Higher education and the graduate job market are as competitive as ever. Students of all levels, lecturers, and even universities all compete for the highest marks, greater funding, and for the best students and rankings. It is safe to say competition is heavily “ingrained into our society” (Nelson, Dawson, 305), especially in education. Though in some aspect competition can elevate the quality of education, in accord with Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson’s argument in their paper “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship”, competition primarily obscures the acquisition of knowledge and hinders the development of pedagogy.
In their paper, Nelson and Phillip refer to the “dark side” of competition within education. A state of hypercompetitivity between students to the point of psychological harm, including “stress anxiety, and depression”. When the need to win and academic superiority exceeds interest stemmed from curiosity and the unadulterated desire for the pursuit of knowledge, competition is radically harmful for education and must be abandoned. However, this is especially difficult as our entire educational system is based on competition through assessments. Beginning as early on as middle school, students are tested on their academic ability and knowledge through a series of assessments and are assigned a numerical or letter grade, which supposedly summaries their intelligence. This system naturally breeds competition among students rendering some superior and inevitably, others inferior. Due to this, even if one has learned something in the process, there is an undeniable feeling of disappointment which can discourage further learning. As for those who achieve higher marks, it is necessary to question whether the need to be the best or the fear of failure is an effective motivator for learning.
Furthermore, the grading system employed in education is fundamentally flawed before the grade even reaches the students hands. In their paper, Nelson and Dawson discuss “norm-referenced assessment, which evaluates students against each other” and “criteria-referenced assessments, which evaluates students against predetermined criteria”. Even if criteria-referenced assessments are favoured, it is impossible to avoid comparison and competition as students work are applied to the criteria relative to one another. How can competition among students be discouraged if it is instilled in the very process? It is imperative to stray from the Darwinian belief that competition is an integral, absolute law for all life. Similar to Hutcheon’s argument for the restoration of the academic community, it is entirely possible to obtain higher education without competition.
In contrast to the majority of educational systems around the world, competition is not an essential aspect of learning. In fact it spawns an unhealthy, detrimental academic community. Thus, an educational system which incorporates aspects of Socrates’s learning in regards to the absence of competition and the lack of formal assessments should be preferred in order to restore modern pedagogy.