Friday, March 22, 2013

The Comparative Society

High school English teacher and poet, John Wooden (1, 2), also known as the highly successful, 27-year coach of UCLA basketball from 1948 to 1975, learned from his father that the key to success was never to compare oneself to others.

Compete only with yourself, Wooden the son would tell his players, by striving to do better than you did yesterday, last month, or last hour. During halftime Wooden would often not even talk about the other team, only about how each of his own players could improve in the second half.

Focus on bettering oneself, says Wooden, is what builds confidence, poise, and integrity, not to mention winning ball teams.

A “competitive society” is what most think our pseudo-capitalistic economy today is and beating the other guy—the ultimate comparison—is what competition supposedly is all about. But economic competition, as I have written before, is precisely the comparison-free bettering of oneself that Wooden describes.

Capitalism is a system of social cooperation where everyone wins by trading value for value. Entrepreneurs do not spend their days and nights thinking about how to beat the competition, but about how to improve their products and make them more affordable. Winning large market share is consequence of the focus on improvement, not the goal. Wooden would certainly concur with this description of economic competition.

In today’s obsessively comparative society, beating others shows up everywhere, especially and unfortunately in areas that relate to children. We have tiger moms forcing their children to take the “right” courses, attend the “right” schools, and play the “right” musical instruments. Why? To keep up with the Joneses, or rather, more specifically, to do better than the Joneses.

Our entire educational system, through grades, exams, and degrees, is institutionalized comparison. The no-child-left-behind act has merely ossified the system by making teaching to the test virtually mandatory and pushing advanced topics to lower and lower levels, such as algebra in sixth grade and reading and writing in kindergarten. And, of course, requiring lots of officiously mind-numbing busywork, usually called homework.* Why? American test scores are lower than those of the Japanese. We must be better!

“Pushing to lower levels,” meaning to younger ages, is not the prerogative of our education system. Organized youth sports continues its trend of putting younger and younger children through increasing hours of practice and game playing, week after week after week. Why? We have to be better than the other guy, we have to get our kids scholarships to get into college, and we have to prepare them properly, starting at the youngest age, or they won’t be able to compete at the high school or college level.

Indeed, education and youth sports share a similarity: both are dominated and controlled by adults. Traditional education systems, as Ken Robinson has amusingly pointed out, are created by college professors, which means their ultimate goal is not to meet the needs of students, but to turn out more college professors just like them.

Organized youth sports are organized and operated by adults for the sake of their own, adult needs. If the sports were organized for the children, fun and development would still be the primary goals. For many youth sports today, winning has become the only thing.

In education much can be accomplished by turning learning activities over to the kids. Hole-in-the-wall experiments conducted by 2013 TED Prize winner, Sugata Mitra, have spectacularly demonstrated how children can eagerly and without adult supervision teach themselves.

In a New Delhi slum, Mitra literally put a computer in a building wall, then walked away. The slum children, who had never seen a computer before, not only learned how to use it, but also learned English and, in other experiments, learned all about DNA! Most of the teaching came from each other. Minimal facilitation by grannies, not Oxford- or Cambridge-trained instructors, are all that has been needed to increase the learning.

If “truth is what works,” to borrow a much-reviled phrase from William James, then removal of the comparisons of grades, exams, and degrees in education seems to work. It works in Montessori schools. It works in hole-in-the-wall experiments.

Now if we can only implement the Wooden philosophy of removing comparison in sports. Regrettably, short of a return to the sandlot where kids are in charge, this does not seem likely.

When enormous amounts of money drive sports at the college and professional levels—twelve times as much money, for example, spent on athletes in one athletic conference as on academic students—can anyone seriously expect parents to turn their backs and say, “Let’s just do it because it’s fun”?

Perhaps what we need is to encourage more English teachers and poets to become coaches!

*This is not to say that advanced math and reading and writing cannot be learned at early ages. Montessori schools, by adapting the topics carefully to stage of development, inspire early learning every day, and without homework. But our traditional public and private schools do not teach via the Montessori method. They use the carrot and stick—grades, exams, and degrees—as motivators. Independence is not their goal. Obedience to authority is.


Anonymous said...

Just found your blog - and will be following it now! well written -

David said...

Hi Jerry,

A summary of John Wooden's message is: "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."
[John Wooden: The difference between winning and succeeding.]

John Wooden's "success" may help us not to damage our self-esteem and keep us in a reasonable emotional balance so we can go on striving and persisting, but in the long run, it won't help us to maintain "peace of mind." Regrettably, with just John Wooden's definition of "success" we might not be able to buy at the grocery store. We must also "win" now and then -- don't you think so?

Incidentally, the theory of universal steps in comprehension and general patterns in the acquisition of knowledge was challenged by experiences at democratic schools. "No two kids ever take the same path. Few are remotely similar. Each child is so unique, so exceptional."
[Greenberg, D. (1987) "Learning," Free at Last — The Sudbury Valley School.]

"Montessori schools, by adapting the topics carefully to stage of development, inspire early learning every day"

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