An Essay by Hamza Shaban
Training with varsity swimmers makes the JV novice a better swimmer. She watches their refined technique, copies their S-curve strokes, and stretches her lungs to keep up. After her first week, in her fatigue, she curses her competitors. But after a month, she sees the defined muscles in her arms, she breathes every 5 strokes instead of 3, and she swims in the fastest lane on JV. After this first month she wishes her toughest opponents to be closest to her, she respects them, copies them, and learns from them. The best athletes embrace competition; competitors force each other to excel.
Like athletes, students can benefit from an academically competitive environment that encourages them to develop their talents and seize opportunities. In academia, however, competition is often the contest over limited resources; honors certificates, job offerings, and placement into graduate school. But with more college applicants, growing educational costs, and the increasing need to attain a graduate degree, students face pressure to excel despite the apparent scarcity of opportunities. Social expectations push students to reach for the highest paying job, or force them to onto a pre-professionalism track. Upon examination, this brand of academic competition does not foster excellence; instead it breeds ostentation.
Universities encourage students to become overly competitive. The need to outdo one’s classmates is so compelling that students see each other only as impediments to success. Like the novice swimmer, the overly competitive scholar sees her peers as an obstacle, she curses them, believing her hardship will alleviate once her competition disappears. However, while the athlete quickly realizes the value of having competitors close, young scholars never come to this realization. The intended communal learning experience becomes one of subversion and solitude; the struggle for self-betterment is mutated into student versus curve; and the most noble pursuit of knowledge becomes a relentless quest for gold.
UVA’s current system does not appropriately match competitor with competition. When our PHYS 203 course gives As to 15% of the students, the goal shifts from learning vital pre-med material to beating out 85% of the class. In this situation, the student is not evaluated on what she has learned, but only how she has compared to other students. Instead of proving which students will be the best doctors or the sharpest physicists, the class invites the best memorizers, the most pious grade worshipers, and the finest cutthroats to excel. Facts and equations are furiously memorized and then regurgitated onto paper. The heavy weighting of tests undermines the goal of understanding the material for life, and invites students to simply memorize for test-day. Under this system, worthy passionate candidates are beat out, while the process continues to attract the wrong kind of student.
Still, it is believed that competition in any setting brings superior individuals forward. In athletics this is strikingly clear, but in academia the contestants are asked more complex questions: Who among you can argue with clarity and persuasion, who can heal others with medicine and compassion, and who can create structures out of intellect and imagination? The same process that determines the superior athlete should not be applied to deciphering the champion student. Straight As do not prove one’s ability to convince a jury, perfect MCATs do not reflect one’s desire to heal others, and a mastery of sums does not show one’s capacity to improve infrastructure.
The overly competitive atmosphere at UVA forces students to forget that learning can be both the means and the end. And if learning is itself the intended purpose of schools, then there does not have to be a shining trophy on graduation, and the intellectual struggle can once again become a cultivating process, rather than a stifling one.