Not too long ago, I was sitting in a committee meeting with a few professors as we discussed a new initiative for our department’s undergraduate students that would award them a certificate for participating in an extracurricular linguistics activity or project. The idea of the initiative was to encourage our undergraduate majors to do “a little extra”, whether that be through writing an honors thesis, participating in the research apprenticeship program, getting a linguistics-related internship, or even doing community outreach for science.
I was all for this initiative until a few doubts began to creep into my mind. I was trying to put myself back into my undergraduate shoes and thought, “Well, if I had had a program like this at my school, what would have happened?”
When I was at Swarthmore, I participated in something we call the Honors Program. Senior majors in every field who choose to do Honors not only have to write a thesis and defend it, but they also must take two to three additional oral exams administered by academics from other universities at the end of the year. It’s rigorous and difficult, but those who do succeed get those fancy Latin words at the end of their diploma: cum laude, or, “with honors”. I struggled in my Honors experience and barely scraped a pass, but I do believe the experience was worthwhile.
If I remember correctly, about one-third of the graduating class does Honors. (This amounts to a hundred and twenty-odd students out of around four hundred. However, in recent years the numbers have been falling.) In my eyes, the distinction exists not just because it is a difficult task that we have achieved, but because not everyone does it. That is to say, I deemed the value of the Honors degree to be correlated with the selectivity of its conferral: the fewer who earn it, the more valuable it is. After all, only one or two students in each field could nab the summa cum laude, “Highest Honors”. What I got, in comparison, was merely a participation award.
“Participation award.” Wouldn’t you agree that there’s more than a bit of contempt behind this concept?
I am writing this post to admit that I am learning, slowly, just how much there is to unpack beneath this attitude, the idea that an individual’s achievement should always be compared to those of their peers.
Back to the committee meeting. I wondered aloud whether the proposed certificate program might not be, well, a little bit “easy”. I had looked over the suggested requirements for activities that might merit a student the certificate and seen the research apprenticeship program on it. Undergraduate students can participate in this program for course credit, and they can also cite their experience with it on a resume. Why, I asked, should this also qualify them for a certificate? In addition, how is being a graduate student’s slave — ahem, I mean, apprentice — for one semester equivalent to the amount of work one must put in to write an honors thesis, given that both would count equally for certificate eligibility? And more importantly, our research apprenticeship program has grown considerably in the past few years; dozens of students, and a high percentage of our majors, will participate, some for multiple semesters. If all of them were eligible for the certificate program just from this one activity, that would mean awarding the certificate to a majority of our majors, at least fifty percent.
My professor acknowledged this with a smile.
“That’s great, isn’t it?” she said, further explaining that if we got to about seventy percent participation in the program, it would really boost our department’s image in the college as a whole.
I tried to explain gently that having such a high participation rate might decrease the value of the award. Thirty percent is selective enough; seventy percent would be overkill. And this is Berkeley we’re talking about: our undergrads are hyper competitive as it is. Make the program too easy or accessible, and they’ll all go for it; we’ll end up handing out awards like candy. Won’t this look like free CV padding for our majors? I was thinking entirely in my own logic: there’s honor in this achievement, but we don’t want to dilute it.
I do not know how much you might agree with me up until this point, but my professor clearly did not. In fact, she was momentarily taken aback, and then exclaimed, “What is it with the zero-sum game thinking?! The award is for students to demonstrate individual excellence, not compete against one another. Having more students do the program won’t make it any less valuable for them, and that’s what’s important, isn’t it?”
I didn’t quite know how to reply. I knew she was right. The professor (who is European) continued, “This really is something about American culture and education that I am still trying to understand… In my country this would not even have come up as an issue.”
And that comment in particular struck me so deeply that I have been thinking about it ever since.
This is something about American culture that I am still trying to understand.
The zero-sum game, the inherent expectation of competition, the winner-takes-all and losers-try-harder attitude behind so much that drives our economy and our society: it’s a stark reality when you stop to think about it.
There will only be one bachelorette to win the suitor’s hand, and all the rest have to go home.
Moonlight and La La Land cannot share the Oscar, because only one is allowed to take home the title.
The most prestigious schools flaunt their low acceptance rates; my alma mater will only allow twelve percent of applicants into its hallowed halls. We are the few and the proud.
Soccer moms and hockey dads agree: Participation Awards are stupid and my kid shoulda won.
This is our American idol: there is and there can only be one Best of X. The greater the pool from which to choose, the more difficult the win, but also the more deserving. We impart more meaning when the stakes are arbitrarily raised. And, critically, the attempts people make to diffuse this competitive spirit (by giving everyone a car! or, like, I dunno, universal health insurance… or A’s for effort) are very often derided.
Goodness, I don’t know. I grew up here and have marinated in American ambitious-sauce for over two decades. All of my friends would describe me as competitive, and they laugh when I say, “Well, as long as I have fun, I’ll have a good time,” because they think I’m being sarcastic. “No, Andrew,” they say, “you only have fun when you win.”
This is why I think it’ll be hard for me to reorient myself and adjust my attitude toward the concept of merit. You see, steeped in the myth of meritocracy as I am, my starting assumption tends to be that the playing field is and always has been level; that the Bests of X, in their rarity, truly always are the most deserving. This makes me feel better about myself when I win, because I feel that I’ve “earned it”. Well, the hard truth is that… I didn’t build that. And they didn’t deserve that. They got lucky, even if that luck is having been born in neighborhood A rather than neighborhood B two freeway exits south, or having been given an opportunity to let their hard work bear fruit when so many others work equally hard and never get a break. This is all somewhat beside the point though; in my progressive circles, we are all aware of systemic inequality. But that doesn’t stop us from playing into the system, does it? We still agree that there can only be one winner, and just mutter under our breath that it was his white male privilege that got him there.
Who is going to stand up to interrupt the awards show and say, “Can anybody explain to me again why we need this competition in the first place?”
I don’t know how much of this is an American thing. I know from firsthand experience that Korean culture is just as hyper-competitive, if not more so. (But they probably inherited that from us, along with other postbellum exports like xenophobia, religious extremism, and “democracy”.) But whether or not my non-American friends find it shocking, or at least oddly different, the degree to which our culture prizes the exalting of the few in tandem with the discouragement of the many, it doesn’t seem to come up in conversation much.
Perhaps I need to meet more people from, like, socialist Scandinavian countries. They say that they’re mostly happy there. Happy and healthy… and also eerily homogeneously white — but that there’s my American bias showing again. Huzzah for diversity?
And the award for the Biggest Boat We Could Fit through the Panama Canal goes to… this tanker from Copenhagen!
Actually, I think that brings up another disadvantage of this country’s competitive spirit: it is applied to the wrong kinds of competition. In America, the shiny simmering melting pot of the Western world, we appear to be having a problem with newcomers because of an idea perpetuated by the zero-sum attitude. People are saying, “I can’t get a job because of all of these (non-white) (illegal) immigrants!” The more that come, they believe, the less room there is for those who are already here, good ‘Murican families who have been here forever (but not indigenous-peoples-forever, mind you).
It doesn’t take much to unearth the statistics that don’t fall in this opinion’s favor. Highly-skilled immigrants take jobs that many Americans are not qualified for. Refugee immigrants take jobs that many Americans wouldn’t deign to do. And, crucially, immigrants make up an invaluable part of the country’s economy.
There is so much room in this country; there is clearly enough geographical and economic space for thousands more every year. But the distribution is unequal. Kansas is basically empty, but San Francisco is bound on three sides by water. And guess where everyone wants to go?
But I don’t blame them. I wanted to be here, too. And I beat hundreds of others to get my golden ticket to Berkeley. I even had the privilege to choose it over somewhere else.
I suppose that being competitive is very much in our nature as citizens of a nation with a history as unique as ours (namely, the inheritance of Manifest Destiny and our settler colonial success story). This could be a neutral thing, but recently and along many dimensions I think it is turning out to be a bad thing, so… make it stop, I dunno.
For now, what I plan to do for my part, at the very least, is to be more generous, especially with my praise and with my money. Everyone can get an award! Encouragement costs nothing. And for things that cost something, well, I can look to Pope Francis for some good advice: give without worry. (Do read that NYT article. It’s short and great.) If I do this successfully, I can impoverish the idol of competitiveness in my life and slowly but surely lay bricks down on the foundations of a society that does not give more to those with merit, but gives equally to all with value. Imagine an America that thrives not on competition, but on cooperation. Can we do it?
Word of the Day: demesne (/dɪˈmeɪn/ or /dɪˈmin/), from the Old French demaine (itself from Latin dominicus) + mesnie, meaning “land belonging to a master”, refers to the possession of land, or to the land or estate itself. It can also be used to mean the domain of a sovereign or state; actually, demesne and domain are essentially the same word, only the latter comes from Middle French via Scottish in the 15th century and the former from Old French via Anglo-Norman in the 13th. The ‘s’ is silent — cool!