Cooperation vs. Competition

****I’m fully aware that this entry is entirely passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that some people just aren’t worth arguing with, but their mad ravings still sometimes touch on issues that are at least worth talking about. So that’s what I’m doing****

Humans seem a species of extremely contradictory impulses: we cooperate and help each other, but also compete in the most brutal, violent ways with each other. Part of this can simply be explained by in-group vs. out-group behavior, since all social animals behave more cooperatively with their own, while at the same time fiercely fighting other groups. However, to my limited knowledge, animals are usually consistent in how this plays out. For example, bonobo groups seem to consistently be “tolerant”, cooperative, and relatively non-hierarchical, whereas chimpanzee groups seem to be consistently combative (though this seems limited to threats rather than real violence), and strongly hierarchical. Humans on the other hand seem to be able to form both kinds of in-group behavior, to different degrees, and in different combinations. I’m not going to speculate right now why humans have more plasticity in this regard, but I do want to look at what circumstances cause (ohhh fine, “are correlated with” ;-) ) such differences in in-group interaction styles.

For starters, let’s get the racist trope out of the way and admit that the type of interaction doesn’t seem to be genetically correlated; rather, it seems a cultural meme, but one that is extremely deeply ingrained in us, possibly from very early on, and possibly one of the most difficult to alter once it’s taken root. Further, it seems a cultural meme correlated with socioeconomic systems***, as well as the cultural narratives that go with them (for example, the Dutch narrative of “being in it together”(because it they don’t cooperate, they get flooded); vs. the USAmerican narrative of “rugged individualism” and stories of “rags to riches”).

And how precisely do the narratives correlate? Let’s just say that “it’s complicated”1*: human societies aren’t monolithic, static “cultures”, but rather complex webs of more or less dominant and predominant subcultures, with different socio-economic situations and different combinations of narratives. However, most societies do tend to have a dominant narrative that permeates most, if not all, subcultures. And it’s these dominant narratives I want to look at right now**

As I said (and as the link in the last paragraph says), the dominant narrative in the States is that of individual achievement. This doesn’t automatically mean that it’s ruthless, violent, unfair, or whatever, but the focus of the narrative is on hard work and on earning all one’s achievements. Rights and entitlements are limited to the freedom to do something, and the “equality of opportunity”, i.e. freedom from being discriminated against in comparison to others. As I’ve written before, this results sometimes (and especially in subcultures with white, male, middle-class privilege) in the disappearance of systemic explanations. From this is born the perspective that everything that interferes with individual equality is unfair, even if it exists to fix systemic imbalances. Similarly, it is only considered fair to have gotten something by earning it****, and any sort of support from the government is considered cheating others2. IOW getting something with assistance for which someone else had to bust their ass is automatically considered unfair. This creates the paranoid narrative of slashing social programs because somewhere someone will be cheating the system.
It doesn’t help of course that individual achievement, in the context of capitalism, means competing with absolutely everyone else for everything. Again, the only rule of fairness is “freedom from discrimination”; beyond that, it’s every person for themselves. The cultural empathy begins to break down at this point, and people with whom you were previously merely in competition within the hierarchy of your in-group begin shifting out and becoming more and more members of an out-group. I’m not even going to contemplate the degree of sociopathy possible in a situation when virtually everyone you see in your daily life is a “them” rather than an “us”, but the virulence of the teabaggers and of USAmerican religious groups aren’t what I’d consider a sign of a healthy society.

On the other hand, certain European cultures (most notably the Scandinavian ones, but it varies) have, to varying degrees, narratives of cooperation. Because they are still capitalist countries, these narratives are somewhat muted, but they do show up in regards to issues that are not part of the market economy, such as education, healthcare, and welfare provisions (and in some cases even law enforcement; a contrast between the way the Swedes approach this issue and the way the States do makes that pretty damn clear, I think). In such narratives of cooperation, all people are considered to be equally entitled to a certain level of service as an inherent right. As such, they are provided on a collective basis (taxes), and those who are disadvantaged are expected to receive extra assistance, so that they can take advantage of these services in the same way and to the same degree that the already privileged do. The sense of fairness is not violated by this, because everybody expects that they would receive the very same assistance if they found themselves in that situation. On the other hand, refusing to contribute one’s fair share is seen as unfair, and will result in hostile feelings or actions against those who are perceived as cheating (this is also why these systems only work with taxes, rather than voluntary donations: voluntary participation always leaves behind that sneaky feeling that others aren’t contributing their fair share)
This collective narrative of “we’re all in it together” can provide bridges between disparate groups, or at least weaken the competitiveness between subcultures within a society (the existence of violent subcultures is a pretty damn good sign that something somewhere failed in the system, as far as I’m concerned). Even if a particular individual may not empathically identify with their society and the people they share that society with (in the sense of feeling part of a real community), they still will not see others as their competition, as part of “them”. The othering only happens when, like I said, some people are perceived as not contributing a fair share to the common good, hence the occasional outbreak of the “Tall poppy syndrome”, and general hatred of people who use tax havens and cheat on their taxes.

And now, finally, to the point: the clash between these narratives of cooperation and competition is what causes certain people to starfart about “leeches” who are trying to steal other people’s spots on the employment ladder by wanting (or worse yet, feeling entitled to) advantages others didn’t get. When in reality, there is no “wanting advantages others didn’t get”, but rather the feeling that everybody is entitled to these advantages, according to their needs, which of course includes oneself.

Besides, I couldn’t give a flying fuck about climbing the employment ladder. I already have a job, and one which blissfully avoids the need for ladders and bosses and co-workers. The reason I want that university degree is because I want a job in which I can actually help make the world a bit better. My current job, as nice as it is, is completely meaningless and useless. I’d like to do something constructive, to basically make people better, not compete with them. Competition is stressful, and therefore not good for my mental health. Fuck competition.

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*this one is from a book, so it’s long and it’s missing 4 pages due to preview restrictions, but it’s very interesting; also, pp. 85-92 have a discussion of the terms/concepts, but there’s two pages missing there, too. Also, I so need to buy that book someday, I think!

**though, thinking about how dominant narratives combine with alternative ones to create some truly fucked up combinations made me think about the teabaggers (the ones that aren’t just plain old racist assclowns, that is); but I’ll write about that tomorrow ( or the day after :-p), because it’s already late, and I haven’t gotten any work done yet.

***this may be true in different ways. For one, there’s a strong correlation between inequality and competitive interaction (most noticeably physical violence, but also predominance of libertarian and/or macho attitudes, as well as punitiveness), and inequality itself is obviously caused by the proportions of socialism and capitalism in any given mixed economy; but it is also possible that cultural narratives shape both the type of interaction AND the socioeconomic model.

****but of course not being aware of one’s own privilege makes it difficult or impossible to perceive the advantages one got a priori, without having earned them.

29 comments on “Cooperation vs. Competition

  1. Walton says:

    ****I’m fully aware that this entry is entirely passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that some people just aren’t worth arguing with, but their mad ravings still sometimes touch on issues that are at least worth talking about. So that’s what I’m doing****

    I’m assuming this is about broboxley? I can’t figure out what’s wrong with that guy, or why he just randomly butted into an otherwise sensible discussion and launched a completely pointless and misconceived personal attack on you. He seems to have a serious chip on his shoulder about something, as this isn’t the first time he’s gone crazy like that.

    On the main point:

    The reason I want that university degree is because I want a job in which I can actually help make the world a bit better. My current job, as nice as it is, is completely meaningless and useless. I’d like to do something constructive, to basically make people better, not compete with them. Competition is stressful, and therefore not good for my mental health. Fuck competition.

    I feel the same way: I want to be a lawyer in the hope of actually doing something constructive to help people. That’s the only reason, any more, why I care about my results in finals. I’m not looking to earn tons of money even if I do well; I’d rather kwok myself with ten Leica rangefinders than work in a godawful corporate City law firm, and I don’t give a shit about money or “prestige”. I just want to do something that I think is worthwhile, so that I can get up in the morning and go to work and not be bored out of my mind.

    Yet Oxford finals are absurdly competition-focused, and people – even people who aren’t trying to get into the “magic circle” law firms – get really, really competitive. I honestly wish the whole place were less elitist. Around here, in some circles, it’s all seen as competition after competition; exams, job interviews, networking and getting ahead of your peers, and so on. We’re all constantly being evaluated and judged. And I think this is true of our society as a whole. As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, dating and relationships, too, tend to be a competitive thing. And sometimes I just get really pissed off, and/or depressed, at the way life is treated as one long series of competitions dividing the world into “winners” and “losers”.

    I don’t think, though, that we can do much about this in the end. Perhaps the competition, bad as it is for human happiness, wellbeing and mental health, is an essential motivating factor to make people work and be productive.

  2. Jadehawk says:

    I don’t think, though, that we can do much about this in the end. Perhaps the competition, bad as it is for human happiness, wellbeing and mental health, is an essential motivating factor to make people work and be productive.

    oh Walton, that’s just stupid, for several reasons:

    1)the economy exists to serve the people, not the other way round. If more wellbeing can be achieved at lower levels of productivity, then so be it.

    2)We have a worldwide labor glut, and we’re neck-deep in shit no one needs (disposable bathroom towels and singing fish FTL); lower productivity, more equitably distributed, would most likely be better for us anyway.

    3)Today, there already exist countries with lower intra-cultural toxic competitiveness and more equality. They have healthy, happy citizens, and very high productivity, which occasionally outperforms the USA (the most toxically competitive society in existence) in terms of productivity per worker per hour. So your dichotomy of happiness and productivity isn’t even based on fact.

  3. Jadehawk says:

    as for broboxley, his main issue seems to be my attitude. To which i can only say that of course I feel entitled to access to higher education*. I feel everybody is, and I’m part of everybody. I guess he feels that I should either self educate for free (because obviously I haven’t done that [/sarcasm]), or pay for “the piece of paper”, as if it were a commodity.

    And apparently I also absolutely must be grateful and prostrate myself at the feet of those graciously willing to give me the money to go to school, because i don’t deserve an education; no, it’s being handed to be as an act of charity, and I should damn well remember it!

    What a nasty attitude.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    *not so much to the degree itself, since I hate grade inflation and perfunctory passing. If the point of universities is to teach, then only those who have actually learned something should pass and receive their degree.

  4. Paul says:

    1)the economy exists to serve the people, not the other way round. If more wellbeing can be achieved at lower levels of productivity, then so be it.

    I’m a bit out of my depth, but that does not seem self-explanatory. “The economy” only exists as an emergent phenomenon, and does not “serve” anyone in and of itself. I agree that we should seek to manipulate/regulate/use it to serve the people, but that is discretion exercised on our part instead of some intrinsic property of the economy itself.

    because i don’t deserve an education; no, it’s being handed to be as an act of charity, and I should damn well remember it!

    Note that he doesn’t consider his free autiding of college courses that must be paid for by someone else to be charity. Nor does he consider the free books at the library one can use to educate oneself to be charity.

  5. Jadehawk says:

    I agree that we should seek to manipulate/regulate/use it to serve the people, but that is discretion exercised on our part instead of some intrinsic property of the economy itself.

    that’s pretty much how it’s meant: you control and change the economic system to benefit as many people as well as possible, rather than controlling and changing people to achieve maximum economic performance.

  6. Walton says:

    1)the economy exists to serve the people, not the other way round. If more wellbeing can be achieved at lower levels of productivity, then so be it.

    I agree. But surely we do need some level of incentive to productivity?

    Let’s imagine a much less competitive, more egalitarian society, Society A, in which everyone was entitled to a decent standard of living at state expense, regardless of his/her productivity. Let’s imagine also that the social pressure to compete and succeed, and the whole obsession in our society with maximising one’s wealth and buying lots of stuff, was largely absent in Society A.

    The question is this: in Society A, where is the incentive for anyone to actually work or produce things at all? Sure, some people in Society A will certainly choose to work – out of a sense of social conscience or moral obligation, because they love and care about their jobs, or because they want more money than the average. But are there enough of these people who work because they want to work, rather than because society pressures them to work? Would there be enough wealth-producers in Society A to be able to support the whole population?

    We have a worldwide labor glut, and we’re neck-deep in shit no one needs (disposable bathroom towels and singing fish FTL)

    I don’t disagree with your main point here, but as a tangential aside: aren’t disposable bathroom towels better for hygiene? Likewise with using kitchen paper instead of tea-towels? (Admittedly, I don’t know whether that old popular factoid that “the average tea-towel contains more harmful bacteria than the average toilet seat” is just an urban myth; many of these things that “everybody knows” turn out to be untrue on closer investigation.) This is an open question, not a rhetorical one, as I really don’t know much about bacteriology or infection control, other than the various things that “everybody knows” and the dubious things the purveyors of anti-bacterial hygiene products tell us in their advertising.

  7. Jadehawk says:

    I agree. But surely we do need some level of incentive to productivity?

    sure, but competition against each other isn’t the only way to achieve this.

    in Society A, where is the incentive for anyone to actually work or produce things at all? Sure, some people in Society A will certainly choose to work – out of a sense of social conscience or moral obligation, because they love and care about their jobs, or because they want more money than the average. But are there enough of these people who work because they want to work, rather than because society pressures them to work? Would there be enough wealth-producers in Society A to be able to support the whole population?

    meaningful occupation of one’s time seems to be important to human wellbeing. permanently unemployed people, even when they are not acutely in need, suffer often from depression and other similar problems. People do like to be needed and be useful and productive (if this weren’t true, housewives in the 50’s wouldn’t have been so utterly miserable with their living conditions).

    What there isn’t is the motivation to perform meaningless, unsatisfying for unreasonable amounts of time and/or for unreasonably little reward. but like I said, not only do we have a global labor glut already, most of the work performed right now isn’t even useful (and in terms of energy and resource usage and pollution creation, it is actively detrimental).

    And like I said, societies with low competitiveness already exist, and are highly productive. We can argue about the mechanism for this, but you can’t argue away the fact that competitiveness doesn’t seem to be a necessary requirement for productiveness.

    I don’t disagree with your main point here, but as a tangential aside: aren’t disposable bathroom towels better for hygiene?

    only if you never do laundry. the germophobia is indeed nothing but empty hype used to sell disposable products and more of more expensive cleaning products.

    Besides, I know quite a few people who don’t bother with papertowels in the kitchen either (including myself, but I wouldn’t use myself as an example of hygenic living conditions for obvious reasons).

    Admittedly, I don’t know whether that old popular factoid that “the average tea-towel contains more harmful bacteria than the average toilet seat” is just an urban myth

    so do computer keyboards. it’s because the average person cleans their toilet far more often than their keyboards; it’s pretty meaningless. (and incidentally, the large amount of harmful bacteria in your kitchen are a primary result of mass production of meat; but that’s a separate topic)

  8. Walton says:

    And like I said, societies with low competitiveness already exist, and are highly productive. We can argue about the mechanism for this, but you can’t argue away the fact that competitiveness doesn’t seem to be a necessary requirement for productiveness.

    Sure, European societies are slightly less competition-obsessed than American society. But the competition is still there. Every developed country of which I’m aware, for instance, has an educational system based on competitive exams; from an early age, kids get evaluated and judged and measured against their peers, and told that they have to study hard and get results in order to secure their future careers. And in pretty much any system, people have to compete for jobs, and the competition gets stiffer the more prestigious the job, hence the whole (often soul-crushing) process of being interviewed and judged against other candidates. At every stage of life, people get divided into “winners” and “losers” according to society’s criteria. So I don’t think humanity’s competition-fetish is necessarily a product of one particular social model, and I’m not convinced it can be eliminated. I agree with you that the competition-fetish is an awful thing for happiness and mental health, and seems designed to crush systematically the self-esteem of those who don’t jump through society’s arbitrary hoops. But I suspect that even if we got rid of all these forms of competition, new ones would spring up.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    The comic at link 2 is just delicious.

    The most extreme case of the “we’re in this together” attitude I know surfaced after the PISA tests when journalists from all over the world flocked to Finland to figure out what’s so great about the school system there. One teacher said “we (as a country) simply can’t afford to fail anyone”.

    I’m assuming this is about broboxley?

    It’s absolutely fascinating how much good use that guy is in the right hands!!! :-)

    I can’t figure out what’s wrong with that guy, or why he just randomly butted into an otherwise sensible discussion and launched a completely pointless and misconceived personal attack on you. He seems to have a serious chip on his shoulder about something, as this isn’t the first time he’s gone crazy like that.

    Not only that, he’s also completely incapable of reading for understanding as far as I can tell, like Al B. Quirky.

    Yet Oxford finals are absurdly competition-focused, and people – even people who aren’t trying to get into the “magic circle” law firms – get really, really competitive.

    How do you actually get people to see an exam as a competition? In my limited experience, that’s remarkably difficult. I vividly remember the final exam of the national chemistry olympics (in the last year of highschool). The teacher who was going to supervise the exam actually said we were to regard not the teachers but each other as mortal enemies this time, because we were to compete against each other for entry into the global chemistry olympics. In spite of this, I still witnessed some, uh, consensual cheating going on.

    I agree. But surely we do need some level of incentive to productivity?

    As the Soviet Union and China have shown, all that’s needed is the absence of incentives against productivity. Did Deng Xiaoping create any incentives other than saying “it’s glorious to be rich” when he ended the communist economy and triggered long-lasting, insanely fast economic growth?

    aren’t disposable bathroom towels better for hygiene? Likewise with using kitchen paper instead of tea-towels?

    It’s simply not necessary. I mean, have you ever got ill that way? :-) Bacteria can’t survive on a dry towel, or on anything dry. Unless they belong to a sporulating species and have already formed spores (which takes several hours), but, I mean, when was the last tetanus outbreak.

    Worse yet: our immune system is in overdrive to compensate for immune-suppressing parasites (tapeworms, liver flukes…) most of us haven’t got anymore. It needs something to do. This is considered to be among the reasons for the recent increase in allergies. Exposure is of course also how immunity is formed.

    Besides, I know quite a few people who don’t bother with papertowels in the kitchen either

    Last time I lived in Paris, I didn’t bother buying any, out of sheer laziness. The maybe 5 times I really needed one (within half a year), I used a used or half-used handkerchief… :-)

    Every developed country of which I’m aware, for instance, has an educational system based on competitive exams

    Not at all. Everyone who gets past an absolute standard passes; it’s not relative (as in the 10 best candidates passing regardless of how good they actually are in absolute terms). At least where I come from, most of the time.

    from an early age, kids get evaluated and judged and measured against their peers

    In France, yes, where everyone is constantly told they’re, like, 19th-best of the class today. That would be considered completely ludicrous in Austria, for one.

    Worse yet: imagine how often I’ve been called a brainer. I was implicitly accused of being competitive. (I never was, it was trolling, but rising too high above the… modal value leaves one open to accusations. I’ve read several stories from Germany of people deliberately making errors in exams to avoid just this.)

    And in pretty much any system, people have to compete for jobs, and the competition gets stiffer the more prestigious the job, hence the whole (often soul-crushing) process of being interviewed and judged against other candidates.

    That’s the so-called “real life”, which comes, you know, later. :-)

  10. Walton says:

    Not at all. Everyone who gets past an absolute standard passes; it’s not relative (as in the 10 best candidates passing regardless of how good they actually are in absolute terms). At least where I come from, most of the time.

    I know; my exams are marked to an objective standard too, at least in theory, so we’re not technically “competing” against each other. (Though this is not the case for some other subjects at Oxford; exams for some science degrees are norm-referenced, so in each year the top X number of people get a first, the bottom X number of people fail, and so on, irrespective of how good they are in objective terms.)

    But that doesn’t stop people being competitive when it comes to law finals. Many of my peers either want to be barristers (which is insanely competitive to get into) or want to be solicitors in the top “magic circle” City law firms (also insanely competitive to get into), both of which require good marks in finals. So the environment feels, at times, oppressively performance-focused.

    So when I said “competitive exams”, I didn’t necessarily mean “exams marked to a norm-referenced standard”. All exams, however they are marked, are in a sense competitive; some people will do better than others, people get judged and evaluated, and how well you do affects the rest of your life. That’s what an exam is.

    Obviously, I’m not advocating the abolition of exams. Rather, I’m using them to illustrate my point that most, if not all, modern societies are competitive to some extent. The only way to end competition would be to eliminate all aspects of meritocracy and competence-evaluation from society, which would plainly not lead to a functioning society.

    Obviously, I’d rather live in a less competitive society. But I’m pointing out that there’s only so far we can go in this respect, while having a society that still functions.

  11. Jadehawk says:

    How do you actually get people to see an exam as a competition? In my limited experience, that’s remarkably difficult. I vividly remember the final exam of the national chemistry olympics (in the last year of highschool). The teacher who was going to supervise the exam actually said we were to regard not the teachers but each other as mortal enemies this time, because we were to compete against each other for entry into the global chemistry olympics. In spite of this, I still witnessed some, uh, consensual cheating going on.

    oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. In fact, my high-school run like a learning collective. Not only were the exams cooperative, so was the homework. Except for classes where it needed to be individualistic, only 4-5 people did homework (different 4-5 for each class), and the rest of us copied. Cut down immensely on the amount of busy-work each of us had to do. From 7th grade up, the only homework I ever did was Latin, and occasional essays for German class.

    But it only worked because each of us was good at something, so that everyone contributed to the collective somehow (not necessarily in the academic sense, either)

    ——

    Walton, I have a somewhat lengthy response to you, but I just do not have the time to write it out properly right now, so you’ll have to be patient ;-)

  12. David Marjanović says:

    only 4-5 people did homework (different 4-5 for each class)

    Oh yeah, that’s normal (even though yours is the extreme case). Nobody would get the idea of not letting random classmates copy their homework, let alone not answer their questions. In the later years I got asked a lot about everything :-þ

  13. David Marjanović says:

    All exams, however they are marked, are in a sense competitive; some people will do better than others, people get judged and evaluated, and how well you do affects the rest of your life.

    This only becomes competitive when people start comparing each other’s outcomes and attaching values to that. That doesn’t happen on its own.

    The extreme case is my university experience. Austrian professors can deal out marks as they damn well please*, so everyone accepts that the absolute standard is nowhere near objective; as a result, everyone cares about nothing else than not failing, and nobody compares each other’s marks because marks simply aren’t comparable. People who had straight As throughout highschool very quickly become content with writing a D much of the time.

    * I’ve expounded on this a couple of times on Pharyngula… if you feel unfairly judged, all you can do is sue, and for obvious reasons that doesn’t occur. Some professors take the Gauss curve of results and put the C in the middle; some put the D in the middle; some reportedly look at your immatriculation number and fail you without even looking at your exam if they think it’s too early for you to take that course…

  14. Walton says:

    The extreme case is my university experience. Austrian professors can deal out marks as they damn well please*, so everyone accepts that the absolute standard is nowhere near objective; as a result, everyone cares about nothing else than not failing, and nobody compares each other’s marks because marks simply aren’t comparable.

    Seriously?! It’s nothing like that here. My degree is assessed on nine final exams, which I will be taking between 31st May – 11th June. All law students in the university (somewhere between one-two hundred students) take the exams at the same time. These exams are set by a board of examiners and standardised across the whole university, and marked “blindly” – that is, you only write your candidate number and not your name on the paper, to avoid any possibility of bias in case the examiner knows the student. My nine exams assess all the subjects I’ve studied since the end of my first year. (I had another three official exams in my first year, called “Moderations”, which I had to pass but which don’t count towards my final degree result.)

    There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity in the marking – it’s impossible to be 100 percent objective in marking an essay question. But the examiners produce a markscheme every year which sets out consistent standards, and some of the papers are “double-marked” by more than one examiner to make sure the result is agreed.

  15. Walton says:

    Oh yeah, that’s normal (even though yours is the extreme case). Nobody would get the idea of not letting random classmates copy their homework, let alone not answer their questions. In the later years I got asked a lot about everything :-þ

    People did copy each other’s work in the schools I went to, but this was a practice very strongly discouraged by the teachers. And towards the end of secondary school, it would have been pointless: since what mattered was ultimately not the quality of our work in class, but on how well we did on the GCSE (taken at age 16) and A-Level (taken at ages 17 and 18) exams. These exams are standardised across the whole country, and marked by external examiners to an objective standard. (There was also coursework for some subjects, but again, this was set and marked to external standards.) The job of the teachers, from about age 15 onwards, was to coach us to get through the exams and get the highest marks we could get.

    GCSE and A-Level exams are, as I said, standardised across the whole country (though there are different exam boards – Edexcel, OCR, AQA and so on – which set a slightly different curriculum, but they are required to mark to the same standard). Exams are taken in strict supervised conditions and cheating is almost impossible (if anyone were bright enough to cheat successfully, they’d be bright enough to do well in the exam anyway). So there was no element of “co-operation”; it was all, ultimately, about how well you as an individual did in your exams.

  16. Walton says:

    I should also add that even before the GCSE and A-Level exams, there are three other sets of externally-marked exams in English state schools, called SATs (not to be confused with the American college admissions tests). These are in English, mathematics and sciece: the first set of SATs is taken at age seven, the second at age eleven and the third at age fourteen. Unlike GCSE and A-Level marks, SATs results don’t matter much for the individual kid’s future; rather, the purpose of the SAT is to assess different schools against each other and determine their place in the national league-tables.* So the teachers worked very hard to coach us to make sure we got the best possible marks in SATs, because they, and the school as a whole, looked bad if we didn’t. In essence, therefore, most of the English education system, from a fairly early age, consists of cramming for external exams.

    (*The purpose of school league-tables is supposedly to “monitor performance”. In reality, they tend to have a self-perpetuating effect: when a school is doing well, middle-class parents want to send their kids there, so they buy up houses in the school’s catchment area so as to get their kids into the desired school. This leads to the best schools being oversubscribed, while the bad schools tend to get worse and worse, as all the parents who can afford to do so simply leave the area to avoid sending their kids to the bad school.)

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Seriously?!

    Yes.

    Except that standardization of one exam across a whole university isn’t an issue because a course is almost never offered by two professors at the same time anyway. I’ve had courses with 500 students in the same lecture hall.

    One big difference is that every professor must offer 3 exam dates per semester for every course they’ve taught. (Some don’t know this and only offer 3 per year*, illegally… but still.) So you don’t get all 500 showing up for the exam at the same time.

    That said, I have no idea how this differs between faculties or even institutes. It’s entirely possible that law students are examined your way in Vienna. Mol. bio. professors who are based in the biology building are present during their written exams, mol. bio. professors who are based in the mol. bio. building at the other end of the city are not present during their exams and leave supervision to clueless graduate students (if you have a question about, like, what a question means, you’re out of luck), even though most of their exams are in the geosciences building right next to the biology building.

    Just writing your number instead of your name wouldn’t work, because AFAIK it’s very easy for professors to look up the name when they know the number. In contrast, it is illegal (and, therefore, rarely done) to publish exam results with names; that’s where the numbers come in. (That’s a big difference to France.)

    Professors are, apparently, not even required to make clear beforehand how many points you need for which mark (even in subjects where it’s easy to count correct answers or mistakes). In school, F is defined by law as “less than half correct”, so, if you get exactly half of your test right, you get a D; in university, every professor has their own definition.

    * Even though, in terms of organization, there simply is no such thing as a year at Austria’s universities. The biggest unit of time is the semester (October to January/February and March to June/September).

    People did copy each other’s work in the schools I went to, but this was a practice very strongly discouraged by the teachers.

    Same over here. That didn’t mean much more than that copying was more difficult than copying verbatim.

    It only reinforced the view of the teachers as The Enemy and of “we’re all in this together” among the kids.

    And towards the end of secondary school, it would have been pointless: since what mattered was ultimately not the quality of our work in class, but on how well we did on the GCSE (taken at age 16) and A-Level (taken at ages 17 and 18) exams.

    AFAIK, admission to the GCS A-level equivalent requires not having failed the last year of school over here… (No GCSE equivalent.)

    (There was also coursework for some subjects, but again, this was set and marked to external standards.)

    Interesting.

    The job of the teachers, from about age 15 onwards, was to coach us to get through the exams

    Same over here, except that countrywide standardization is only being introduced now.

    national league-tables

    No such thing over here!

    That doesn’t mean all schools have the same prestige. They just don’t do anything about it. :-) For instance, my little sister is currently finishing one that, despite being public rather than private, has a reputation of being for rich people* and offering a good, old-fashioned education**; it was founded in fucking 1553 (yes, fifteen), so… it’s just not possible to compete with that. (Website in German.)

    * Indeed, my sister’s classmates shower her with expensive, ridiculous fashion items, apparently out of sympathy! In turn, my sister starts cackling madly when she contemplates what presents to give to them for their birthdays because they plainly already have everything!
    ** It’s one of very few schools that still offer Ancient Greek. At the other end of the spectrum, my Chinese courses were all held in that school, even though they were taught by a professor from the Economics University who had no affiliation to the school that I know of; he was paid directly by the city magistrate.

    In essence, therefore, most of the English education system, from a fairly early age, consists of cramming for external exams.

    :-( Reminds me of the US No Child’s Behind Left Act.

  18. Walton says:

    One other point I missed on first reading of the original post:

    …and inequality itself is obviously caused by the proportions of socialism and capitalism in any given mixed economy…

    Obviously this is true up to a point, but I think it’s too simplistic. Yes, more highly capitalist economies tend to be highly unequal. But serious inequality can arise in state-controlled sectors of the economy too: cf the elite “mandarins”, from public-school and Oxbridge backgrounds, who traditionally dominate the highest ranks of the British civil service. Or, say, the “apparatchik” party elites in Communist countries, who got preferential access to everything for themselves and their families. (As I’m sure you know, the former Soviet Union used to have lanes on roads set aside exclusively for the use of senior Party officials.) Similarly, France has traditionally had a large public sector and high public expenditures compared to other Western countries, but the French state sector and education system are also known for being highly competitive and elite-dominated. So in itself, socialising a sector of the economy doesn’t necessarily lead to greater equality; obviously it can do so, but it doesn’t always.

    Conversely, Japan is a very capitalist country – albeit on a corporatist, rather than a free-market, model – where the economy is traditionally dominated by a few large corporate conglomerates. Yet its income inequality is lower than most Western countries. (I’m not in any way identifying Japan as a good model – it isn’t – but I’m just pointing out that your claim that more capitalism = more inequality is perhaps too simplistic.)

  19. David Marjanović says:

    the French state sector and education system are also known for being highly competitive and elite-dominated

    …and people who have gone through an École Normale Supérieure or École Normale d’Administration give each other all the jobs in the state sector (except for those reportedly reserved for the Freemasons) and in politics.

    In Austria, this is done by (lifetime) members of a conservative Catholic students’ organization (it was liberal in 1848 by the standards of that time). Fortunately it’s now dying out because “conservative university student” is slowly turning into a contradiction in terms. :-þ My grandfather and my granduncle tried to get my brother and me in, to no avail. We’re not interested in remarkably stupid beer-drinking rituals.

  20. Jinny says:

    This 15 year-old Pharyngulette would like to add you on Facebook but can’t find the correct David Marjanović to add as a starting point to find everyone else. My name is pretty unique. It is Jinny Graf. Would go into further detail if i could this topic but 1) should go to bed 2) haven’t really lived long enough to make a comment 3) goes to a top 5 selective school in NSW, Australia. *runs ands ducks* you guys are awesome BTW. best thing to read during art and health classes. i’ve learn’t so much from you all.

  21. Jadehawk says:

    Neither David nor I have a Facebook account, so you’d have to find someone else as a starting point, sorry :-)

  22. Jadehawk says:

    *sigh*

    I know I promised you a proper response, Walton, but I seem to be suffering from a bit of a brain-freeze lately, so I’ll have to make it an abridged bullet-point version, and it’s not going to address all the points I wanted to address. sorry.

    1)My use of certain countries as examples for more cooperative, egalitarian thinking is not the whole argument, merely an example of what is possible even within modern, capitalist, growth-economy-based paradigms.

    2)My actual argument is that humans are capable of functioning just fine outside of these paradigms, and in some cases these changes would be for the better. The existence of some competition in modern more cooperative states is irrelevant to it, since none of them leave the aforementioned paradigms.

    3)Competition most likely is an inextricable part of human nature, but in-group competition doesn’t seem to be, and therefore there’s absolutely no need to foster any such thing. As for out-group competition… well, we’ve already reduced a lot of it to the point where it expresses itself almost entirely in sports. Seems that those base instincts can be channeled into harmless areas relatively well.

    4)Competitive individuals will exist within all societies. Societies which depend for group survival on cooperation usually have cultural means of reigning them in so as to not endanger group-cohesion. And while there’s no reason for a complex culture to go that far, we need to reverse the trend of letting these competitive individuals attain important positions within a society. Government and justice are too important to be left to individuals who see everything as a pissing-contest and for whom winning is the only important thing.

    5)The only way to keep the competitive ones out of important positions is to remove the testosterone-poisoned structures that basically necessitate aggressive behavior as a means for career advancement. This will be necessary anyway, since it’s incredibly sexist (an aggressive man is a go-getter; an aggressive woman is a man-eating harpy) and not very utilitarian, since it promotes alpha-male behavior over competence. And we definitely need more competence, rather than alpha-male behavior. Some businesses already have made those changes, but they’re usually either woman-centered businesses, or co-ops, and therefore not yet in the mainstream. It should be a more promoted model though.

    6)And the inevitable competitive people within a society? well, just as we’ve outsourced out-group competition to sports and entertainment, we should attempt to do as much as possible of that with in-group competition; and it should theoretically be easier, because out-group competition seems an evolutionary necessity, whereas in-group competition isn’t.

    7)Standarized disclaimer about caveats and imperfect implementation and how that’s utterly irrelevant, since even getting a bit closer to the goals I mention is better than nothing.

  23. Jadehawk says:

    on that note, I definitely need to look more into Game Theory…

  24. David Marjanović says:

    can’t find the correct David Marjanović

    In the Endless Thread I was told there are seven of me on Facebook already, but, as Jadehawk says, none of them is me… I had no idea my name was so common…

    haven’t really lived long enough to make a comment

    If that were an argument, I’d never have commented on anything. Ever. I’m trying to think of an exception, but I can’t find any (…though it’s 2:28 AM over here).

    Game Theory

    Also useful for evolutionary biology. The same few patterns occur again and again.

  25. Jinny says:

    sorry ’bout that. return to regular scheduling. what i might know i can’t say because i don’t enough time. i have an education debate at school tomorrow and half-yearlies in 3 weeks.

  26. Jadehawk says:

    no worries :-)

    just keep on reading, and add to the discussion when you have time and ideas, both ehre and on Pharyngula itself. Despite our reputation, we don’t bite (much)

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Despite our reputation, we don’t bite (much)

    …and often we prefer to bite each other rather than newbies.

  28. johannes says:

    If those in a position of authority try to teach people cooperation and turn school, or university, or the workplace into one big assessment center, the result will be, ironically, more competition: the one with the best “soft skills” aka the best ability to become a cog in a machine wins.

  29. Jadehawk says:

    you don’t “teach” cooperation any more than you teach fucking. it’s something that happens naturally given the right circumstances, and forcing it will indeed work out really badly. What you DO need to do is remove obstacles to cooperation, however.

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