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I am so tired of competing with you all...
On building a world where dignity isn't something you have to earn
Top notes: Thank you, as always, for all your support—- for sharing these posts and for talking to me about them, either here or on Twitter or Instagram or in my inbox. Thanks also to all of you who’ve donated to The Barnraisers Project (slightly new website STILL coming soon, I promise! slightly less ugly!). It’s how this train keeps chugging down the tracks.
Also: Another interview to share! I talked to Ryan Honeyman, a great guy who is doing wonderful work over at Lift Economy, on their “Next Economy Now” podcast. You should listen— and then, you should check out their other episodes, as Ryan has interviewed some unspeakably cool people.
Let’s start out with a caveat. I have no qualms with individual excellence. I am glad that some people are better at specific skills than other people. My life is richer because Hanif Adurraquib, Jia Tolentino and Claire Vaye Watkins are uniquely good at writing sentences. Watching Russell Westbrook run down a court as if he is the Roadrunner and the entire game of basketball is a railroad tunnel makes me want to be a better husband and father. Many of my toughest days have been made better by listening to the part in “Be Mine!” where a previously defiant Robyn admits, in a near-whisper, “you look happy, and that’s great… I just miss you, that’s all.” I can’t do any one of those things as well as those people, but my life is richer because of how much they rule.
This is not an essay about how much I love excellence, but at least we have that on the record.
This weekend, my eight-year-old had his first soccer tournament ever. He’s on a chill team called the Sea Mullets where nobody yells at each other for kicking the ball in the wrong direction and the coach dissuades them from over-celebrating when they score. The Sea Mullets have played plenty of individual games— some of which they’ve won, some of which they’ve lost, all of which they‘ve enjoyed. Oh jeez, the tournament scene is different, though. The first team they played had traveled an hour-and-a-half from Madison for the occasion. They rolled up to our field in fancy personalized jerseys (names on the back!) and started doing elaborate drills. A minute later, their coach noticed that my son’s team (base state: vibing out, not doing any drills) was wearing similarly colored jerseys and immediately whipped out… a whole new set of individual jerseys in a different color. I don’t have to tell you that the Mighty Sea Mullets lost big (the other team was also older and featured at least one kid who, hand to God, would have been the tallest dude on the field even IF you had stacked two of our shorter players on top of one another). My son didn’t mind, nor did he mind when they got shellacked by a similarly well-outfitted, intensely coached squad later in the day. He loves playing soccer with his friends.
This is not an essay about how our Thunderdome approach to youth sports is a problem (Anne Helen Petersen already wrote that essay and she was right!). Nor is it an essay about how getting clobbered by bigger, fancier, more serious teams scarred my son for life (it didn’t!). Nor is it a rehashing of that particularly tired, mid-teens debate about whether “Millennials” were ruined by having been given participation trophies (we were not, but that was never the point of those debates anyway!).
This is an essay about how exhausting, dangerous and soul-destroying it is to live in a country where everything is a competition.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that he was going to eliminate the city’s gifted programs. As I pointed out at the time (too brusquely! but still!), people are passionate about gifted programs! Many adults have visceral memories of their own classroom experiences, of being bored in homerooms and appropriately challenged in pull-out environments. Parents of all races have a whole range of emotions about whether or not schools are seeing or understanding their kids. Nobody likes feeling dumb. Everybody wants to have their and their children’s talents recognized. And that’s all fair! Truly!
What is also true is that it’s pretty darn hard to mount a moral defense of gifted education in the United States. It was invented by not one but two full-on racist eugenicists. It came of age as a desperate marketing attempt to keep white parents from abandoning public school districts after Federal school desegregation. Despite multiple attempts to reform it in the name of “equity,” it has always over-privileged White students- both because of selection bias on the part of teachers identifying “gifted” students as well as persistent lobbying on the part of white parents to squeeze their kids through the gates.
Whenever I’ve written about gifted education, I’ve received frustrated responses from educators and parents defending gifted pedagogy (meaning, the actual teaching techniques and curricula used in gifted programs). Many wonder what will happen to academically talented students (particularly students of color) if we eliminate gifted education altogether. Now, there’s a quantitatively correct but overly trite answer to those concerns (studies have consistently shown that gifted pedagogy works for all students— that both gifted and non-gifted students benefit from just being taught the “gifted stuff” together). But this has never been a conversation about helping all students, so it’s a fool’s errand to pretend that it is. Gifted education only has value because it’s a gated community. It isn’t about what happens when you get inside; the entire point is to leave other kids outside.
Truth be told, I don’t want to make any counterpoint to parents, educators or friends who bemoan the loss of gifted programs. I want to ask a question.
Isn’t this exhausting?
Isn’t it exhausting to have your child’s worth depend on whether their school has at least a 7 out of 10 on greatschools.org? Isn’t it exhausting to pay more than you can afford in a mortgage for that honor? To say yes to a soul-sucking commute? To do all that and still have to worry not just about whether they're at a “good school”, but whether they’ve been identified as being smarter than those other kids at that good school?
Or, alternately, isn’t it exhausting to invest thousands of dollars in test prep and tutors to get your kid into your big-city school district’s magnet programs? To harass your school board when they even threaten your carefully curated feeder pattern from the “good elementary school” to the “good high school?” To spend even a single second worrying that your child might have to attend their safety school for college or (even worse) not attend a four-year college at all?
And yes, I’m primarily asking these questions to White parents (and parents of color with significant class privilege), who are choosing this level of exhaustion without any clear evidence that they need to. I recognize the calculus is different for families where academic achievement provides one potential layer of protection against a profoundly unfriendly country (though there’s very little evidence that Black and Brown students, like White and Asian students, actually benefit much at all from gifted programs in practice). More so, though, I just can’t believe any of us are served by all this noise. If your primary goal, in interacting with a school system, is to ensure that some students but not all students get to win, all you’re really doing is ensuring that we all lose.
I chose to ask these questions about schools, but I could have asked them about the ways in which we chase totems of achievement that in other, kinder societies, would be available to all: the “good job” that provides health insurance, the fastidious savings plan that allows you to pay off student loans, homeownership not as a path merely to “having shelter” but towards being able to actually retire some day. We often recognize the tragedy of absence in these policy discussions— how cruel it is that millions can’t afford to get sick, go to school or grow old. Make no mistake about it, though: There is a less acute but still deeply damaging cost to the millions who ostensibly “win” that battle for life and dignity.
You know what? I will say something about participation medals: I love them. I think we should have more of them. I’m glad my son got one from that tournament. He will no doubt take it home and look at it admiringly and put it on the pile on his dresser with other prized belongings that I’m not allowed to throw out [currently: a collection of very cool paper airplanes that look like dragons, a map of Portland’s public transit system and (sigh) a zip lock bag of leaves… whatever]. The fact that he received one for losing so badly will not make him less likely to want to practice soccer. He begs my wife to play with him every night because it’s fun! Perhaps someday in the future, he will find it less fun and he will stop practicing. When he does so, he will probably work hard at something else instead.
I sincerely hope that all the kids on that bigger, faster, better team are having a blast as well. I hope that they begged their parents to travel to a tournament in another city because they were just amped to shoot some goals and watch motel cable. I hope none of those families have anything riding on an imagined pathway from being a nine-year-old on a good team to an Olympic Development Program and then on to a Division I scholarship. I hope neither parents nor children are implicitly seeking validation from all this. I hope they had fun winning, but I hope they didn’t only have fun winning. I’m really glad they all got medals.
I want all those kids to get big, shiny participation medals because the fact that they all showed up together does actually matter quite a bit. It’s a good start! In my ideal future, we’d respect eight and nine-year-olds in Target shin guards enough to ask them to really wrestle with what “showing up” means— what it feels like to truly know your teammates, how to make a game fun for everybody even if one team is clearly better, and how you make it work when it seems like there won’t be enough of something (playing time, coaches’ attention, post-game Capri Suns, etc.).
I want all this not because I believe it will better protect fragile eight-and-nine-year-old American egos, but, quite frankly, as a salve against fragile adult American egos. Even more so, I want it because I don’t think the skills that we adult Americans have metabolized over a lifetime are actually all that useful. If the challenge of the 21st Century is how we are literally going to survive on a planet we’ve already half-destroyed, how does more “entrepreneurship” and individual hustle get us there? If contemporary scarcity is a distribution rather than a production issue, how are we supposed to solve it by following the life advice of millionaires and billionaires? If the question at the heart of the American experiment is whether we’ll ever evolve from “liberty and justice for White men” to “liberty and justice for all,” what good is millions of Americans running millions of individual races against one another?
My soccer-loving, tournament-losing son and his not-currently-enrolled-in-any-group-activities-because-come-on-she’s-four-years-old sister attend an elementary school that, thanks to U.S. News and World Report’s new Elementary School Rankings, is worse than 772 schools in Wisconsin and better than 257 others. It’s a dumb ratings system, of course, but if it disappeared tomorrow we’d still have Greatschools.org and White Parent Facebook Groups and two hundred fifty years of believing that schools are a commodity and not a public good. There is another way to do schooling, of course. As our friends in Finland are always more than happy to remind us- you can create something quite beautiful and democracy-enriching in a world without private schools, where students and teachers aren’t ranked against one another, where being smarter than isn’t the goal. It isn’t a utopia, but it sure does seem to create a set of students more able to engage in the art of shared life together rather than bludgeon each other in a race to a finish line. It’s no wonder that Finland and its Nordic neighbors have such a long, beautiful tradition of cooperatives and democratized, non-market-mediated institutions.
We don’t get that option— one which, by the way, sounds so much less exhausting than what we’re stuck with now— if we’re still addicted to the competition. We don’t get it if we still primarily care about a CV full of impressive jobs and unimpeachable educational credentials. We don’t get it without giving up the idea [inhales deeply] that our self worth is tied to our ability to attest to our children’s giftedness or whether our daughter is the best flutist in the first grade or the stylish new backsplash in our kitchen or whether we’ve tried that new recipe from the New York Times, you know the one, no, not the Alison Roman one, didn’t you hear she’s been canceled for years now… speaking of which, did you see that article in the Atlantic about how white women shouldn’t write about racism anymore… you didn’t? Well, whatever you do, don’t write about racism anymore, but also make sure you speak up against those anti-CRT Karens, because White Silence is Violence, oh yeah also, are you still using cloth bags, oh jeez you didn’t hear? cloth bags are canceled now too… and wait, what’s this, the district is getting rid of gifted classes? NOT ON MY WATCH! [passes out].
And yes, that laundry list is directed to a specific, easily-needled subset of readers, one which I know quite well and for whom I have a great deal of affection. But the idea that all this is a zero-sum race isn’t isolated to any single race, economic class or ideological grouping. It’s why both pick-up trucks and suburban lots keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s why White, Black, Latino and Asian Christians alike are so attracted to the prosperity gospel. It’s the reason why Trump tells his rally attendees “you’re the elite, you’re smarter, you’re better looking, you have a better future.”
The bad news is that it’s all a lie. There is no race. There’s nothing to win. Or, more precisely, there’s nothing we can win alone. Together though? We have an entire world to win. And doing so will, for sure, take all of our unique individual talents. It will require people who are better at math than other people, people who are better at carpentry, at early childhood development, at music composition and at making cool slam dunks. It doesn’t mean a world without excellence, but it does mean a world where excellence is its own reward. It means giving out way more participation medals and having those participation medals look like guaranteed food and housing and healthcare and education and basic income. It’s about collectively naming and cursing the lie that any of that was ever something that you had to earn, that you had to win. We have nothing to win. But we have everything to gain.
End notes: Just to further prove my credibility as “somebody who REALLY DOES love excellence”… here is Loretta Lynn singing “The Pill.” Do you notice the way she draws out the words “wiiined” and “diiiiiined” and then rushes through “when I was your girl” in the first verse. Jeez!
Ok, to put an even FINER POINT on it, have you heard this Lakeyah and Tee Grizzly song? They don’t just trade verses— they go back and forth like an old-fashioned duet. It’s so good and it all leads up to this part where Tee Grizzly claims that when his haters found out about his success, “they was hurt/they was wounded/I don’t think they’re gonna heal” which is the funniest thing I’ve heard in the past month.
I’m done after this, I promise, but if you’re wondering, “what is the most intense live performance of all time” you would not have guessed “four guys from the accounting department with a very poorly mixed vocal mic.” R.I.P. to The Wrens.