Alfie Kohn, demagogue
We’ll get to the article in a minute, but let’s take a quick detour to a statement in which Kohn tackles his subject head-on. What follows is a description of one of his workshops titled “The Case Against Competition:”
The race to be Number One has been described as America's state religion. We have been trained not only to compete frantically, but to believe in the value of beating people -- and to help our children become winners. Research and experience, however, demonstrate that competition is actually destructive to self-esteem, poisonous to relationships, and counterproductive in terms of learning. Spelling bees, awards assemblies, competitive sports, and even informal contests at home teach children to regard other people as potential obstacles to their own success. The result is that everyone ultimately loses in the desperate race to win. Alfie Kohn, author of NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition, describes the hidden costs of turning the school into a place for triumph. The problem, he argues, is not just that competition is overdone or badly handled; rather, the very win/lose structure itself has damaging consequences for how children come to see themselves, each other, and the act of learning. The alternative is not merely the absence of competition but the construction of caring communities in which people help each other to succeed.
Does this ring true to anyone? Competition is destructive to self-esteem? Awards assemblies teach children to regard other people as obstacles to their own success? There are hidden costs to turning the school into a place of triumph? Really?
I would propose a diametrically opposite view: that competition is the path to true self-esteem - not feel-good smiley-face sticker self esteem, but actual “I accomplished something of importance, and I am a capable person” self esteem – what the psychologists call self-efficacy. That awards assemblies, competitive sports, and the like allow us all to recognize achievement and find a bar that we can all strive to clear. That schools should absolutely be a place of triumph. And that competition, far from separating us, not only creates deep and strong bonds between us unlike any others, but allows us to innovate and create in ways that make life better for us all.
But I’ll say this for Kohn: at least he lets you know where he stands. And now that we understand his world view, let’s consider his commentary.
There are two things that leap out in his piece.
First, it becomes clear that Kohn’s beef is with the competitive nature of capitalism, and he’s using schools as a proxy battleground. He talks quite a bit about the avarice-filled companies who want to turn children into worker drones, and that are willing to use schools as a scapegoat for their own failings. (For bonus points: can anyone name one of these companies in real life? Is Snidely Whiplash running a Fortune 500 company?)
But not once does he talk about the well-being of children: how it is our obligation to help them learn the knowledge and skills they need to succeed after school – to prepare them to live as successful adults, capable of landing well-paying jobs that will allow them to provide for their families and their future. (Or to run their own successful companies if they want out from under Kohn’s alleged corporate jackboot.)
Clearly, to Kohn, children are pawns in a chess game between himself and the capitalists. Their futures are not what’s at stake – rather, it’s his beliefs that must be advanced, no matter the cost in terms of the pieces on the board.
Next, it’s also clear that his goal is not to protect kids from the evils of competition, but rather to eliminate any kind of accountability for the public education system. He decries competition and comparisons both by saying that they’re innately bad for us, and then by saying that any kind of measurable comparisons are faulty or invalid. It’s bad to compare us to others, and all of your attempts to do so will be faulty because it’s impossible to find legitimate criteria and tools.
Eliminating measurement is essential if we’re to adopt his views. Only by eliminating any kind of accountability can he succeed. If we were to build public education on the platform he provides, the results would be catastrophic – but we’d only know that if there were some way to evaluate his results.
Kohn really hits his stride in decrying measurement and comparison. Consider the following from the article:
But just as we shouldn’t justify a wonderful curriculum by claiming it will raise standardized-test scores—first, because such tests measure what matters least, and second, because claims of this sort serve to legitimate these tests—so we should hesitate to defend or criticize educational practices on economic grounds.
We can’t justify a “wonderful” curriculum on some sort of independent measurement. On what basis, then, can we then determine the wonderfulness of the curriculum? Whose determination matters? Without any standards of reference, we’re left to whim, or to divine inspiration. Or, more likely, we should choose materials that further the set of beliefs that Kohn seeks to foist upon us.
Consider the sport of ranking the United States against other nations on standardized tests. Once we’ve debunked the myth that test scores predict economic success, why would we worry about our country’s standing as measured by those scores? To say that our students are first, or 10th, on a list provides no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how “our” schools are doing compared to “theirs” suggest that we’re less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, “We’re number one!”
This is quite a feat of selective hearing on Kohn’s part. In fact, we do spend a great deal of time analyzing the validity, relevance, and meaning of such comparative tests. Keep in mind that there’s no evening gown competition; no one’s juggling or singing. These are not tests with subjective reviews by a judging panel. We’re talking about academic comparisons using internationally respected measurement tools. And these tools can very clearly state what our children can and cannot do at various levels.
And then the coup de grace: in a brilliant bit of Orwellian NewSpeak:
What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever policies will ostensibly help our graduates “compete,” we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with—and learning from—their counterparts in other countries.
Translation: only by eliminating comparisons and measurement can we determine what is of value. Orwell would be proud. Clearly, the truth is that Kohn wants to eliminate independent measures in order to insert his own belief system as the exclusive criterion. That can be the only motivation for such silly talk.
It’s a shame that Kohn’s rejection of competition, and clear advocacy for socialism, is apparently so well accepted in the American education community. And clearly, he is having an impact. When you read about schools banning tag from the playground; when you hear that high schools are eliminating “most likely to” awards; when you find that schools are eliminating academic awards or honor rolls; you see Kohn’s invisible hand at the helm.
As he himself competes in the marketplace of ideas, we can only hope that people will think through the positions he tries to sell them in order to determine what will truly prepare our children to succeed in life, and what will deny them the tools and mindset needed to reach their potential.