Competition: a case of unnatural selection

In their article titled: “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship “, Robert Nelson and Philip Dawson study and debate theory of competition in our modern world, while searching for origins of the word competition, as well modern scholarly writing not he subject of competition. The authors convincingly argue that competition in education is not a natural phenomena, and how in many cases can result in a negative effect.

There are strong parallels between Hutcheon’s article and Nelson & Dawson article. Both articles use the rhetorical move of establishing the origins of the word competition at the time of greek philosophers such as Socrates. Hutcheon states that Agon meant a place of gathering. Nelson & Dawson establish that there is no evidence that competition existed in education at the time of Socrates, which was free of assessment. Greeks referred to competition as striving together(συνάγω) . Very much like Hutcheon, Nelson & Dawson argue that competition is not natural, specially in the field of education. Both articles argue that education and critical discourse should not be a battle ground of winers and losers, rather a collaborative environment for sharing and expanding our knowledge base, free of competition.

Modern paradigms of ranking systems in education create a setting in which unnatural competition can actually create demotivation, and further fails to gauge the degree of learning that has occurred. The negative result of competition in education is show cased in this passage:”Competition is a circumstance where every winner has a loser as a counterpart. If I cannot be a winner, I fear disappoint- ment, as if I am a failure, even if I have learned something in the process; but of course if I already feel the failure that I fear, my learning will be discouraged. I may have become competent but I have failed the competition. ” This passage shows parallels with the Garcia article in which individuals do social comparison by looking at other individuals to gauge their own success.

It is true that most grading systems in our modern educational paradigms use systems of norm-referenced assessments, ranking students against each other, which do not actually show what amount of learning was done by each student.

Despite Darwin’s claim that natural selection implies that competition is natural, I believe competition is unnatural in the world of education. as put elegantly by Micah Eaton :”Competition is not natural, 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 My opinion, Nelson and Dawson’s article is the strongest case against competition we have read so far. The authors, relying on credible examples through out human history, ranging from greek philosophers to renaissance artists, showcase the unnatural and unnecessary nature of competition. Before taking this course, as a former business graduate, I had accepted competition as an absolute norm and a necessary function in our society. Nelson and Dawson illustrate that not only competition has not been the norm, that in fact its effect on the spirit of education is detrimental, leading to unnatural selection of who has learnt more via ranking systems.

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  1. Thank you so much for your post, I really enjoyed reading it! I agree with your statement that this paper provided the strongest argument for the ramifications of competition. It can be difficult to navigate higher education, especially at an institute such as UBC, without feeling the competitive pressure that strives us to outperform our classmates. Where our opinions seem to differ is your statement regarding the fact that competition is “unnatural” in the education context. As you showed with your comparison to the Garcia et al. paper, competition is very likely to arise whenever there is any element of social comparison. Because education is a place where one of the most obvious benchmarks of achievement is comparing oneself to other classmates, I don’t find it surprising that competition has become so embedded in the world of academia. Nelson and Dawson mentioned in the paper that even in earlier forms of education where students were given either a passing or failing grade, parents who became concerned about where their children stood in their class erupted a de facto form of competition. I completely agree that competition overall has harmful consequences in the context of education and that we should try to alter this, potentially by changing the structure of education itself, but I don’t think I would consider it unnatural or surprising by any means.

    Great work!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response Kate. I have to say I agree with you that there are instances that “competition” can be helpful in the educational paradigm. Maybe my statement that competition is unnatural is a bit too universal. After having a night of sleep, I recognize the rhetorical moves more and I think I got convinced a bit more than I should have ;o)

    I meant to say accepting competition as a universal absolute is unnatural, in that there are many instances that cooperation leads to better results.

    I find so much of the rhetoric is controlled by the definition of “competition”. This paper questions the definition of competition, one defined as if there is a winner there must be a loser.

    I meant to argue that I do not agree with the process that competition is a natural by product of education, a by product that enhances education through the mechanics of winning and loosing. By calling competition unnatural in education, I am trying to argue that it can be detrimental to the goals of education when rank people for 1 to x…..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi! Thank you for shareing your thoughts on Nelson & Dawson’s article. I enjoyed reading your posting. And I do agree that there is a strong paralells between Hutcheon’s article and this article. Not only they both examine the term “competition” by tracking back to the origins, but also they suggest for higher education to be additive, not subtractive. Or in other words, don’t compete but collabotate for expanding the knowledge. When I was reading this article, it remained me of that Hutcheon stresses the idea/word of “both/and” over “either/or” in order to emphasise the importance of collaboration in higher education.
    I also agree that this paper has the strongets argument (or maybe I should say strongest evidence they have to back up the argument). They investigate the negative effects of competition from different angles, and that gives them credibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing your personal insight on the Nelson & Dawson reading. You connect back to the Nelson & Dawson reading, as well as drawing from the Hutcheon article to see a negative component of competition. Although some of the positive aspects of competition stand out to me, seeing competition from your perspective allows me to see that one’s conception of competition and its effects are heavily influenced by perception and framing.

    I understand that you view competition as unnatural, specifically when applied to the setting of the educational system. Reading your response to Kate’s comment, it becomes suggestive to me that you see the ‘effects of competition’ as unnatural, rather than viewing competition – in and of itself – as unnatural. By the ‘effects of competition’, you’re referring to the ranking and stratification that results from a competitive educational system.

    But, now I have a few questions: When we consider the simple process of competing in educational learning, can we see this as being natural? Does this even matter? Or, do the impacts of this competitive process make competition real in itself?

    Personally, I would like to go back to what I originally mentioned about how competition (and its effects) can be understood from different angles. Perhaps, this fluid interpretation of competition can imply that competition’s role within the educational system can also vary depending on how it’s framed and understood.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hello everyone. This is a nice topic for discussion, I am glad you have brought it to the forefront. Although I don’t agree with everything the article says about competition — i.e. Socrates and the Greeks — I do agree that in education and the universities, the goal isn’t the learning itself anymore, but has become the striving for grades and modern success- which is associated with money and status. For one, we pay doctors far too much and thus people are no longer doctors for the main purpose of helping others, but first and foremost for the money and prestige that comes with it. helping others is a side-note now.

    So I suppose education should be free, that way people can go to learn without the burden of going in major debt and having to get a good job to pay it off ? but what are the negative effects of this? After all, life in Europe isn’t all peaches and cream.

    any other ideas? I mean do we stop grading the students as well?

    should we also pay top notch specialized doctors, like plastic surgeons and cardiologists only eighty thousand dollars, so only those serious in helping others will do it? and if so how do we do that?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks Dan, I think you have wrapped my point pretty well. I do have an issue with how consequences of competition can take away from the actual purpose of education. I find students can focus on ranking and what it is that they need to do to gain a higher mark, and ultimately sacrifice the spirit of the education in the name of wining a game of academic survival.

    But with regards to your question, are there are natural elements of competition on education?. Humans, we tend to like hierarchy in our systems. So in ways, one can argue that it is natural to see traces of competition to establish oneself in the hierarchy of education.

    I guess the definition of competition effects my sense of its naturalness. I admit that education has become a competitive place. however I question our universal belief that we should accept all of the consequences of competition, one in which the very process of learning more.

    I like to think I am here to learn something, not to outrank others… and I don’t want to accept that competition is natural, and I should get on board with wanting to outrank others, even if in the process, I have to scarifies education.


  7. It is interesting how you brought the subject of pay into it. I find even in fields of education that projected future the pay is less, there is still a sense of competition for grades. However, I do see how competition for grades feels less intense in my liberal arts classes, in comparison to the business classes I took in the past.

    With regards to your suggestion of trying to reduce the pay so only more compassionate and serious people get into feels such as medical practitioners and doctors, I would be curious to see how internal and external incentives effects ones drive to finish their educational and career goals.


  8. Hey hey, thanks for the shoutout! The idea that competition isn’t natural at all is a really radical one. You briefly mention Darwin, but how do you think this article fits with our commonly-held idea that natural selection accounts for the complexity of life on Earth? Isn’t the predator/prey dynamic in nature an example of competition?


  9. Thank you for your comment. I do agree with the predator / prey dynamic works in nature, however I was staying to point out that education paradigm does not fit the predator / prey dynamic. There is plenty of knowledge, and you and I can both learn the same amount, or one of us can learn more than the other, with out needing to hurt the other. My point is, I do not believe that for me to be educated, it should come at the cost of you being less educated. The survival of the fittest model does not need to be incorporated in how we rank our abilities to learn.


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