Imagine a high school graduation. Family and friends proudly jostle for a view of their students turning tassels on stage. Imagine the students’ camaraderie, the collective sigh of relief: summer spans ahead, former identities fade. Outcasts, athletes, nerds all face the world, now wide with opportunity. Imagine, also, the salutatorian standing and speaking about her 5.0 GPA and all of her hard work these many long years and the elite college she’s attending next year. The valedictorian does the same, says woo-woo! Then all students with GPAs higher than 3.5 stand up. A round of applause ensues. All the students with GPAs higher than 4.0 remain standing. Another round of applause, albeit slightly less spirited. Dummies stay seated.

The above describes a real-life graduation ceremony that took place not a week ago, and probably in more places than one. I couldn’t help recalling it as I read the following piece by Alfie Kohn, which cropped up in last week’s NY Times: “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?: Excellence is not a zero-sum game.” Kohn is an author/lecturer specializing in parenting and education, whom we were lucky to host at our most recent annual conference. Some of what he writes here may seem, at first, a tad idealistic, but consider it. At least consider the curious fact that rather than rising together, students are more often jockeying against one another. If every student received A’s, as Kohn points out, the overall feeling would be one of misgiving — an assumption that the standards were too lax — and the response would be to “raise the bar”:

For a generation now, school reform has meant top-down mandates for what students must be taught, enforced by high-stakes standardized tests and justified by macho rhetoric — “rigor,” “raising the bar,” “tougher standards.” […]

We have been taught to respond with suspicion whenever all members of any group are successful. That’s true even when we have no reason to believe that corners have been cut. In America, excellence is regarded as a scarce commodity. Success doesn’t count unless it is attained by only a few.

One way to ensure this outcome is to evaluate people (or schools, or companies, or countries) relative to one another. That way, even if everyone has done quite well, or improved over time, half will always fall below the median — and look like failures.

Of course student ability does and will vary; at the same time, the conferring of ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ entices as if school were a sport (or religion) — but when it comes to education, and life, winning is a laughable goal. At my own high school, I wearily recall, students were assigned an ID number; this, along with his or her class ranking, was posted on the wall for everyone to see and be humiliated by. The numbers were intended to allow students (and their rankings) to remain anonymous, but we learned who was who over time. The mystery is why we were ranked in the first place and what purpose public comparison ultimately served.

Now more than ever students (and all of us) operate as if excellence is a zero-sum game — the door is narrow, we believe. In reality, when it comes to engineering one’s best life, the door is worse than narrow: the door, in fact, is closed. No one controls their way to happiness. We all learn this sooner or later, but students, most definitely, have not yet. Instead they’re building competitive resumes, some beginning at age 14 (or earlier), with eyes on the prize of a limited number of placements in “elite” colleges — which are elite, by the way, because of their exclusionary nature. Sooner or later one begins to ask, what is being measured here? And are these metrics accurate or, more importantly, helpful? Kohn again:

As Richard Kamber, a philosopher at the College of New Jersey, sees it, “If grades are to have any coherent meaning, they need to represent a relative degree of success.”

The goal, in other words, isn’t to do well but to defeat other people who are also trying to do well. Grades in this view should be used to announce who’s beating whom. And if the students in question have already been sorted by the [school/college] admissions process, well, they ought to be sorted again. A school’s ultimate mission, apparently, is not to help everyone learn but to rig the game so that there will always be losers.

This makes no sense in any context. Perhaps, for example, we can justify rating states or nations based on the quality of their air, health care or schools, but ranking them is foolish. Relative performance tells us nothing of interest because all of them may be shamefully low — or impressively high — on whatever measure we’re using. Comparative success just gives the winner bragging rights (“We’re No. 1!”). And again, it creates the misleading impression of inevitable, permanent failure for some.

But boy, do we love to rank. Worse, we create artificial scarcity by giving out awards — distinctions manufactured out of thin air specifically so that some cannot get them.

Framing excellence in these competitive terms doesn’t lead to improvements in performance. Indeed, a consistent body of social science research shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming of the system and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.

Most of life works as a scoreboard on which good and bad deeds are tallied, the right things said, the wrong ones. Performances are monitored at work and in relationships. It is a supremely unpleasant experience, even if, at times, you do succeed — because your goal becomes fraught with paranoia, about maintaining a lead rather than enjoying life as it is given.

Kohn’s analysis points toward the [uncomfortable] fact that not all success can be measured. “There are things that can be measured. There are things that are worth measuring,” Jerry Z. Muller writes, in his brilliant (and boldly titled) book The Tyranny of Metrics. “But what can be measured is not always worth measuring; what gets measured may have no relationship to what we really want to know.” He continues:

What has come to be called “Campbell’s Law,” named for the American social psychologist Donald T. Campbell, holds that “[t]he more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In a variation named for the British economist who formulated it, we have Goodhart’s Law, which states, “Any measure used for control is unreliable.” To put it another way, anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.

Evidence of this is everywhere. Grades become more important than content, church attendance more urgent than divine mercy. And yet you can be a champion by all accounts, and quietly in turmoil, alone. When we “do all [our] deeds to be seen by others,” we become glamorously entombed, beautiful on the outside, expiring swiftly on the inside. (Recall, if you can, Smitty Werbenjagermanjensen, who even in his grave was number one.)

Muller says elsewhere, “The answer is not to stop measuring things.” Measurements (say, grades) can serve a purpose, be, even, beneficial. Rankings on the other hand do not reflect what is really important, the deeper things of identity, value, purpose, relationship. We have begun ascribing the attainment of these to domination rather than grace. Which leaves us, as Kohn says, with an “adversarial mentality,” and burnout, and noticeably hollow performances. Even now you may see an old prognosis unfolding: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It takes less than a 5.0 GPA to understand this.