“Intelligence plus character- that is the true goal of education.” This quote by Martin Luther King Jr succinctly summarizes the purpose of receiving an education. In order to push students’ boundaries and to inculcate in them values like determination and diligence, some believe that an element of competition and ranking is necessary. However, in my opinion, if competition is in excess, the education system will be rendered counter-productive due to the negative effects of encouraging hyper-competitiveness in students. Therefore, while competition is an important factor in molding people of character that will contribute to society, safeguards need to be in place to ensure that the extent of competition in the education system does not become excessive or obsessive. 

Why is competition important? One of the key reasons is that it offers a very clear goal and motivation for students to do better at their studies. Take the Chinese education system for example. Though certain people would term it as ‘extreme’, it is undeniable that China has managed to produce many bright talents especially in the area of science and mathematics due to the competition in schools. With such a large student population and a relatively tiny number of spaces in the most prestigious local universities like Beijing University, competition is a motivator for students as it pushes them to secure a bright future on their own. This is loosely based on the Darwinian idea that only the fittest survive, which encourages students to strive to be classified as the ‘fittest’ and reap the rewards of being so. Therefore, it is believed that competition is necessary to bring out the best in people, and also to stretch their potential.

Moreover, we should recognize that competition does not always mean competition with one’s peers in school. It also includes competition against oneself. This is the reason that schools often have awards for “Best Progress” and “Most Improved” student. Such awards allow students to also compete with themselves and prevent them from becoming complacent. It also pushes students to continuously strive for improvement in all areas of their studies, which will ultimately help increase the overall intelligence in students and promote a sense of perseverance in them- a very important character trait in today’s society. Therefore, this demonstrates how competition with oneself in education is important as it emphasizes personal growth and self-improvement to achieve one’s fullest potential. 

However, the idea of competition in schools has met with a lot of opposition in recent years, and for good reasons too. Excessive competition can definitely be unhealthy- and there is proof of this. In Singapore, one of the most scandalous cases was a recent “Sex-for-grades” case 

where a university student gave sexual favours to a professor in order to score good grades. Many blamed the intensely competitive education system, where so much emphasis was placed on doing well in one’s studies, that it is almost as if one’s entire life depends on grades in Singapore. Other than in Singapore, the number of teachers flagged statewide in Dallas for having sex and other inappropriate relationships with students continues to rise, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In 2018, the TEA opened 429 cases into inappropriate student-educator relationships, an alarming approximate 42% increase from the prior year. Thus, it can be argued that excessive competition encourages corrupt means to do well. Students will turn to wrong and immoral methods to stay on top of the competition. Additionally, placing high stakes in examinations not only results in excessive competition, it also leads to stress. Sometimes, the pressure may be too much to handle. In Singapore, we are no strangers to the huge amounts of academic stress that can overwhelm students. Singapore had a tragic wake-up call when an 11-year-old boy fell 17 floors from his bedroom window in a deliberate act of suicide. This was because he was fearful of revealing his poor grades to his parents. Moreover, more teenagers from top schools in Singapore are reportedly seeking help at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for school-related stress. This serves as a unfortunate example illustrating how a “pressure-cooker” education system with far too much competition can actually overly stress students out and ruin their psychological wellbeing or even cause them to take their precious lives. 

However, it must also be acknowledged that not all education systems in the world require competition to function well. For example, in Finland, high-stakes standardized tests are literally a completely foreign concept. These students take only a few tests yearly, and when they do, they are mostly low-stakes. However, the quality of teaching has made Finnish students consistently near the top when it comes to international education rankings including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Therefore, while students are not pressurized to compete in high-stakes examinations like the Scholastic Assessment Test (SATs), they manage to perform very well because the Finnish education system focuses more on consistently learning and improving rather than one-shot measurements and ranking of students’ capabilities. This serves as proof that competition may not be necessary in the initial, pre-university stages as younger children may require more positive reinforcement to be motivated to keep learning.  

There is more than one way to a destination. Competition can be a method to prevent complacency and laziness in students, and to serve as motivation for students to constantly better themselves. However, constant checks and reviews are definitely needed to ensure that competition does not breed corruption and underhand methods of succeeding. In addition, competition may not be necessary in every single aspect of learning as that may result in an overly stressful learning process. Instead, perhaps competition can come in at a later age, where students will be mature enough to cope with stress and the occasional defeat, which will make competition effective in shaping the character of students.