Detrimental Darwinism in the Academic Environment
Every year around this time, many of us share the same, sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. As the month of June approaches, the semester’s end is close, and term exams are on the horizon. Juniors and underclassmen worry about grades and who is going to which college. Central to all this emotional churn are two unhealthy and self-defeating sentiments: peer comparisons and competitiveness.
Ever since we evolved, humans have experienced a Darwinian instinct for competition based on the notion of survival of the fittest. This trademark of life has survived through millennia of evolution and has invaded the academic spirit of adolescents and teenagers. Conversations after receiving a graded assessment are alive with whispers of the infamous but innocuous “What’d you get?” to the more pointed “How’d you do?” ending in the slightly malicious “Do you know what he or she got?” These misdirected expressions mutate from genuine curiosity to a green mist of jealousy, which clouds our judgement and places students in unnecessarily adversarial positions with friends and peers.
Given that this nature derives from our early ancestors, comparativeness and competitiveness certainly hold their benefits. In some manner, competition spurs students on and is a significant motive to work harder. Knowing one’s peers’ grades and accomplishments fuels a passion to work harder and surpass others. Without having others to compare against, we could never be able to judge if we are doing the best we can. Benchmarks are necessary to continue to push ourselves and to extend our potentials.
Nevertheless, while it is true that - in some manner - competition spurs people on and is a significant cause to work harder, it also brings with it unnecessary disappointment and dissatisfaction. Suddenly, a B+ for which a student worked very hard becomes insignificant when one hears that a friend received an A-. Students are consistently interested in other people’s grades, college choices, and achievements and can never feel satisfied with themselves when hearing of others’ successes. Student life turns into a constant comparison between one another, where peers try to measure their own achievements against those of others. In doing so, students victimize each other and demean their own accomplishments in the face of others’.
Instead of external benchmarks, intrinsic motivation has always driven people further and to greater heights. Any number of historical figures did not achieve their potential by competing with others, but merely by following their internal passions and motivations. Therefore, Beethoven’s concertos, Marie Curie’s breakthroughs, and the Wright brothers’ discoveries were not made in response to competitive threats from their neighbors, but rather by following their internal drives to achieve more.
Although areas such as competitive sports thrive upon “winning,” in academics, pitting themselves against each other does not make people better collectively, but instead distracts from their ability to achieve internal potential. Instead of maintaining the mindset of a boxer in the ring trying to knock his or her opponent out, students should think as the marathon runner does, who races against the clock rather than his or her fellows.
While folks at Hopkins all agree that personal success brings maximum satisfaction, there is no reason to believe that it comes at the cost of someone else’s failure. The joy of personal success can be multiplied exponentially by watching a colleague succeed when his or her success is not at our own expense.
We need to move beyond caveman instincts because they pull us back into the dark ages and do not propel us forwards. It is no longer “survival of the fittest” - the world is big enough for everyone.