Education Opinion

Considering How to Use Competition and Conflict

By Deborah Meier — February 12, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Alfie,

Yes, I think conflict and competition are not necessarily compatible—or incompatible. One can be for one, both, or neither! Indeed, the “resolution” of conflict is not always related to “winning,” but often enough just to “clarifying.” At its best, both “sides” are ahead in a good argument, for example. I engage in internal thought-conflicts with myself if I’ve no one to argue with. And I “enjoy” reading or hearing an opponent’s view (when it isn’t formed in grossly disrespectful language) as a way of testing out my own ideas, and noting their weaknesses.

Yet the most powerful changes of mind that I’ve engaged in happened slowly and at times unnoticeably for quite a long time. Aha, I realized not so long ago, I no longer believe in “revolutionary” change—in people, institutions, or societies. In fact, I’m suspicious of them. But I was a thoughtful and independent-minded socialist who, while I eschewed Communism, believed in revolutionary change ... of a voluntary, democratic sort. I find this idea utopian and maybe even dangerous now.

I’ve never had an epiphany about competitive sports, for or against—although I was quite aware that my attachment to professional teams (the Yankees) was in conflict with my “socialist” beliefs, and I loved playing competitive basketball and girl’s hockey and never found it worried me “politically.” I recognized in my devotion something of the xenophobia that caused wars and worse. I found that fact interesting, a bit amusing but not dangerous.

I recognized that I was competitive and enjoyed winning. If the stakes were too high, on the other hand, I often avoided competition—or perhaps feared that winning or losing would endanger my friendships or effectiveness where it mattered more? When “my” team wasn’t playing, I generally rooted for the underdog, thus occasionally shifting sides during a game! (Empathy taken to an extreme?)

I had an uneasy feeling about the power that people could exert over others and was eager to avoid such situations, whether it put me in the up or down position. While I was annoyed at the put-downs I experienced from so many people I might otherwise have respected when I settled on becoming a kindergarten teacher, I had no interest in changing places. I had no ambition to become a principal—since at least in our American tradition, it didn’t seem a position that deserved respect and entailed only petty power. You are right Alfie, that’s a special American phenomenon. I wonder why? When I spent time visiting and working in English “infant schools” in the early 1970s I was amazed and awed by the competence and effectiveness of some of the English “head teachers” I met. It was a very different model.

I became a principal by default, and I was, indeed, intimidating to some of the staff, and that annoyed me no end. I think in the end I learned to cope with that response, settling for the fact that many of those who knew me as their principal seemed in the long run to have no trouble defending their own strong views, winning many a battle, and becoming strong leaders themselves. I learned also to reword it for myself: their being “intimidated” as different from my “intimidating” them.

I set about as a K-12 public school teacher with the express purpose of wanting the young people we taught to feel free to be feisty, argumentative (even if not quite in my style), strong-minded, and not easily converted to anything they didn’t understand. So I didn’t WANT to teach math in ways that would rely on the authority of experts. Yet I wanted them to respect the expertise of experts! Struggling with ways that one could accomplish both has been an everlasting challenge.

I drew in part on my own family experience, and on practices I encountered in schools I attended from K-12 through graduate school, and within the various political arenas in which I worked—the civil rights and peace movements, for example.

Viewing the world with a prejudice for democracy—with all it inevitable faults—was the challenge. If we all could easily agree then there would be no need for democracy and far simpler ways to create the good society. If expertise was all that mattered, we needed to locate it and delegate all power. Although I grew up at a time of history when the most advanced and expert-ridden nations were also often the cruelest and most insane, so I saw a problem with this neat solution, too.

How to use competition—and conflict—to hone our tolerance for democracy and its shortcomings seemed wiser than trying to eliminate either! Having skeptical respect for these “flaws” seemed a better route than seeking a guru (even in its best sense) with the final solution. I was suspicious of hero worship, but saw its short-term strengths. I wondered aloud how we could avoid the dangers and enjoy the pleasure of hero worship. It has something to do with balanced powers, alternate attractions, and ....

So I count on you to regularly remind me about why we’re right—scientifically and logically and humanely—so I have the patience and fortitude to not give up just because it will take a long, long, long, long time before we enter the promised land. Or, as one of my heroes—Eugene V. Debs*—said: “I would not lead you to the promised land, because if I could, others could lead you out again. You must lead yourselves.”

(*If you don’t happen to know who Debs was, look him up.)


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.