Working in a man-made environment, with man-made things, is fundamentally different from working in a natural environment. In the first, everything is non-living (dead) and remains inactive, or in a state of gradual deterioration, unless there is some form of human intervention. In such situations, competitive behaviour becomes the determinant for success – when resources are limited, the most competitive person ends up with the most stuff. This is the world for which children are trained by our current education system.
In simple terms, the modern economy operates by money being generated in finite amounts by government agencies, and people then competing with each other to get as much of that money for themselves as they can, which they can then use to purchase products and services, which are themselves produced in finite quantities by different sections of the global economy. In theory, if you do well at school (i.e. get higher grades than other children of your age) and are then able to combine a qualification from a top university with ambition and competitive drive in the workplace, you will be able to buy an expensive house, own an expensive car, go on exotic holidays, eat in expensive restaurants, and pay other people to do mundane tasks for you, that you may find too tedious to do for yourself. Other people, who have been less successful in the competition, have to content themselves with smaller houses, smaller cars, and less exotic holidays, etc. This is commonly justified as being ‘the law of the jungle’, or to the more scientific-minded, ‘the survival of the fittest’, implying that that is how nature works also.
This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of nature, and takes no account of the dynamics of a living system, within which everything has to show respect for everything else, if they are not, indirectly, to do themselves harm.
There are many obvious flaws to an education system that relies too much on competition; winning the competition to get the best job, does not automatically mean that you will be able to do that job effectively, particularly if it involves managing other people. Being over-competitive is not an asset in home life or family life, and being too competitive does not help at all in non-hierarchical situations in which you have to work on equal terms with other people. Competition leads to social division and inequality; people who do well in the competition may be happy with their rewards, but there is no reason to believe that people who do not do well in the competition will be happy to accept a second-class status. Coercion of one form or another has to be employed to keep the have-nots in line, fulfilling their assigned tasks.
The reliance on competition in our education system is closely aligned with the historical trends firstly of colonialism, and, more recently, economic development. This has seen Western powers impose themselves on more traditional societies through the medium of hierarchical institutions that recruit staff from education programmes that offer the greatest rewards to the students that come out top of a competitive selection process. The inexorable way in which these institutions and industries have been able to grow and take more and more control over people’s lives, has made it increasingly difficult to question the validity of their hyper-competitive ethos.
Originally, schools did not emphasise competition. The purpose of the schools was partly to keep children off the street, and partly to increase literacy. Children gained little or no material advantage from being top of the class, and there was no direct route from a primary school to a job that was significantly better paid than the work being done by your parents. Children drawn from tight-knit communities would not have been inclined to be over-competitive with each other. Children in the same school would have been living in close proximity to one another, and helping each other in their daily tasks. The long-term imperative would still have been for children to learn how to work in co-operation with other family members, and other people in the village or local community, and that would not, at first, have been changed by children spending a relatively small amount of time in school.
This has changed slowly and steadily over the years. Traditional communities, based around farming and country crafts, have gradually disappeared, and the working-class communities that formed the basis of city life during the early years of the Industrial Revolution have now also been broken up, as people move from one place to another in search of work. The old idea of children automatically being able to find a life for themselves within their local community no longer applies, and school-based qualifications have become all-important. Going hand-in-hand with this process has been the trend for many of the tasks once performed within the community, through the medium of co-operation, being taken over by paid workers. This process is spreading into all areas of life so that it now covers not only care of the elderly, nursing the sick, and looking after children, but also the provision food supplies, clothing production, and energy supplies.
This process has taken no account of the fact that human beings are social creatures, and need to work together, not only to guarantee their material well being, but also to fulfil their emotional and psychological needs. People who have not had the chance to develop their social skills through working as equals in a society based on co-operation, lack the skills needed to build long-term personal relationships, and, as a result, society fragments and people are more prove to suffer from insecurity and loneliness.
The belief that it is natural for people to compete against each other, and that coercion can always be used to resolve disputes when more gentle methods fail has now become so ingrained that there is now almost a complete lack of communities or institutions that could teach children the value of co-operation relative to competition. Fortunately, the world on nature is still staying true to the rules that it has always followed, and still gives children a chance to discover for themselves the interplay between co-operation and competition in living systems – and the consequences that arise from from not understanding the rules.