I generally find myself reading books that have been published recently since so many are published daily, but over the summer I went back to read a 1986 classic by Alfie Kohn called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. While the second edition was published in 1992, there has been very little discussion of the book recently. That is surprising because Kohn presents an argument that is very provocative and controversial, and would have a profound impact on K-12 education.
Briefly, Kohn’s thesis is that our entire culture of competition is destructive to child development, and stunts the growth of intrinsic motivation. He cites numerous studies in which students that were given a carrot for completing a project produced inferior work in comparison with those students having no external incentives. Kohn is well aware of the role of sports in the lives of our students, and makes the arguable point that competitive sports is only advantageous for the best athletes while the rest of the competitors are hurt by competition. He does say that the focus of sports should be on personal excellence rather than winning.
After completing the book, I found myself torn. Kohn’s arguments are very convincing and well-presented (some critics argue his conclusions go beyond the data), but they fall short in the litmus test of reality. What would it take to alter the values of an entire society? Even if we agreed that eliminating a culture of competition would improve the human condition, how would we get there? One major premise of our schools is that individuals should strive to do better than other students because getting ahead leads to success. How do we alter our beliefs and commit to personal excellence of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell describes?
More importantly, why did Kohn’s book fade into oblivion when he had identified a fundamental cultural bias that, according to him, is destructive to child development and adult happiness? Why did innovative educators not embrace Kohn’s proposal and test it on a somewhat limited scale. From my brief research, it appears that there were very few initiatives in schools that produced any significant results, and a few initiatives died due to parental pressure to maintain a competitive environment. I hope some of you will read the book, and think carefully about he implications of Kohn’s proposals.