The History of Competition in Education

In their paper on “Competition, education and assessment,” Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson compare the recent scholarship on the subject with historical perspectives, including that of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, Renaissance thinkers and artisans, Nietzsche, and Freud. Their examination is so broad, and education such a fundamental facet of society, that it is not hard to see how it relates to the other subjects which we have examined so far. Though Freud was not a main focus of the paper, Nelson and Dawson’s use of him is a wonderful example of the multifaceted nature of their examination of competition in education. While examining the human motivation for education, they are not afraid to dip into the psychology of the matter, mentioning Freud’s theories of the sexual basis for curiosity, which—in Frued’s theory—quickly flowers into competition, linking curiosity and competition closely in the human psyche. While this insight is certainly relevant to a discussion of education, as it explains the basis for curiosity and thus the basis for the human learning impulse, it is also of interest to any psychological investigation of competition. Freud’s competitive theory for the basis of curiosity certainly connects with Garcia et al’s demonstration of the relationship between social comparison and competition—as well-summarized by @dcorrech. Freud’s theory was that a child begins to feel curiosity as he desires to understand sexuality, and that this area of interest becomes competitive for the child as the child begins to compete with his father for the affection of his mother. Of course, Freud was the father of psychoanalysis, and many of his foundational theories—this one included—are not exactly modern. However, it is certainly an interesting connection to Garcia et al, as it frames competition as originating from social comparison, specifically within the family.

This one example of Nelson and Dawson’s use of Freud demonstrates that education is a subject which can be examined from many rich, historical perspectives, which pertain to many subjects. Psychology is one of these subjects, but, as I mentioned and as I particularly enjoyed, Nelson and Dawson also return repeatedly to the philosophy of competition with Nietzsche, and use the great philosopher to comment on whether education must be competitive. They also integrate literature and the arts when they quote Petrarch and discuss the Renaissance art schools, which were competitive educational environments with varying degrees of success depending on the desired end of artist’s education.

Having examined the history of competition in education from the perspective of so many different fields, Nelson and Dawson conclude that competition is much less necessary to the field of education than is normally thought, and in fact, is distracting from the spirit of curiosity which motivates education. Because competition distracts from curiosity, it destroys the integrity of education. In ultimately taking this position, their perspective diverges from Frued’s, as they see curiosity as something which is not intrinsically linked to competition, and is in fact opposed to it. This also leads them to disagree with Garcia et al, as Nelson and Dawson do not see competition as fundamental to human nature, but instead conclude that rampant competition stifles important traits such as wonder an enthusiasm. This negative assessment of competition is a fairly normal conclusion for the writers we are reading in this course, and it is hard to argue with them after they guide one through history so thoroughly.


  1. Hi!

    I thought this was a really nice read. You were clear and your points were all eloquently delivered. Just like you, I also appreciated the way Nelson and Dawson treated the subject of competition in education by relating it to a wide variety of material in order to back up their arguments, and how you touched on most of them briefly as well to support your own argument, and make it clear to us readers. Something I thought especially fascinating was their use of Freud’s findings pertaining to the origin of creativity and using it in such a way to both argue against and for their own argument. However, as much as I enjoyed reading this post, I feel like I I would have liked to hear more about your thoughts on the paper or an aspect of the paper, as it seems like it was mostly a summary.


  2. Hi, thanks for the comment & for your kind words! So sorry I took so long to reply! You’re right, I definitely could have done more to offer my own thoughts. Honestly it’s almost hard to think for myself on this one because I’m not an expert on the various resources these authors apply, and though I do have specific interests in Ancient Greece, Freud, and Nietzsche I can’t say I’ve thought much about them in the context of competition. I do think from what I’ve read of Nietzsche and Freud they might be confused to find themselves in a paper which ultimately argues against competition. I think from what I’ve read both of them had complex relationships with the fundamental conflicts that make up life. Please don’t feel obligated to respond to all my points here haha, because I’m just going to go off on a tangent for a second, but I read a biography of Freud over the summer which discussed how Freud had a pattern of relationships where his best friends eventually became his worst enemies; this happened at least twice but I believe there were other examples. I think that says a lot about how fundamental competition is to even our most natural relationships. For his part, Nietzsche believed that the current human race was passing away and a new one had to take its place–pretty non-cooperative stuff. In the subject of education they might both be able to support Nelson and Dawson’s points a bit but on any more macro-level I doubt they would agree that competition is unnecessary. I have to say that although I respect Nelson and Dawson’s scholarship, if I did have to pick a side without further research I would probably go with Freud and Nietzsche … I guess they did not persuade me that conflict is avoidable. Anyway sorry for the long comment haha, I guess that’s my opinion if I had to give one.


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