Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Class Consciousness

Last week was results week – and within minutes of discovering my mark for the year, one of my classmates had texted me, asking how I had done. This irritated me intensely, but why should it have?

If I were certain that the enquiry were motivated entirely by a concern for my success, then I would not have been so bothered. The same question from my parents didn’t upset me. In fact, I would have been disappointed if they hadn’t asked or cared. The problem with my classmate asking was that I wasn’t sure if he was wanting me to do well or badly.

A significant portion of my annoyance was almost certainly projection. It could well be that his motives were pure, and that I did him a great disservice. But what really bothered me that I was equally curious about how everybody else had done. And while this was partly out of a genuine concern for them, it was also because I wanted to know if I had beaten them. And this was the intention I had imputed to my classmate. But even if it is true that he only wanted to know everybody else’s mark so that he could figure out his relative position, perhaps he is still better than me for being willing to admit this, rather than denying his curiosity and judging those who failed to do the same.

In any case, is it such a bad impulse, this competitive desire to know how well you have done compared to everybody else? Many would deny that there is anything wrong with it. The first thing my parents asked about after my mark was where this placed me in the class. They thought it natural that I should know this, and that I should want to know.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the ex-teacher and apologist for Conservative education policy, clearly agrees with this approach. In her book, she fumes at the politically correct teachers and administrators who try to frustrate these competitive instincts, and avoid pitting children against each other. When she put the question to her students, she claims, each and every one of them wanted to know their class rank. Even the hooligans at the back of the class apparently stopped stabbing each other for long to insist that they were desperate to know how far down the table they would be.

Obviously, I’m sceptical as to whether children would really want this competition. But the real question is whether it is good for them. Should we embrace our competitive tendencies, or row away from them?

There are a couple of motivations at play here. On the one hand, there is the zero-sum competitive game. People enjoy it when they succeed where others fail, and the failure of others is integral to this pleasure. Winning in sport would be meaningless unless there were a loser.

On the other hand, we might be interested in how others have done as a benchmark against which to measure our own achievements. If I have got x% in an exam, how great an achievement was that? The easiest way to put my mark in perspective is to work out from others what an average mark looks like.

Both of these aims may be problematic. It is almost certainly the case that education is often competitive. Coming top of your class may be necessary to get the edge over other people who want the same jobs or positions as you. But for many people, such ‘getting an edge’ is not the primary reason for education. Rather, it is to learn as much as possible. If these people instrumentalise knowledge, seeking it only to have more than other people, they have lost sight of the original reason they valued it.

If, instead, the intention is only to get a reference point, then looking at other people may mislead you. If you’re surrounded by people naturally more gifted than you, excessive comparison with them is likely to leave you demoralised and undermine your self-esteem. If you are a big fish in a small pond, you are likely to become complacent. Surely it is more fruitful if we set our own targets, and try to measure our success against more relevant benchmarks, like our own past performance.

On balance, I suspect that my wishy-washy liberal instincts are right on this one. I may not be able to eliminate the tendency try to frame my achievements against those of others. But I think I am right to suppress it, and to be embarrassed by it. I do not want to be the sort of person who exults in others’ frustration. Quite apart from the fact that I think that this is bad, it is likely to poison my relationships with others. The moment I start seeing classmates as competition, I lose the willingness to genuinely cooperate with them. Of course, cooperation between two mutually interested individuals is perfectly possible, and often rational. But do I really want to be the sort of person who helps people only grudgingly, and only insofar as it will help be, and no more? That, I fear, is the person at the bottom of the slippery slope.

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