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
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
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
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
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.