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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Spirit of Competition--Should It Be Encouraged?

(Discussion by the Forest Hill Branch of the P.N.E.U., February 1901)
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 251-


". . . and schools where the system of Government examination exists, would fail to pass in the work of a lower standard than that in which they had been temporarily coached. What a happy word is that--"coached"--and the picture it presents: the vehicle of knowledge drawn by the children on from stage to stage. There is only one weakness in the simile. The horses are not changed at the end of each hour of toil and application. We change the coachman and the load instead (give them a new master and new subject), and drive on towards the next competition hill with fresh vigour to the whip . . ."



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The Chairman (Mr. F. C. Smith) opened the discussion by calling upon Miss Worn, who said:

The word competition conveys the idea that several persons enter the lists together in pursuit of some object of common desire. In consequence, emulation or rivalry ensues. Emulation may be either wholesome or unwholesome. It may be moderate or carried to excess. In the latter case, it is always evil. Competition in its nature is not an evil--nay, it is rather a good--but in its use it may be made subservient to either good or ill. Further, as long as animal life--including, of course, that of the human species--exists on this globe, there will be competition, for it is a law of nature, and as such, beyond our power to alter or abolish. I say animal life, for though the poets may fable the jealousies of such lovely flowers as the lily and the rose, or attribute human failings to the flaunting tulip, and human virtues, like modesty, to the humble violet; yet plant life, not possessing the power of volition, must be left out of consideration. It is the right use of competition that should engage our attention--for, rightly used, it is one of the great impelling factors of production--using the word in its widest possible sense.

Let me therefore confidently affirm "that the spirit of competition should be encouraged." What, then, is competition? Is it not the result of that natural yearning within us which bids us seek what is better and what is progressive? Is it not the spirit which leads us to forsake the dull, dead, monotonous level of uniformity and seek to raise, to improve, to wake into life that spark of a higher nature not yet extinguished, perhaps, even in the dullest? Someone must forge ahead, someone must lead the way, someone must kindle the flame that will rouse others to follow. Then the emulation spreads--one after another starts to his feet and sets out on the new path leading to greater things--awakening the intellect, the heart, the soul. But the struggle must be free from envy, jealousy, and all bitterness, it must be fought in love, and he who wins farthest in the race, who reaches the goal, even he shall receive the praise of his fellows.

Am I too optimistic--too impractical? I think not. Let us take a few examples. A country village, its patches of garden, too small for field crops, are neglected and overrun with weeds, the fences are broken--who heeds or cares? The idea is started of growing flowers and vegetables; prizes are offered to induce the villagers to begin. Hitherto no one has had any love for these sweet things of nature--taste has not been cultivated--the pleasure of watching the opening buds, the sprouting leaves, the unfolding blooms, has never been enjoyed. A great want has been in the lives of these people--a void unknown to them has existed. But, once started and encouraged, the work goes on. Beneficent nature, given a chance, turns the growers into her votaries, and with zeal they worship at her altar. Or some new and difficult subject of study appals a large form of boys or girls. "Now, boys, to encourage you, a prize will be given to the one who works most steadily, and who can show the best grasp of the subject at the end of Term." "I think I'll try fir it," says one. "Ah, that's something to look forward to," cries another. "Poor little Ned," remarks a third, "he can't make head or tail of his exercise--let's give him a lift."

The Paris Exhibition of last year is an object-lesson of the value of competition. There the nations peacefully vied with each other in art, commerce, manufactures, etc. There they learned of one another where each was weak or strong; there they saw better examples than they could produce at home. How few of those who visited its inspiring glories left that beautiful city without the sensation that they had been lifted up by what they saw and felt. Have not many, if not all, carried away with them higher ideals of what man can accomplish, and, returning to their various homes, told of the wonders and beauties that feasted both eye and brain? Are they not spurred on thereby to greater effort? Yes, let us encourage the spirit of competition--teaching with it habits of self-control, and when need be, of self-repression.

One other example I would give, and that, too, from France (Richard Whiteing, on Paris). France is the home of art--the great cult of the nation. No other people in modern times can do what they can. In Paris, art is everywhere, in the streets and gardens, in the picture galleries and town halls, decorated by liberal commissions from the government. For it is the government which cares for and fosters the art-education of its people, picking out already in the elementary schools children of promise--passing them on to schools where they may do better, and, if they do supremely well, urging them to go to the Beaux Arts.

The Beaux Arts is the institution which presides over all kinds of art, as painting, sculpture, architecture, line-engraving, cutting of gems, etc., and it forms one of the five great divisions of the Institute of France; another branch of which--the Academy--keeps up the high standard of literary style and expression.

Now, what are the chief means adopted to encourage and excite the artistic ability? The reply is--a graduated series of competitions. Having been admitted to the Beaux Arts, the first competition is the monthly contest for the right to choose your place. The professor looks at your work, and marks it first, second, third, and accordingly you have the right to plant your easel where you will for a month to come. The annual competition for the medal comes next, and it is severe. Yvon's best man, for example, was able to draw anything in any position, and he was to be beyond to the reach of surpise, no matter how eccentric the contour presented to him. In the final heat, the few that were left did their best in a drawing which had to be completed in two days of two hours each.

But the greatest and most valuable competition of all is that for the Prix de Rome, restricted to Frenchmen. The winner has free quarters in the art capital of the world for four years, with a liberal allowance from the state. The first heat is a sketch in oils, the second a figure in oils. For the third, the few left standing are sent to paint against one another for their lives on a subject given by the school. Each of the competitors during this last heat lives alone in a monastic cell for three months until his task is accomplished, lest he should receive help or communication from the outside world. The best painter is then sent to Rome, but, to show he is profiting by his surroundings, he must each year send a work to Paris, which, if of unusual merit, is purchased by the government.

The above are instances of competition wisely and rightly employed. But what shall we say of our own so-called "competitive examinations" for the Army and Civil Service? These are no real competitions, they are mere fictitious devices employed to avoid the trouble of selecting the best candidates. They set up no standard of excellency. Candidates are only tested to discover those best crammed, and to such the prizes fall. And the amount of cramming is increased year by year as each candidate strives to outcram the others. Imagine this system applied to the human body, and the results that would ensue! We have heard of the cramming of the Strassburg geese, in order to delectate the palate of man. But what use will his mind be to him in the campaign or on the battlefield, crammed on precisely the same principle? And what tests are applied to discover such qualities as courage, endurance, common sense, justice, judgment, balance of mind? Where is the assurance that the moral nature is developed? and that the tone and influence will be good? No, weighty matters such as these are omitted, either because such qualities are apparently considered unnecessary, or they are left to take care of themselves.

Finally, competition is universal. It enters into the animal world, as Darwin has shown us. The vegetable kingdom is not free from it--witness "the thorns sprang up and choked them.' No human industry thrives without it. Nation vies with nation, as man with individual man. The nation that overcomes may be in the wrong. Right does not always triumph. Let us care for these things. Let our competition be in a right cause, and that competition rightly sustained.


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Mr. H. Dalston said: The subject for discussion this evening must perforce be discussed with regard to its relationship to the objects of our Union. These are educational, and I therefore propose to limit my remarks to dealing with the presence of that spirit, and the pernicious influence which it exercises upon the proper development and health, and mental growth, and the aims in after life of children in primary schools. And first I shall have you with me if I disavow any wish to sit in judgment upon individuals who conduct, or preside over or assist to educate our children in these schools. We know the high standard of knowledge and efficiency which this very spirit of competition demands from them, and the earnest, honest, ill-requited way in which they relieve us of our responsibilities and carry out our work. Indeed, I claim them on my side as men and women who sacrifice their better human interests to a larger extent perhaps than those engaged in any other profession or business, on account of the tiring demands made upon their time and faculties by a system which is both tyrannous and false, and is moreover falsely looked upon as necessary to making a success of existence.

I think there can hardly be a subject of greater interest therefore to discuss, or of greater practical importance to members of the Union to rightly appreciate, than the fact and consequences of competition in our schools; and there I propose to arraign it in connection with the subject of examinations, as chief count in the indictment, by which as a practical issue, all lesser counts will stand or fall; and to charge it with having brought examinations which, in their proper use, should be but tests of actual efficiency, into an elaborate and perpetual and slave-driving system for mercenary ends, sacrificing the true principles of education and the moral aims of education to altogether selfish principles and the morals of the racecourse. (The Sacrifice of Education to Examination, by Mr. Auberon Herbert.)

These are strong words, but there are strong facts in support of them, and one fact is fashion. I believe that just as a few successful milliners decree the dress of the moment, and are mechanically obeyed by an obedient crowd, in all parts of the country, so do the Universities and different departments of the Government decree the fashion of learning by offering their scholarships and places, and the prestige and importance which attach to them, through the medium of competitive examinations. The Universities mould the great schools which adjust their teaching so as to win the prizes they offer (often in violation of the true purpose for which they were originally given) under the same system by which their graduates get public posts. The great schools in turn mould the preparatory schools, and offer them in their turn entrance and foundation scholarships, available for those boys who don't need the monetary help, but can command the services of extra tuition and win a little glory for their parents. That is how the evil chain is forged and teachers and children are overworked and "results" obtained, and payments come to be made by results, to the sacrifice of real knowledge and a disinterested love of learning.

To pass competitive examinations is rapidly becoming more and more the end and aim of education. There is hardly a form in any of our great schools in which you will not find some boys for whom extra tuition is provided in view of some competitive examination. And the one faculty which examinations force, (I will not say develop, for the effect is very temporary) is that of memory, and with regard to that, every teacher knows that the great majority of children in Board Schools, and schools where the system of Government examination exists, would fail to pass in the work of a lower standard than that in which they had been temporarily coached. What a happy word is that--"coached"--and the picture it presents, the vehicle of knowledge drawn by the children on from stage to stage. There is only one weakness in the simile. The horses are not changed at the end of each hour of toil and application. We change the coachman and the load instead (give them a new master and new subject), and drive on towards the next competition hill with fresh vigour to the whip, and oftentimes we take a tip from Carter Paterson and work them late at night. I should like to see the Factory Acts or an Eight Hours' Bill applied to schools, and night-work abolished.

I once reveled for two years in the freedom of a school where no night-work was set and none allowed. They taught in a way that we remembered, especially Hamblin Smith's arithmetic, and the few prizes I afterwards obtained in my public school by competitive examination, in which I took part without much emulation, I believe, and certainly without expectation of winning, came to me in consequence of the taste I had acquired for mathematics and the ground-work of earlier days. Another unusual factor in this early school of mine was the fact that they gave prizes to every boy who was not in the black books for persistent faults and had passed his test exams. This system, I think, is the next best to giving none at all, i.e., as prizes, for certificates of proficiency should be awarded where and when deserved to every boy. Competitive prizes ought to be abolished, and might be, I am sure, only parents have a weakness for them and spur on their children to obtain them. They do no real good to the character of the boy. In connection with competitive prize getting, I compared the morals of the system now in vogue to the morals of the racecourse, and I see I did injustice to the latter.

The horses used in horse-racing are bred with every care and under the most favourable conditions of artificial selection, and only such are allowed to compete as can stand the severe strains and trials of a strict training. We apply the same severe training, necessitated by the competitive system, to all our children, of whatever blood, or class, or capacity, or powers of endurance. And the folly of it is that not one in ten of our children will have to depend for his living upon being first in a competitive exam., or by obtaining one of those limited prizes or places in the public service which have set the fashion of competitive examination to all grades of education. Our children, if they have to earn their living, will do so by virtue of certificates of fitness, of proficiency, of good character, and probity, in the openings, and with the interest we are able to obtain for them. They will, most of them, only require pass certificates having no reference to the value of the certificates obtained by others, but to their own real worth and capabilities. The winners in the competition race are indeed entitled to the prize for which they run, but the winner in the race of intellect can generally claim the prize for character as well, in which no race is run, which is not fair. Competition, as now understood, therefore, by no means assures you of the best man, or necessarily fits him for the responsibilities which may be attached to his prize. The Government responsible for the system will not choose its Ministers, or Judges, or Governors by competitive examination, nor will the Governors of a school choose their headmaster so, or anybody who has an important post to fill where great personal interests are at stake. Why then should we train our children in the system with its narrowing influence and unnatural strains?

The true aim of education should be the free and natural development of all the faculties in each child, physical, moral and mental, together, and in harmony, to develop the best types of manhood and womanhood, leaving the material interests of the future to depend on the realization of this full development.

Competition is not necessary to proper and successful education. In Germany it is not known in filling public posts, or in the Universities from which the vicious system could be fixed and rivetted upon schools and the sacred cause of education. They have qualifying exams., as ours should simply be, and further tests of individual capacities and special knowledge. We shall be glad to hear what those present connected professionally with education can suggest to ease their own burdens and those of the children entrusted to them from the unfair demands of competition, and all that complying with those demands entails.

I will give you a medical opinion on the subject, of Dr. Clement Dukes, physician to Rugby School, which he expressed in an address to the Teachers' Guild, at Oxford, as far back as 1893. He said:--"I am confident that permanent harm is resulting to the rising generation from over-competition amongst schools, as well as from the impossible multiplicity of subjects in the examinations, for which schools prepare their pupils. It seems rarely to be realized that the receptivity of each brain has a standard of its own, beyond which it is dangerous to attempt to pass, and it is this which accounts for so many failures. Most of the evils to which I have referred arise literally from the severity of these examinations." These are the words of a doctor, having reference to the effects of competitive examinations upon health, and while giving his first pity to the helpless child whose brain is overworked and constitution injured, he also cites Sir Edwin Chadwick, to declare that among the teachers in primary schools, statistics shew that the death-rate is 20 per cent. from the effects of overwork, while in the Army it is 6 per cent., in the Navy 4½ per cent., and in prisons 3 per cent. He also attributes to disorder of the nervous system by overwork, many of those curious muddled answers which children sometimes give to examination questions--answers which amuse most people, but are of sad significance to him.

Very young children are often over-driven in ignorance of the fact that five-sixths of the whole growth of the male child's brain, and ten-elevenths of the female child's brain, has to be got through before the completion of the seventh year, leaving no surplus energy to endure mental strain before that age.

Mr. Dalston concluded by reading a page from Ruskin's Fors Clavigera [a series of letters addressed to British workmen during the 1870s published in the form of pamphlets] upon the subject.


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Dr. Laing Gordon said: Although if I had heard Mr. Dalston only I might have felt bound to agree with him, and if I had heard Miss Worn alone I should have agreed entirely with her, after hearing both, I must say I agree with a good deal that each has said, but am distinctly of opinion that competition in itself is not an evil. Mr. Dalston quoted a vigorous passage from Ruskin; now we in the P.N.E.U. have a deep respect for the views of Ruskin, but it behoves us to ask are these views of his of any value except as ideals. Personally I consider them arm-chair philosophy, and impractical.

Surely it is blockheadism (to use Ruskin's own term) to suppose that man makes his way in the world except by elbowing. The spirit of competition is of the nature of an instinct. The question is, really, shall we subdue this instinct by education, as we do other instincts, or develop it and train it aright? To my mind the answer is obvious. If you try to prevent competition you "go against nature," and the poor child suffers. The struggle for existence is one of the solid facts of life, and some of us see in it the hand of the Deity leading the race to higher things. It is competition that makes the world go round, as Gibbon pointed out long ago; it is braver, surely, to train the average young for the struggle than to set up ideals which anyone who lives in the world, and not apart from it, knows to be unattainable.

In his History of European Morals, Mr. [William Edward H] Lecky gives his opinion that "the most effectual method of diverting men from vice is to give free scope to a higher ambition." Thus competition is made to appear a beneficial moral influence; but we must recollect that competition may become selfish if the ambition which it stimulates is an unworthy one.

I think that, speaking very briefly, our need to-day is for--first, a diminution of competitive examinations and regulation of them; secondly, for more honest competition; and thirdly, for competition on broader principles.

If Mr. Ruskin had thought on this subject in the concrete, surely he would have seen that it is only the abuse and excess of competition in which the evil exists, so far as schools are concerned. You have already heard about the evils of the competitive system in some directions; just one word on it--do not attribute every case of children's illness to "over-pressure." Medical opinion is now inclined to blame faulty environment, bad ventilation, want of sunshine, exercise, etc., more than "over-pressure." Let me now say a word on honest competition. At a recent P.N.E.U. meeting, a reverend gentlemen, experienced in school work, lamented that the same code of honour did not prevail at home as prevailed at school, and no parent replied to this very questionable statement. There are many parents who teach carefully the code of right for right's sake, who have embarrassing minutes when their boys and girls come home and explain the school code of honour. This appears to be--"it does not matter if you are not found out"; hence spring cribs and cribbing, etc.; and out of it arises also a perverted sense of noblesse oblige which prevents the honest boy from "sneaking," as it is called; but in precious moments of confidence parents are told these things. May I say that teachers do not, very often, watch for and detect this dishonesty--it is seldom punished so severely as it should be--and I think parents should help by warning teachers when tales of this sort of thing reach their ears.

With regard now to the need for broader competition. Ruskin spoke only a half-truth when he said that every child has a limited capacity which cannot be stretched. He should have added that the capacity varies in direction as well as in extent, and then he would have had to find fresh phrases to condemn an evident wrong principle in our present-day education, viz., the sending of children in by the gross for examinations--examinations such as Oxford Locals, and so on, which are tests, not of the child's ability and state of development, but of the machinery whereby he has been crushed and ground. Thousands of children pass such examinations with their best faculties utterly untutored--broadly speaking, the system is hopelessly narrow. I say, beware of all schools which point with pride to their results; far better to be able to point to one man, in every sense a man as a result of his training, than to a hundred boys passed with honours through one of these machines of mental torture.

Educational reform is in the air. Let us hope the future will see more attention to the child's individuality on the part of teachers: that teachers will send children home with their best potentialities discovered, trained and directed; not rolled, squeezed and stamped with the trade-mark of the public school or the young ladies' finishing establishment. Surely interchanges of opinion with parents may be a help to honest educators facing the task for which the country is crying.

I feel sure competition must maintain a place in our methods. Give our children ideals by all means, and in Ruskin you will find high ones; as where he says, "Fee first, you are the fiend's; work first, you are God's." But do not let them think they are higher than the crowd, and need not strive through it before they can be placed above it. Remember Browning's words bidding us beware:--

"Lest our gifts create
Scorn and neglect of ordinary means
Conducive to success, makes destiny
Dispense with man's endeavour."

I have, then, the presumption to oppose the suggestion that competition should be eliminated from our educational methods. We must expect parents and teachers alike to point out that the competition must be in doing well and in doing good; and the means at our disposal to inculcate this principle are to be found in sound and liberal-minded moral and religious teaching, free from arm-chair sophistry and sectarian cant.


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Mr. A. F. Browne said: The competitive system may be considered from several points of view, such as the moral, the physical and mental, and the social and economic. I was pleased that Dr. Gordon, in his interesting speech, dealt with the subject, not so much from the medical standpoint, as from that of the philosopher and man of the world.

The lady who opened this discussion used the word "progressive." We often speak of progress, but generally, I think, without a clear conception of what we mean. The results of progress in knowledge we see around us in the marvellous triumphs of physical science; but is progress so evident in other directions? Progress is evolution, and it has to be said to-night that competition is in the nature of things and in human nature; that struggle for existence and survival of the fittest are proved factors in the evolution of the world. But they are not the only factors.

The contradictory of competition is co-operation, and wise and good people have asserted that a better civilisation can be based upon common, or combined, interest than upon universal rivalry. Is competition of God? It may be so, for in the sweat of his face man is to eat bread and he who will not work shall not eat.

Moralists tell us, and we know it to be true, that this so-called curse is a blessing in disguise. Is the competitive system, then, God's method of making civilized man work? If so, that is sufficient; but some awkward consequences present themselves to make us doubt such a conclusion. Here is one which always fills me with blanket astonishment, viz.:--that under this system a man--many men--able and willing to work cannot get work to do, but must see those dependent upon him want or be maintained by the community.

Here is another; it is beginning to be said that men are too old for competitive industrialism at 40 years of age--when, from the all-round point of view, a man is in his prime.

Consequences, such as these; phrases such as "struggle for existence: and "survival of the fittest" are not pleasing in the 20th century of Christianity. Co-operation has a far better sound, but we are not here to discuss it. This much, however, is certain, that if we have got hold of the wrong end of the stick, then modern civilisation is tending to a tremendous catastrophe, for all agree that industrial competition in the 20th century will be intensified to a degree never before approached. It will be no question of a little richer or poorer; the weaker will have to go to the wall; both for individuals and nations the struggle will be for success or failure, for survival or effacement, for life or death.

To come closer to our special aspect of the subject, I fail to see how competitive examinations and rewards to merit can be abolished in our schools. If you remove this stimulus, what alternative will you adopt? The cane probably is not in the programme of this Union. At the present stage of evolution we cannot get away from competition, but at least we can try to be upright and just under competitive stress, and our young people must be taught to play the game honourably.

I would say a word for our friends who carry on the schools. It is all very well to demand that slow children should receive as much attention as the quick and gifted, which really means much more attention, but this could not be done at schools without a large increase of staff.


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Mrs. Gray said: While I fully admit with the last two speakers the world-wide sway of importance of competition, yet viewing the subject as a mother whose boys and girls are about to take the first plunge into public school life, I find it a veritable nightmare.

Nowadays, along with the prospectus of a school, which sets forth its aims in regard to the intellectual and physical education of the boys and girls, there is generally presented a list of names, whose owners have won honours for the school in different examinations. At once the question arises--"My son is unlikely to add to that list; will he as a consequence fail to receive the attention calculated to make the best of average abilities?"

Competition is just as keen among schools as among scholars; it becomes, therefore, a vital necessity that the show pupils should be cultivated to the utmost, and must it not be, to a certain extent, at the expense of the average boy? Has not the doubt that always existed, as to whether this seven times heated furnace of examinations really forges the best weapons for life's struggle, been converted into a certainty by the test of the present war? Have not men laden with Staff College honours failed in practical wisdom and fertility of resource? Do examinations bring the best men to the fore? do they strengthen memory, or only, as some authorities allege, exhaust it, often beyond the power of recuperation? These and similar questions weigh heavily on the minds of parents, conscious that it is only an average boy or girl whom they are starting on the path of knowledge, in whom the stress and pressure of competition will only hinder the steady development of mind and character which is the aim of true education.


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Mr. C. Russ dwelt also upon the evils of excessive competition, and gave one or two instances of the manner in which some teachers are guided by the desire that pupils should do them (the teachers), not so much themselves (the pupils), credit.

The Chairman would up the discussion with a summary of the two sides of the question, and pointed out that probably the via media would be found by overhauling our present educational methods, and assigning to competitive examinations a place of less aggressive importance. He agreed that competition was not an evil in itself; in the present state of social and commercial and professional life, it would be dangerous to make any isolated attempts to eliminate the spirit of competition in children.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, May, 2011