What’s It All About, Alfie?

In many books, more articles, and perhaps 200 appearances a year, Alfie Kohn does what he can to spare United States students the evils of competition. While he can’t do much about athletic competition, or economic competition or the unfairness of love and war, he tries hard and successfully to persuade educators that making academic distinctions among students hurts them.
A story is told of an unpopular officer at the U.S Naval Academy who knew he was disliked (his nickname was “The Wedge” as “the simplest tool known to man”) and he was always on the lookout for ways to assert his dominance. Once he berated a formation of midshipman for being unsatisfactory by pointing out that while their toes were all lined up, their heels were as much as two or three inches out of line! The officer candidate in charge of the formation replied that he recognized the problem, and would try to see that all midshipmen in future could be issued the same size shoes!
Of course, Mr. Kohn would not, I believe, argue that having different size feet should be corrected to prevent some students from feeling inferior, but he does object to anything in school which might reveal that some are brighter and some more diligent than others. It is not clear how he thinks students can be prevented from noticing this for themselves, but he is insistent that testing and other forms of academic competition should not be allowed to reveal such differences.
Some people feel that in law, for instance, competition among arguments makes arriving at the facts of a case more likely. Competition among the producers of goods and services are thought by some to make improvements in quality and reduction in price more likely. It is even claimed that some works of art and literature are better than others, although serious efforts have of course been made to make such judgments less common.

In the past in the U.S., and in present in the rest of the world, academic competition has been seen as beneficial in inspiring many students to try harder, to learn more, and to become more competent. For much the same reason that every athlete does not receive a gold medal for showing up at the Olympic Games, it is believed that recognizing academic achievement will encourage effort and emulation, and benefit all the students who are willing to try.
Perhaps Mr. Kohn is just hoping to mitigate, in his own small way, the workings of Natural Selection…He may shudder at the characterization of “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw,” and be determined to protect students from all bad feelings and experiences.
One problem is that students are not so easily fooled into believing that they are all equally capable and equally proficient. And for thousands of years, human beings have been able to survive the discovery of such differences. That is not to say there have been no feelings of envy, and no murders and wars, but in general people have found a way to accept, even to celebrate, the achievements of some of their number.
Mr. Kohn, however, continues to make The Case Against Competition, as one of his books is titled, and he evidently continues to think that if all students could be mediocre, all could be spared any invidious and soul-crushing academic distinctions which might otherwise be made.
It might be noted, in a world in which India and China are making great strides in promoting academic achievement and in which the United States students often place near the bottom academically in international assessments, that ideas such as Mr. Kohn’s, while very widely admired among some of our educators, only serve to promote even lower academic standards for our schools. Removing challenges, standards and assessments from our education is probably the very best way of ensuring an increase in mediocrity and scholastic incompetence.
Nevertheless, if the goal is keeping students, to the greatest extent possible, from having any disappointments or bad feelings, Mr. Kohn seems to believe that the assault on academic standards and distinctions of all kinds must be carried on, and he is surely our undisputed National Champion in that effort.
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007
www.tcr.org; fitzhugh@tcr.org
Varsity Academics®

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