Monday, April 18, 2016

Competition And Enmity: Cooperation And Friendship



I've just arrived home from China where I took part in an Association of China and Mongolian International Schools early childhood education conference hosted by the Nanjing International School.

While there, I gave a keynote address, ran two formal workshops, and one informal one. For the past several years, while illustrating the abject inability of our political leadership to understand the true purpose and meaning of education, I've been quoting President Obama: "We need to out-educate the Chinese." When I came to that place in my presentation, I paused for a moment, suddenly thinking how that would sound coming from an American speaking in China. I almost didn't say it, then did. North American, Australian and European teachers have usually responded with a scoffing chuckle and I was relieved that this group of teachers did as well, although I was aware of my own deep discomfort speaking this aloud to an audience that not only teaches many Chinese children, but also included in their number many Chinese nationals. I expect some of them felt a similar discomfort.

I typically follow up the Obama quote with something like, "It's as if they think of education as a competition," then go on to explain how I don't see it that way; how, indeed, it is a cruelty to our children to frame education in those terms, but I was aware this time of something far more insidious. It's not just that our political leaders seem to only think of education in economic terms (e.g., those mythological "jobs of tomorrow"), but that they persist in portraying the citizens of nations like China as rivals, if not outright enemies. 

On the flight home today (yesterday?) I watched the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I consider this to be one of the greatest movies ever made and as I watched the American generals obsess over those "commies" and "Russkies," the manufactured enemies that stood in the background of my own childhood, I couldn't help but compare that to the current American attitude of education as a kind of World War being fought, as all wars are, by children. This one, I presume is a war of brains rather than bombs, but, you know, it's far too easy for one thing to lead to another.

The truth is that you cannot teach children to be competitive and at the same time pretend you are educating them. An educated mind, a truly educated mind, will always recognize the destructiveness and futility of competition. Competition and war are the products of indoctrination, not education. An educated citizen is one who stands above indoctrination, who thinks critically, who thinks for himself; an educated citizen is one who asks questions and questions authority whenever and wherever it ceases to make sense to him; an educated citizen is one who speaks out even when those around him disagree; and an educated citizen is one who knows that he contributes to society in ways far beyond the mere economic. But most importantly, a well-educated person understands that a world of peace and prosperity emerges not from competition and enmity, but from cooperation and friendship.

The true enemies of humanity are not those upon whom our leaders attempt to hang that label, but rather, in fact, the very ones who persist in hanging those labels at all.


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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

[W]hile illustrating the abject inability of our political leadership to understand the true purpose and meaning of education, I've been quoting President Obama: "We need to out-educate the Chinese."

I am no longer convinced this is inability.* The political machine has become increasingly efficient at cultivating fear for the explicit purpose of promoting violence and suffering. Replace “China” with “Japan” or “Russia” or “Muslims” or [whatever] and it’s easier to see the “rhetoric” for what it really is: the perpetuation of a false “us” vs. “them” dichotomy that coerces people into tolerating violence against others in their name. Where violence and suffering are tolerated, insiders can literally sell the use of violence and the creation of suffering to extract rents from free and peaceful people.

This isn’t just Obama, either. It’s systemic. T. Cruz, H. Clinton, G. W. Bush, D. Cheney, W. Clinton, G. H. W. Bush, an overwhelming number of House Representatives, all of the Senate, and all of the presidents and nearly all of the presidential candidates in recent memory have openly brokered violence for profit while sanctimoniously cloaking their pandering to key demographics in their voting base as “strength” or “compassion”. It’s beyond maddening. It’s sickening.



* I realize I am violating Hanlon’s Razor by suggesting this, but there is just too much evidence suggesting a preference for violence and a wanton disregard for basic human needs rather than mere ignorance.

Anonymous said...

An educated citizen is one who stands above indoctrination, who thinks critically....

Unfortunately, that's the exact opposite of the way the term "education" is often used within our corporatocracy indoctrination complex (which seems precisely your point). Until enough of us recognize what how the word is really used when vomited forth by talking heads on television, we'll likely keep misplacing our trust in the wrong people (the famous or popular rather than ourselves and—perhaps more importantly—children themselves) to do the hard work of growing, developing, and respecting each individual's autonomy.

"Hey trust me, I'm an expert. I have the answers. Listen to me and you won't have to understand deeply or work very hard." That's a seductive and effective con, which is why it has persisted for so long. The most important work is usually best entrusted to ourselves and our closest community members, not politicians, corporations, and nation states with incentives far removed from the caring of and for each other.

Melissa Scott said...

Hi Teacher Tom,

I'm a long time reader and fan of your blog, so I was surprised to find that our views on competition differ so much. I would love to hear you say more about competition so I can better understand your perspective. For example, you say that "you cannot teach children to be competitive and at the same time pretend you are educating them." In my experience competition isn't something that is taught, but rather a normal and inevitable part of development - as soon as children are able to create categories and compare them, they are likely to explore competing with peers. Of course, one could argue that this is a uniquely American or neo-liberal cultural development, but I think it probably goes deeper, and may even have an evolutionary basis.

You also say that "an educated mind, a truly educated mind, will always recognize the destructiveness and futility of competition." I agree with this statement up to a point - competition outside of a mutually respectful and caring relationship can definitely be destructive. But how can a democracy function without a degree of competition? How can a nation's worth of people elect a president without setting up the race between candidates as a competition? Competition seems to be a necessary component of any representative democracy. And even if we scale down to the classroom level, wouldn't democratic deliberation about ideas and courses of action also require a certain amount of competition? Coming to consensus involves the presentation of competing views. Sure, under some circumstances those competing views meld together to everyone's satisfaction, but other times one view simply out competes the other through reasoned debate.

Thanks so much for this extremely thought provoking piece! I would definitely love to hear what else you have to say on the subject.

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