Relevance of Competition to Education: Motivating or Destructive?

No doubt education and competition are intimately related; however, education theorists don’t seem to agree on whether competitive desires should be encouraged or constrained. Some educational thinkers, Ivan Illich[1] alike, question the perceived inevitability of competition in the current education system. Others maintain the pedagogical advantages of competition. In this reading response, I’d like to present both sides of the argument, and where we should go from here.

First, there is no need for competition in higher learning. The conventional model put forward by sociologist Georg Simmel[2] suggest that in its simplest form, competition involves 2 participants struggling for the same scarce good. The keyword here is scarce, for there to be a competition there must be a zero-sum game. However, knowledge itself is abundant — in economics terms, it’s a free good. One students’ increase in knowledge does not come at the expense of another, for all we know, 2 students coming together cooperating with each other may enhance learning. In the article “Competition, education and assessment”, Nelson and Dawson pointed out the Latin origin of the word competition. The word derives from a Latin preposition meaning “together with” (cum) and the verb “to strive” (petere), which denotes a peaceful congregation, emphasizing the togetherness of it. To strive with, and not to strive against. This echoes with Ingraham’s “Competition or Exhibition”, higher learning should embody the spirit of agon[3] —encounter made meaningful by the mere act of coming together, as supposed to athleuein— a result-oriented competition, directing towards the outcome of winners and losers. To these thinkers, higher education should adopt criterion-reference assessment, focusing students’ absolute ability to do something.

Second, the pedagogical disadvantages of competition far outweigh its advantages. “Your friend fails, you feel bad. Your friend tops, you feel worse!” On Thursday, one of our classmates brought up this one quote from the famous Bollywood movie “3 idiots”, and it really stuck with me. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, you do feel resentment, or perhaps jealous, when your friend did slightly better than you in an exam. “ Congratz! I’m happy for you” Or do you really feel that way? Inevitably competition, by pitting students one another, leads to hostility between students. Overtime, classrooms has become what Hutcheon describes as “ a place of wolves”[4] , “sites of combat and one-upmanship”, in which rigorous “critical thinking” is being reduced to “attack and opposition”, creating a generation of what Michael S Roth’s called “self-satisfied debunkers”[5]. Also, competition in education may lead to what Werron calls “possible resistance against competitive pressure”, these kinds of behaviors range from pursuing strategic learning instead of deep learning, to, in more extreme cases, committing academic misconducts(example: cheating, plagiarism)

On the flip side, theorists argue that competitions have much to offer in education. To understand the importance of it, we first need to go over the brief history of education[6] . Before the advent of agriculture, when humans were still living in hunter-gatherer societies, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration. With the rise of agriculture and industry, children’s lives changed from the “free pursuit of own their interests” to become forced laborers, suppressing play and exploration. As farming required long hours of unskilled, repetitive labor(much of which were dine by children), the principle lessons that children had to learn were obedience, suppression of their own will to play and explore. By the late 18th century during industrial revolution, as industry became more automated, the need for child labor declined. The idea of universal, compulsory public education developed gradually in Europe, learning was being thought of as children’s “work”. However, very soon, people realized that “human instincts to play and explore” are so powerful that they can never be fully beaten out of a child. To motivate and encourage active participation in the classrooms, competition has since become an useful learning tool.

Sure, in a utopia, education should cultivate curiosity-driven learning, one that’s free from any competition and comparison, where students can each learn at their own pace. However, is that practical?

I believe the key here is to find a healthy balance between cooperation and competition, by organizing a sustainable form of competition. Garcia, Avishalom, Schiff’s “Perspectives on Psychological Science”[7] may offer some insights into this. In that article, they showed that we can influence one’s tendency towards exhibiting comparison concerns and competitiveness by attuning the impact of individual factors and social factors: How should we go about the incentive structures? How should we go about the proximity to a standard?


  1. To start off, thank you for your reading response. I agree with your conclusion suggesting that a healthy balance between cooperation and competition is optimal for students depending on different individual and social factors. However, don’t you think these aforementioned factors also interfere with our individual responses to competition? In other words, in your second body paragraph, you automatically assume that everybody feels bad when a friend gets a better grade. In my opinion, generalizing reactions to forms of social comparison can lead to universal ‘solutions’ that force different students into a unique mold. Doing so, I believe, would limit certain individuals’ potential to surpass themselves. For example, if we abolished grades (I know this is probably not what you would propose as a solution, it is just an exaggerated example) because we assumed everyone feels bad when someone gets a higher score, then the students who relied on their own grades as a measure of self-progress could no longer assess their evolution. Consequently, I propose we observe individual reactions to competition before attempting to find a solution. Simply said, I believe we should first evaluate if a person’s response to competition is negative before concluding that friends necessarily compete with each other in school.


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