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Reconciling Competition and Community
Kevin Chen '18 Former Editor-in-Chief
May 23, 2018
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When anyone asks what the best part about Deerfield is, we all instinctively say “the community” or “the people.” And I completely agree. My peers here are some of most exceptional people I know. I am continually awestruck by their eloquence on the page, their artistry on the stage, and their prowess on the field. My teachers, too, amaze me with their insights into the world and their passion for helping students grow. The administrators are kind and always willing to listen to student feedback. The staff work nonstop to make this school run well, and always with heartwarming smiles.

Yet what has impressed me most about this community is our willingness to see the world from another’s point of view. I am proud that we have had candid and constructive conversations regarding a wide array of topics, such as race, gender, and politics.

Still, I feel that there is one topic we have yet to fully address: competition.

Credit: Lucy Blake

In fact, we seem to avoid this topic at all costs, presumably because we believe that competition has no place in a loving community. Many tour guides artfully dance around questions about competition at Deerfield. Some teachers panic whenever they see remotely competitive actions: some of my peers report being rebuked for asking how they could improve in a class.

We keep denying competition until we are blue in the face, but that does not change the fact that we students are competitive. And should this really be surprising at all? We all want to succeed. We have even competed to get in: Deerfield’s acceptance rate is lower than that of most colleges, and only ambitious people would apply to a top boarding school in the first place.

We demand that others tell us what grades they get on tests. We have cold wars over leadership positions. We gossip and make mean remarks about teammates and classmates. Of course, this is not all of us, and this does not happen all of the time, and this is not unique to Deerfield — students at nearly all top high schools report competitive environments. But these harmful acts certainly do occur, and we need to do something to address them. The specific remarks that people have made to hurt me and the ways that people have wished for my failure are not what is important. What is important is that competition here has hurt me. Competition here has hurt my friends.

Our current response to competition, if we wish to call denial a response, is ineffective. What ends up happening is that we still compete with each other, but seeing that it is not socially acceptable to compete openly, we do it surreptitiously instead.

Consider our nation’s economy: by acknowledging that companies are competing with one another, we can regulate competition and determine what constitutes fair competition. If we were to deny the existence of competition in the name of supporting collaboration, competition would not vanish; rather, the lack of discourse would make the problem worse. In many ways, this is what I think we as a school are doing right now.

When I visited a college, I asked the students there about the competition at their school. A common response was that students are competitive in the sense that they want to succeed, but they want their peers to do well, too. It was so refreshing to hear this acknowledgment of competition, and for once, I felt that people were being honest about it.

Some may argue that a natural consequence of competition is wishing your peers to fail, but I reject this notion. Consider an athlete training for a race. She would improve much faster with a training partner, because on one day he may beat her, and then she will be inspired to work harder, and perhaps the next day she will beat him. They will keep pushing each other and making each other better. We should want our peers to be strong, because that would make us all stronger in the end. Without competition, it is easy to become complacent.

I believe that that there is a place for healthy competition in our community, and this stems from viewing ourselves as teammates training for the race of life and not as opponents battling for victory. For example, instead of being upset that someone got a higher grade than us on an English assignment, we should listen closely to what we like about their writing when they read it aloud in class and use it to improve our own writing in the future. The same goes on the stage and on the field. There is nothing wrong with wishing to improve ourselves — we should just hope that our peers succeed, too.

As I began this piece by saying, the people at Deerfield are some of the best people I have ever met. I believe in our community. Our community is not so fragile that a bit of healthy competition would cause it to come tumbling down — unhealthy competition surely hasn’t — and I think it’s time that we all start believing.

Regardless of our views on healthy competition, one thing is clear: the status quo cannot remain. We have implicitly agreed to banish the topic of competition from conversation, but waving our magic wands has not made competition disappear. Instead, a toxic breed of competition has flourished behind the scenes. We must call competition by its name to build a better community together.