American childhood has become ultra-competitive over the last few years, and nowhere is this cutthroat environment more evident than in the college admissions process, especially for the most selective schools. Case in point: From 1970 to 2000, the annual number of applications for admission to Yale, my alma mater, increased by about 4,000 total. Last spring, the rate of admission dropped below the double digit mark for the first time, with only 8.9 percent receiving the coveted admission ticket to the Ivy League university.

While college admissions is one highly visible arena where kids have to compete, author Alfie Kohn, who has appeared on the “Today Show” and twice on “Oprah,” says that the pressure to achieve and to be the best has pervaded all areas of childhood. He says the highly competitive nature of American society, the race to be Number One, is harmful and is turning what should be a golden period of life into a nightmare. “The problem is not just that competition is overdone and badly handled. The very win/lose structure itself has damaging consequences for how children come to see themselves, each other, and the act of learning.”

Kohn will speak at the Pennington School on Tuesday, October 24, the first of three speakers in this year’s CommonGround lecture series. Founded in 1998, CommonGround is a collaborative effort of the parent associations of 12 Princeton-area independent schools. Kohn’s presentation, “The Case Against Competition: How Kids Lose in the Race to Win,” is aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade. It is free and open to the public.

Twenty years ago Kohn wrote his first book, “No Contest: The Case Against Competition,” on the premise that competition of any kind is counterproductive. Now released in its 20th anniversary edition, the book’s premise, says Kohn, is even more relevant today. “Competition holds us back from doing our best in all arenas at home, school, work, and play. We have been trained not only to compete frantically but to believe in the value of beating people. Spelling bees, awards, assemblies, and competitive sports teach children to regard other people as potential obstacles to their own success.”

In addition to his widely discussed and debated ideas about the destructive nature of competition, Kohn is a leading voice in the country calling out for an end to most homework assignments, which he calls counterproductive and mind-numbing. In his October 24 lecture he will also tie in the tenets of his book called “The Homework Myth.”

“One of the reasons kids get homework despite absence of research demonstrating its value is the pressure of having our kids beat their kids with the definition of ‘their’ kids as the ones in the next town over, and in the country on the other side of the world,” he says. “When we focus on winning, we undermine our children’s focus on learning and mental health. A lot of affluent kids, especially, are drinking, cutting themselves, starving themselves, or are quietly miserable. Many of those kids look like success stories on paper or outwardly so, and their parents don’t even realize that something is very wrong.”

An AP-AOL poll released earlier this year shows that American children are getting an average of 79 minutes of homework per night in elementary school to 105 minutes a night in high school. While most parents and teachers say that amount is just right to bolster the classroom learning, Kohn is part of a growing movement that says that most assigned homework is built on quantity and not quality, and there is a real danger of turning children off to meaningful learning.

That same argument can be applied to the emphasis on getting perfect grades and high scores on standardized tests, which, he argues, motivates teachers and students to “study to the test” rather than to engage ideas, and to explore and get excited about learning. “Standardized tests tend to measure what matters least so that high scores are often a bad sign with respect to meaningful learning,” says Kohn. “The best educators understand this but that’s not how it is viewed by politicians, corporate executives, or the administrators who have been co-opted by the folks up on Mount Olympus. If we allow our schools to be run by corporations, where there is more of an emphasis on numerical standards of achievement and competitive triumph than on helping kids become excited learners and good people, our kids are getting the short end of the stick.”

Born in 1957, Kohn grew up in south Florida and graduated from high school in Miami Beach. It was large and competitive, he says, but not nearly the pressure cooker that kids face today. He did his undergraduate work at Brown University and even then, was coloring outside the lines of the typical college student’s agenda. He chose to design his own major by pulling from many interdisciplinary courses. His major was called normativism, and as Kohn defines it, dealt with “the role of value judgment in human life.” He went on to earn a masters degree at the University of Chicago, again, designing his own interdisciplinary program in the social sciences. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 6, and spends his time writing and speaking widely on parenting, education, and human behavior.

Kohn says parents have to take a proactive approach to their children’s learning by asking three key questions: Does a competitive academic environment positively enhance your child’s learning? Is competition affecting your child’s self-esteem? What impact does competition play in your child’s social development?

He also has some suggestions for parents on how to guide help maintain their child’s sense of self-worth and positive outlook in today’s ultra-competitive society:

Parents can start by reading and arming themselves with the research. This enables them to help educators move beyond an irrational focus on homework and test scores. The changes have to begin at home and parents should help their children question the relentless push for higher grades and test scores.

Consider that the recent competition among high-school students to get into a name-brand school is not worth the heavy price. “It’s gotten so competitive that the Ivy League schools reject three quarters of the valedictorians who apply anyway, so even if we sacrifice our children’s childhood and subject them to inhumane stress, the gamble most likely won’t pay off. And even if it does, how much of our children’s social, artistic, psychological, and intellectual development are we willing to sacrifice so that we can have bragging rights that they got into a more selective college than the kid down the street?”

Kohn is especially vehement about the push to introduce kids to standardized testing early in elementary school. First, he says, it forces school districts and teachers to adapt their curriculum and teaching styles to hit certain numbers. It also becomes an artificial yardstick by which to measure the true learning environment that children face every day.

He is a huge proponent of change on a society-wide scale. “To say that because there is nasty competition in our society, we should force our children to compete makes about as much sense as saying there are a lot of carcinogens in the environment so we should feed our kids as many cancer-causing agents as we can when they’re young to get them ready.” The better idea, according to Kohn, is to figure out what children need to become healthy people instead of stressed-out, straight As, perfect test-taking, high-scoring automatons. “We want to raise children who get a kick out of learning even if it’s not on the test.” In Kohn’s book, that result would warrant a grade of A-plus.

Alfie Kohn, Tuesday, October 24, 7:30 p.m., Pennington School, 112 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. “The Case Against Competition: How Kids Lose in the Race to Win.” 609-924-6700.

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