Is There a World Beyond Competition?
Achievement, excellence, performance—we equate life with the spirit of competitiveness, its ambition, its constant comparison and restlessness. Is it possible to create a culture of learning that inspires a learner to understand her uniqueness and excel without the urge to defeat others?
There is no doubt that every sensitive person believes that the spirit of competitiveness—even though existing as the dominant practice in the domain of work, education and social engagement— is not necessarily always positive. True, it is possible to argue, as utilitarian thinkers do, that it is the spirit of competitiveness that arouses the zeal for action; it activates the rajasic vitality: ‘I am the doer, and hence I must work with full motivation, energy and calculation to maximize my gains.’ This implies that if one loses this ‘will to power’ one would become passive, lazy, a victim of tamasic inertia. It is also argued that humans are not equal, and it is only through competitiveness that society processes, classifies and filters people, and the talented ones deserve their due. In other words, competitiveness leads to growth, progress and search for excellence. Yes, these arguments have their legitimacy; given the nature of the existing state of affairs, it is difficult to negate these arguments. Yet, if for a minute we forget this ‘practicality’ and dare to go deeper, we realize the nature of the damage that the culture of competitiveness does to human lives. First, it leads to a sense of perpetual insecurity. In fact, there is no winner in this game because even if you succeed you are always afraid that someone might defeat you. It is inseparable from fear and anxiety. Second, it comes with its notion of stigma—the stigma of failure. As success is worshipped, failure is seen to be ugly—a sign of one’s inferiority. As competition becomes the order of the day everyone bears this anxiety. And third, it makes one incapable of doing things with joy and freedom because one is always under stress; in order to succeed one has to defeat others. No wonder, it leads to broken relationships filled with envy, jealousy and hatred. In fact, it may be said, there is no such thing as ‘healthy competition’ because competition itself leads to a wounded psyche. It doesn’t unite; it separates. Is it therefore surprising that a competitive culture brings with it its own discourse of psychiatry, its bio-medical industry of anti-depressant drugs?
We know that it is education—the way we learn, get socialized, and look at work and life’s mission—that shapes our consciousness. If competition does not always have a positive consequence, is it possible to have a culture of education that is free from the ethos of competitiveness? It is a question that does not have a simple answer. Let us try to understand the issue through two angles.
- Limitations and possibilities of educational institutions
It is, of course, true that educational institutions—schools, colleges and universities—cannot be seen in isolation. The way the larger society functions—its dominant ideology, its political economy, its priorities—does have a tremendous impact on the way educational institutions choose and disseminate knowledges, and train young learners. In a society that is inherently competitive you cannot ask schools to do something else. Imagine a situation. You run a school. And you want to abandon the existing practice of examinations, its principle of grading, ranking and hierarchy. You wish to abolish competitive sports; and you want to emphasize the culture of collective work, sharing, joy, relaxed learning and creativity.
It is quite likely that you will experience a series of obstacles. First, the parents would fear that you are damaging the prospects of their children. Because when society is competitive they must learn how to be competitive from early childhood; otherwise, as you would be warned, they would become unfit in the sphere of work. Second, your teachers have emerged out of a system that makes them believe that there cannot be any world outside competition; it would be very difficult for them to believe that it is possible for children to learn without the fear associated with the anxiety of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Third, even the children might feel somewhat odd with your experiment. As they grow up, they see competitiveness everywhere: their parents are competing in their own sphere of work; politicians are competing for votes; television channels are competing for viewership; nation states are competing for Olympic gold medals; poets and novelists and film makers are competing for awards and prizes; and nobody is complaining. It is very difficult for them to be convinced of the virtue of non-competitiveness when society has normalized competitiveness . And finally, who is going to sponsor and fund you for your ‘utopian’ project? It is not easy to make it economically feasible. It is not easy to overcome these obstacles. No wonder, educational institutions tend to follow the same path that works in the society, given its economy, politics and ideology. In different languages critical social philosophers have tried to understand and explain this phenomenon: Education is an ideological apparatus of the state; education as an integral part of civil society helps to consolidate the hegemony of the dominant class; education rests on the cultural capital of the privileged classes and reproduces social inequality; and education with its hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and examinations creates docile bodies—productive as well as subjugated. In other words, you need not be surprised if schools normalize competitiveness, hierarchy, inequality because they have their structural limitations.
Does it then mean that we are doomed forever? Does it mean that no resistance is possible, no effort is worth-making? No, it is not like that. Society progresses, changes because there are innovations and resistances. And there is no reason to believe that ‘revolution’ is miraculous, and it happens at the same time in all places. History progresses because of innumerable efforts and resistances in multiples sites by innovative people. That is why, even though the ‘structural constraints’ are enormous, it is desirable to practice new ventures. So imagine another situation. Despite all constraints, you have managed to create a school that has abandoned all sorts of competition, and promoted the ethos of sharing and relaxed learning, and eventually your students enter the ‘real’ world. Yes, it is possible that some of them find themselves unfit, and begin to develop ‘withdrawl symptoms’. And it is equally possible that some of them see the pathology of the entire system, acquire the courage to speak a new language, evolve the art of living without stress, aggression and anxiety, and redefine the meaning of work, success and life’s purpose. And yes, they are the ones who would carry the lamp, create counter hegemony, and make others believe that there is nothing great if sickness (competitiveness, survival of the fittest, envy, jealousy, stress, depression) is normalized, and no social transformation is possible unless we as real/living human souls (not as mechanical role players in a gigantic system) realize what is worth living, and what is life- killing.
So what do we do amidst this dialectic of constraints and possibilities?
- Does the negation of competitiveness imply passivity and mediocrity?
Competitiveness may be mad. But is it possible to work, to excel without all that competitiveness implies: aggression, killer instinct, ambition, urge to defeat others, and cherish success at the cost of someone else’s failure? We are so used to it that we tend to think that without competitiveness we will lose the zeal for work. It need not necessarily be always true. It is in this context that we wish to make three points. First, without competition we are relaxed; it is possible to become meditative and concentrated; we can learn, evolve and work with joy, without the continual anxiety associated with success and failure. In fact, only in such a relaxed environment can we unfold our true potential and give our best. Because competition leads to excessive attachment to one’s ego, and this ego breeds insecurity, and acts as a stumbling block to the path of one’s inner growth. Imagine a simple situation. You are reading a great piece of literature; and there is no stress, no anxiety of exams, getting good marks and becoming a topper. It is quite likely that you will enjoy reading, you will go deeper, and your understanding of literature will acquire a new meaning. You will grow from within. Hence your work becomes free from the euphoria of success or stigma of failure, it leads to true excellence: a state of inner fulfillment. Far from negating enthusiasm, this state of freedom leads to immense energy and activism. Second, the absence of competition does not mean that one refuses to learn from others. Living is constant learning, and we keep learning from the world. Take an example. Suppose you love to study history, and you have a friend who too loves history, reads a great deal, and communicates historical events extremely well. It is good for you to learn from him; but this does not mean that you are imitating him, or you are trying to defeat him, or you are feeling ‘inferior’ to him. You are learning with love and gratitude for your inner growth, for unfolding the potential within you. In fact, a non-competitive/dialogic learning environment is one that allows this sharing, this exchange of ideas, this mutual learning, this support that respects the uniqueness of everybody, without the feeling of ‘superiority’ or ‘inferiority’, yet, with the urge to excel in one’s own domain of work. Third, it is possible to have an altogether different form of evaluation for creating a stress free, non-competitive culture of learning. The kind of examinations that exist cause terror, and through a homogenized scale hierarchize children. A critique of this sort of examinations does not mean that no challenges are given to young learners. In fact, a creative pedagogy evolves a new mode of evaluation that invites the learner, gives him/her an opportunity to activate all the faculties of knowing— reasoning, experiential sensibilities, creative/productive labor—, and unfold his/her potential. The goal is not to compare, but to make the learner aware of his/ her uniqueness, and how he/she can evolve and excel further. This makes it possible to believe that not everyone need to be good in mathematics or physics; one can have an inclination to music, or one is an immensely caring individual who loves to help others. A non-competitive culture of learning has a truly huge heart that embraces everybody, that does not stigmatize. There is no failure; there is only a journey towards self-discovery. And a good teacher does nothing except sharing the ventures of this journey.
True, it is not easy. We are so used to stress that it is difficult to imagine that we can work when there is no anxiety of hierarchical observation and evaluation. Freedom, we fear, may degenerate into irresponsible callousness and passivity. Yes, it is difficult because what we call the system—capitalism, bureaucracy, class structure, consumerism—has trained us in this fashion. It is like saying that we are so used to polluted air that the idea of pure/clean air surprises us. That is why, like a meditative practice we need to work on ourselves, concentrate, clean ourselves so that we can realize that beyond tamasic passivity and rajasic vitality lies sattwic calmness that makes one work like a karmayogi. Work is love, an opportunity to realize one’s swadharma. No aggression. No comparison. No urge to defeat others. Only psychic/spiritual evolution. All of us—parents, teachers and educators—have to work on ourselves if we wish to create a new culture free from competition, violence and neurotic disorder.
Is it worth pursuing? We invite our readers to participate in the debate and share their views with us at firstname.lastname@example.org