and the Charleston County School for the Arts utilize selective admissions. In this system, the children who are admitted are clearly the “winners.”

Except according to Taylor Kahn-Perry, a senior at School for the Arts, even the winners are experiencing loss, lives filled with “sleep deprivation, anxiety, and crushing bouts of depression.”

“People are just start to see high school as a stepping stone to college entirely,” she told a Charleston County School Board meeting. “It’s lost as a space for students to learn and to grow and become empowered individuals for four years.”

She wonders about the purpose of an education, “Is it to educate and empower a student, or is it to get a student to XYZ destination when they’re 18 years old?”

I have a guess as to how the kids of parents who can pay $200 to $600 per session for a homework therapist would answer.

Yes, I typed “therapist,” not “tutor” because a homework therapist is a mental health professional whose role extends beyond the nuts and bolts of a subject, and extends to mental health and life coaching to help their young charges deal with the stress of competing in elite educational spaces.

The New York Times reports that homework therapists are an increasingly popular option among the well-heeled, another way to give their children an edge over others, even as doing so ratchets up the anxiety and pressure.

It is easy to be aghast at the notion that students need special therapy to get over the trauma of getting a B on a paper, but I believe we should be questioning what’s going on in a world where so many students sincerely, and whole-heartedly believe that a B on a paper is a disastrous event.

While the two examples above apply to the relatively fortunate, those who have advantageous positions in the educational competition, we see similar negative emotional consequences in the so-called “no excuses” charter schools which primarily serve minority students.

At the Noble Charter Schools in Chicago, strong SAT scores come coupled with treatment that some teachers describe as “dehumanizing,” including coloring-in any curved parts in their students’ hair so as not to run afoul of the dress code, and “level zero” periods, which mandate total silence during passing periods, sometimes even extending into lunch periods.

Deshawn Armstrong, a 2017 graduate of Noble’s Hansberry College Prep used his 35 ACT score to get into Brown, but still discourages others from attending the school.

“It felt like a prison,” he said.

Based in her fieldwork at a no-excuses charter, Joanne W. Golann argues the no-excuses regime trains “worker learners” who are unused to making choices and almost entirely deferential to authority, traits which translate poorly to the higher education opportunities the schools claim to be preparing students for.

Even when they’re “winning,” students are losing.

They are, in the words of Mary Ellen Flannery, “out of steam” by the time they hit college: stressed, anxious, depressed, and seeing only more hoops to jump through before they get to start living life.

And of course these examples exclude the biggest “losers,” the students who are left behind in neighborhood schools drained of students and money, subject to endless teacher turnover.

Life is to be lived, including the ages between 5 and 18. School is not the championship bout itself. School should not be the thing that exacts a cost which actually degrades the quality of the students’ present and future lives.

If school only has value as preparation for whatever is next, but there is no next, we can expect these problem to continue to get worse.

In the classic Cold War era movie WarGames, our heroes, a teenaged hacker (Matthew Broderick), and the computer scientist who designed a supercomputer (named Joshua) programmed to respond to a Soviet strike, need to convince the computer not to initiate a nuclear war.

The war planners have been operating under the assumption that there is such a thing as “acceptable losses.” Broderick’s character has the computer play itself in Tic Tac Toe, over and over to see what it means for there to be a game which can’t be won. After shorting out on Tic Tac Toe, Joshua plays out hundreds of nuclear strike scenarios, learning that just like Tic Tac Toe, when it comes to global thermonuclear war, there are no winners, only casualties.

“A strange game,” Joshua says. “The only winning move is not to play.”

I wonder how much longer it will take for us to learn the lesson.