When I started considering homeschooling, competition was a big concern of mine. One reason I found homeschooling appealing was my feeling that we could avoid the unnecessary competition that is used by schools as a tool to learn. I am not worried about my children's ability to compete -- just as I believe they will be able to deal with difficult people without having to encounter them at the age of 5, likewise I believe that my children will excel in their talents without the imposition of artificial rewards and competition.
I'm not afraid of competition. Anyone who has ever played a board game with me knows that I enjoy it (too much, perhaps). I also believe competition is inherent in life. Even in our area of abundance, some things are scare. Only 10% can be in the top 10%. Often part of getting something, like a job or a mate, is the fact that you successfully competed against others.
However, I think that real life provides all the competition we need, we don't need to go manufacturing other areas in which to compete. I worry about the effect of turning everything into a competition and schools seem to like to do that. Competition for grades and class ranking may be a necessary part of institutional schooling, but they aren't necessary to acquiring knowledge. One of the first quotes that I encountered on my journey to homeschooling was David Elkind's statement in Miseducation, Preschoolers at Risk that "education is not a race, neither is competition necessary to learning."
After accepting the idea that grading and academic ranking are not requirements to learn, and considering that they may actually be hinderances (check out some quotes from John Holt in How Children Fail), I began to wonder about the effects of constant competition. For me, the issue of competition quickly leaves the academic arena and crosses over into the spiritual. Constant, manufactured competition seems to beg the question I heard in a sermon, "How do you look at other people? Do you look at them as something to be conquered?"
Competition pits us against one another; it alienates us from one another. To do that in a game, for a limited period of time, is very different than going through most of your life worried that someone is going to score better than you on a test, get higher grades, and have a higher class ranking. If this is how you live your life through your academic career, what happens after that? Do grades and test scores become salary and the car you drive? Can you truly connect with others and see them for who they are if you are used to comparing yourself to them?
If you define yourself through the status that you've gained from competition, does this act as a barrier to loving yourself? Can you appreciate your gifts if you are always measuring them against others?
A quote for C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity sums up my concerns about the corrosive nature of competition:
Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive - is competitive by its very nature - while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.
So I return to the question I pondered in my last post, how do you prepare a kind and gentle soul for the realities of the world? I say that you help them to appreciate and develop their unique talents and to look at others and appreciate their unique talents. Maybe in this way I am following Christ's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Though I never characterize myself as a religious homeschooler, I think this is one of the best reasons to homeschool -- to foster your children's ability to love themselves and to love others.
Marjorie has been homeschooling her two young daughters for just a few years. Her family chose homeschooling for the freedom it afforded them -- freedom from the school schedule and calendar; freedom to follow her children's interests; freedom from labeling and categorizing her children; and freedom from testing and homework. She enjoys volunteering with her state's inclusive homeschool association and writing on her blog, unclimber.