How can intellectual competition support healthy self esteem and pursuit of excellence for high ability students – and later, when we are no longer in school?
The Great Debaters
The photo shows Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson, coaching his students (played by Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker) in the movie “The Great Debaters.”
It is based on the real story of Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in 1935 Texas, who inspired students to form the school’s first debate team, which challenged Harvard in the national championship.
The Great Debaters [Blu-ray]
In her Wall Street Journal commentary In Praise of ‘Thought Competition’, Rebecca Wallace-Segall writes about the erosion of support for stimulating intellectual engagements.
She mentions teen students in her after school writing program, who “also attend top-notch New York private schools that cost upwards of $25,000 a year. So why, one might wonder, do these kids need an extracurricular creative writing coach?
“The answer is simple, though twisted: Their schools — while touting well-known athletic teams — are offshoots of the ‘progressive education’ movement and uphold a categorical belief that ‘thought competition’ is treacherous.”
Competing for college
More perspectives on forms of competition are expressed by Barry Schwartz in his article Why the best schools can’t pick the best kids – and vice versa, in which he writes, “To today’s high-achieving high school students, the future seems to ride on getting into selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford or my own institution, Swarthmore, where almost every one of the applicants is good enough to succeed but only one in 10 will be given the chance….
“We all know this process has gotten crazy. I believe that it has bad effects on winners as well as losers. I’m not just talking about the financial strain on parents, who can spend as much as it costs for a year at these elite universities on SAT prep courses and personal tutoring, on private college counselors and now on ‘getting-into-college’ summer camps, costing as much as $3,000 for two weeks.
“And I’m not just talking about the stress on students. It’s what the competition itself is stealing from our most talented youth.
“Students choose classes that play to their strengths, to get easy A’s, rather than classes that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests. They sacrifice risk-taking and intellectual curiosity on the altar of demonstrable success.”
Successful but unchallenged
Joan Freeman similarly warns in her article Counselling the Gifted and Talented that “The gifted are sometimes under extra pressure from parents and teachers to be continually academically successful leaving them feeling intellectually unexercised.
“Youngsters are sometimes pushed into the competitive race for advancement – a race in which their other abilities may wither by working too hard in too narrow a field, as well as sacrificing leisure interests.”
Prof. Joan Freeman is author of Gifted Lives: What Happens when Gifted Children Grow Up.
One of the pleasures in the movie “The Great Debaters” is the pleasure and pride the students rightfully feel about their debating prowess. It is hard for many high ability people to experience that sort of positive self-regard in the face of perfectionism and self-criticism.
In her article Championing Oneself, Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, PhD notes it “has become shameful to publicly believe in oneself. The prohibition of self championing was established long ago and it is insidiously self-defeating.
“It is simply ubiquitous and has infiltrated the corporate marketplace, professional sports, interpersonal relationships, and everything else you can name. A person doesn’t necessarily need competition-level talent to earn the right to believe in oneself and champion oneself.
“Championing oneself is as important as good nutrition, exercise and a spiritual connection.”
And the process of preparing for a challenging competition can be its own reward, as Rebecca Wallace-Segall notes: “There is so much joy that is involved with creative writing projects. It really isn’t just about winning or losing.”
A related topic to championing oneself is the fear of being “egotistical” – perhaps especially of concern to many high ability and creative people.
Creativity teacher and writer Julia Cameron has commented, “We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical… This thinking must be undone.”
From my post Who Do You Think You Are?