I wonder if there is any more insidious myth in our modern society than the myth of competition. That our worth as individuals can only be gauged by measuring ourselves against others, and that it is only by rising above them that we can hope for any sort of future.
I was reminded of how strong the comparison instinct is when having a conversation the other day about how easily one can fall into the most absurd thought patterns regarding one’s own children. How attentive we become when the parents of similarly aged children report on the various visible signs of progress. Who’s sleeping how long, who’s sitting up, who has teeth, is eating vegetables, has smiled, pointed, can hold a pencil, walk, remember whole nursery rhymes, do differential equations… And while your rational side is quite comfortable dismissing the whole conversation as paranoid nonsense (it’s tremendously uncommon, when walking down the street, to come across an adult still stuck in the crawling phase, they get it eventually) who can honestly say they haven’t at some point felt a momentary twinge of concern? Maybe my child doesn’t measure up. The sky is falling.
The obsession of the times is easily read in such moments. We care, it seems to me, beyond all proportion, about the intellectual development of our children. I don’t mean will they be able to read and write and speak and listen, all of which matter very much. Rather I mean, is my child going to be smart (which is to say smarter than other children)? And this, I’m sure, matters far less than we imagine.
As a school teacher, I am well aware that what is perhaps nothing more than an amusing aside in the early years, can later develop into something much more sinister. As parents are encouraged, via the most ponderous and unimaginative assessment regimes, to focus almost solely on the child’s relative development (above or below the national standard, by how much?) we begin to define our children’s lives in terms of success and failure. This would be bad enough in itself, but given that we actually mean relative success and failure, it’s even worse. Because, as soon as you define failure as an inability to outstrip your neighbours, you render society helpless in addressing that failure. It’s become a built in feature of the society.
From here we fret about zoning, or getting our child into the right school. We hope the classes will be streamed (so long as our child is in the top stream of course, but they will be, there are places waiting for those whose parents fret.) Money is wasted on tutors, schools feel obliged to chase down publishable results, education is reduced to an anaemic imitation of its potential. Anxiety in our young people rises, they find it harder and harder to work out what they want to do with their lives, because we have sold them on the lie that only the select few can have a worthwhile future.
And what a lie it is. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that none of the most valuable things in our lives are best understood using a competitive model. We laugh louder when others laugh with us, we learn better when others learn around us, we love better when others around us love, we live better when others around you live well. We are essentially social creatures, and the quality of our individual futures is crucially shaped not by our ability to rise above, but by our ability to work within. As a teacher I look not to the students that top the academic tables, but those that have learned the knack of happiness, and social engagement. Yes, I wish they’d shut up sometimes, but their enthusiasm for living that fills me with hope, and makes my job worthwhile. Individual school grades are an awful predictor of future success, no matter how you measure it. So is the age of teething. And our children will only grow to be smart when their parents stop worrying about things that are so very stupid.