Does competition have an educational virtue?


The observation of the deleterious effects of a financial capitalism favoring individual success today challenges us to “go beyond the limits of the performance society”. However, should we throw out the competition with the capitalist bathwater? Isn’t the pursuit of performance a powerful motivation for development, both for individuals and for societies? And, in particular, isn’t competition an educational tool, if not essential, at least very precious?

Competition has many virtues

In essence, competition is confrontation with others on specific tasks, whether they are purely motor (or psychomotor): running, jumping, throwing, swimming, etc. Or playful (playing with balloons), or even cognitive (playing chess). In all cases, it is about being stronger, or better, than the others, who have accepted to face the same competitive challenge. The golden rule is: “may the best win”.

From an educational point of view, it therefore presents a triple interest. First of all, it involves preparation, both physical and mental, which helps to arm individuals for the battles of life, which will require strength, courage, and perseverance. Realizing the wish formulated by Kant , it gives the opportunity to strengthen and harden his body, through exercise and training.

In the second place, the commitment to a calendar of meetings or tests requires that one is part of a project, gives oneself objectives, and organizes its efforts in a rational way. Competition is therefore a powerful tool for self-regulation, which can play a capital role in the development of subjects’ autonomy, in particular during their adolescence.

Finally, as the philosopher Alain underlined, victory helps to give the winner “a high idea of ​​his power”. Each victory strengthens the feeling of personal “power” which is the basis of all future success. To win, you first have to believe yourself capable!

But the coin has a flip side

However, competition does not only have positive effects. On the one hand, defeat is often cruel, and it is sometimes very difficult to recover from it. If one does not also learn to accept it, in order to find in one’s analysis the strength and the means to overcome it, competition can turn out to be counter-educational. Paradoxically, it will only become educational if it is accompanied by the learning of “knowing how to lose” .

On the other hand, the search for victory at any cost can lead to the implementation of reprehensible means (cheating, doping), and lead to hatred of the other, always destructive, as Spinoza taught us . When the adversary to be fought becomes an enemy to be defeated, the formation of a relentless warrior cannot claim the status of an educational ideal.

Finally, and above all, the aftermath of victory can turn out to be bitter, as evidenced by the history of champions who ultimately only knew how to win, without putting their triumphs at the service of building a solid and resilient personality. It is not enough to learn how to win in order to be successful in life. It is also necessary that the victories contribute to consolidate a personality capable of resisting the vagaries, and of aiming for the Good. Beating others is never an end in itself.

Educationally, the key is not to beat others, but to improve yourself

The important thing is ultimately less to be the best, against others, than to strive for the best, in a perpetual effort to surpass oneself. Performance rhymes with competition, and reduces the struggle for development to interpersonal confrontation. Whereas the essential educational combat is that which each one is called to lead in relation to himself; and, in a way, against himself.

As a confrontation with others, the competition only leads to rankings, by designating the winners and, by the same token, the losers. It engages in a “normative” evaluation, where the value of an individual is appreciated only in relation to that of others, while the educational work essentially aims at personal progression, in relation to oneself, and not to others. others. The value of the individuals it affects can only be assessed by a “criterion-referenced” evaluation, which takes an ideal development model as its target value.

Education concerns only each individual taken separately. What matters is to improve, taking advantage of both its potential and its achievements. The fight is first between oneself and oneself, to tend towards this “divine man” of whom, according to Kant, each one carries within him the model.

The important thing is ultimately less to be the best, against others, than to surpass yourself. Shutterstock

There is no education unless one feels the need to make an effort to reduce the gap between existence and value. Existence situates in the order of facts: what I am currently capable of understanding and doing. And the value, in the order of the ideal (of the “spirit”, Alain will say): what I feel called to be and to achieve because of the capacity for improvement which characterizes my nature as a human being. . More than success, it is therefore progress that counts.

For a “humanist” education

Educational work puts me in a story. Its merit is to make me understand that nothing is final, and that a progression, although never being assured, is however always possible. At the same time, and by the same token, this work gives me a sense of Value. I understand that a “better” is always to be sought, on the side of what can give “value” to human existence.

Of course, it will remain to define “Good”, and to draw the portrait of the “divine man” likely to serve as a relevant target. But it is certain that the “well-educated” human being is not one who strives to always be in front of others – except, perhaps, in the manner of the “little white horse” sung by Georges Brassens: to serve them better – but one who strives to always strive for the best, in relation to himself, and to what makes his value as a human person.

Thus, by privileging historicity, and by giving a sense of value, the educational act safeguards the “perfectibility” of each person, in the sense that Rousseau gave to this term in his Discourse on the origin of inequality among men: “the ability to improve oneself; a faculty which with the help of circumstances develops all the others and resides among us both in the species and in the individual”

Education is nothing other than the effort made to allow perfectibility to play, and to accomplish its work. Competition is, at best, only one means among others, on condition that it is put at the service of a movement of surpassing oneself.

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is N Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at the Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)