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Inspiring or Destructive?
Competition in the Yeshivos and Day Schools
by Rabbi Mordechai Nissel

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The Classic Kina… Amongst Sofrim

Chazal teach that “kinas sofrim tarbeh chachma.”[1] As commonly translated, this means that “jealousy between scholars increases wisdom.” This Gemara is often understood as reason to create competition among learners. Yet, is that really what the Gemara advocates? To what circumstances should this maxim extend?

The Gemara describes the situation of a rebbi in a community. A new rebbi comes to town who is known to be superior to the original rebbi. Must the town replace the first rebbi with the more qualified newcomer?

The first opinion in the Gemara is that the second rebbi should not be hired because, if he were to be hired, he would feel too secure in his position and may not work to his fullest potential. The Gemara, however, offers another opinion, suggesting that the better rebbi should be hired. The reason? “Kinas sofrim tarbeh chachma.” Having displaced the first rebbi with his superior skills, the new Rebbe will be constantly perfecting his talents out of concern that the original rebbi will be scrutinizing him; he will work to his fullest potential.

The Maharsha explains that this kina is of benefit only to “sofrim,” referring to a person who is a step below a “chacham.” Even though the sofer aspires to become a chacham, he has not yet reached that level. Thus, the Maharsha implies, a true chacham need not utilize kina to learn better.

We see here that Chazal accept kina as a means to improve the performance of sofrim. Kina, however, is not the ideal tool. Rather, we prefer that sofrim advance to the level of true chachamim, where they will have no need for kina to motivate them to excel.

Moreover, kina is mentioned as a motivational tool only with respect to teachers, not students. Students are at an impressionable stage in their life, when the focus must be on refining their middos.

A New Application of Kina

One may ask: Will utilizing kina for our students increase their learning, or will it perhaps be detrimental to them?

Even if we were to apply the concept of kinas sofrim to students as well, we need to understand the exact meaning of “kina.” Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg l”xz, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, explains[2] that “kinas sofrim tarbeh chachma” does not mean envy. Rather, it refers to zealousness, as it is used by Pinchas, who was mekanei kinas Hashem. When a student sees how proud and appreciative the rebbi and others are of another student who is learning, he strives to attain that admiration as well. That is not competition; it is a desire to emulate, which is the best drive to be marbeh chachma.

Healthy competition, then, sparks increased motivation in students, and pushes them to put forth more effort and to increase learning. When one student sees another succeed by growing and accomplishing in his learning, he will be inspired to do the same.

One Winner, Many Losers

A different – and far less healthy – form of competition is found in many of our children’s classrooms. It can be extremely counterproductive to the learning environment and the self-esteem of the student. This occurs when students compete and only one student emerges as the winner, with the rest remaining “losers” – not a healthy form of competition. Instead, a student should be motivated by another student’s success to achieve as much as he is able to.

One reason that competing to be recognized as the best is not productive was pointed out by Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l[3]. When two people compete, one can either work productively to surpass the other, or he can utilize devious methods to ruin the prospects of his competitor. When he was asked about competition, Rabbi Weinberg echoed these same sentiments, saying:

“There are two ways that I can beat you. One is to be better than you. The other is to sabotage you so that you are worse than I am. Which is easier? Do they not break someone’s legs so that he can’t win the competition? Do they not ruin someone else’s experiment? With competition, you train children to be corrupt in their middos by encouraging them to degrade others and benefit from the downfall of their friends.”[4]

Lest one think that our talmidim are above this, consider a Mishna that demonstrates otherwise. In Maseches Yuma[5], the Mishna relates that to determine which kohein would perform the mitzvah of terumas hadeshen (removing the ashes from the mizbei’ach) on a given day, the kohanim would race up the ramp of the mizbeiach to see who reaches the “finish line” first. On one such occasion, one kohein actually pushed another aside, thereby breaking the leg of his fellow kohein. After this unseemly event, this race was replaced by a lottery system to determine which kohein would perform the terumas hadeshen. This Mishna demonstrates[6] that greater people than us succumbed to the temptation about which Reb Yisroel Salanter warned -- sabotaging an opponent in order to prevail.

How can we relate these issues to the talmidim in our schools? The main problem exists, as we have said, when one or two students are singled out as the winners of a contest and the rest of the competitors are branded as losers. Any type of bee (such as berachos or spelling bees) falls in this category. Other examples are the selection of valedictorian and presentation of awards to a select few of the graduates at graduation (a practice which did not originate in our mosdos; it crept in to our Yeshivos due to the influence of our secular society). Our summer camps also practice this when only one camper is chosen as the “best learner” of the week or session.

Picturing the Winners… and the Losers

Permit me to share with you some of my experiences over the past many years as a Menaheil that substantiate these points.

Graduation is a long-awaited event, attended by friends and family. At this ceremony, some students are singled out and given awards for having excelled in academics or other areas above and beyond the other students in the graduating class. The name of the award is announced and an explanation is given about the criteria for winning this award: “Mazel Tov to Rochel Leah Goldman for winning the award for the highest grade point average.” Try to imagine the feelings of the remaining students who are sitting on that stage and squirming in their seats while the name of the BEST student is announced. How hard they try to avoid eye contact with their parents in the audience so as not to feel like a failure in their eyes. Picture what is going through the mind of the student who almost made it, the one whose grade point average was off by perhaps just a fraction of a point

Often, the crowd is told that the administration devoted much time working out the averages to ascertain that the announced winner actually had the highest grade point average, since the numbers were only off by the slightest bit. How dejected does that runner up feel for not having received that award because the numbers were off by only “the slightest bit”? What kind of memory will remain etched in that student’s mind from her graduation?

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that many of our schools are small and have small graduating classes. When only a few students receive awards, the recipients may represent a significant percentage of the class. This makes it that much more embarrassing for the portion of the class that did not receive awards. Those students who do not receive awards sit on that stage with smiles pasted on their faces, but an inner feeling of failure.

I have a vivid memory of a particular student who left graduation looking quite despondent. I went over to her and said, “Rochel, how was your graduation?” Her response was probably the spark that ignited the passion within me to rethink the appropriateness of our current practices. She replied, “Graduation was a horrible experience for me.” This was a student who struggled academically, yet worked harder than most students who excelled easily in their studies. I shared in her pain at the time of her graduation, as her classmates accepted awards for their work and she went home with nothing to show for her years of hard work but a feeling of shame.

Unfortunately, students are not the only ones to suffer pain at graduation. I have personally witnessed numerousoccurrences when an otherwise successful child who came in second place and his parents left the graduation angry. Additionally, the administrator responsible for selecting the winner was pained after being berated by the parents of the “second place child.” All of this over a fraction of a point.

In Favor of Eliminating Awards

Over the years, I have spoken to educators and parents of graduating students to encourage them to eliminate the presentation of awards at graduation ceremonies. I have heard many arguments in support of this tradition and they deserve to be addressed.

Many believe that the pressure and competition to receive awards will motivate students to try harder and excel in their studies. This, however, is clearly not so. Most students recognize their abilities and their limitations. They realize from the onset that they have no chance of winning an award and will exert little effort toward a goal they are unlikely to attain.

This mode of competition does not motivate the majority of the class. As Rabbi Weinberg said, “The minute you say the best one or the one who learns the most, you have destroyed the learning of 99% of the children because they know they are not going to be prize winners.”[7]

The award presentation is another event that reinforces a feeling of inadequacy. Even the few students capable of winning know that they could win by one of two means. They could either work very hard on their own, or, chas veshalom, find a way to distract the competition, attempting to foil the other person’s chances of success. Although we would like to think that our students are above such behavior, the truth is that many are not. Why would we place talmidim into a position of temptation to resort to such measures?

Some argue that we owe recognition to those students who worked hard for so many years. I respectfully disagree. We do owe our students compliments on their successes and should recognize them publicly in other ways, which I will address below.

It is not healthy to state that any student is the smartest or the best in any category, in comparison to the rest of the class. Teachers never announce to the class which child scored the highest mark on a particular test; this would certainly never be tolerated. Why do so at graduation?

Some may answer that these types of disappointments are “part of life,” and the student will eventually “get over it.” In conversation with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, world-renowned for helping others deal with their emotions and difficulties, he told me that he remembers vividly his graduation from a prestigious medical school where it was announced that he graduated second in his class, ahead of scores of others. To this day, he remembers that feeling of disappointment and pain. Surely, if things such as this bothered him, they will easily disturb our students, as well.

Another argument presented to me is the claim that our children will experience such competition later in life as they leave the sheltered world of our schools. Shouldn’t they acquire a sense of life’s harsh realities at an early stage, to be adequately prepared for them in the future?

No, we do not prepare our students for painful encounters by exposing them to negative experiences. We do prepare them by building their self esteem, so that they will be able to deal with such competition if and when it occurs.

Some Alternatives

Our yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs aspire and strive for excellence. While eliminating harmful competition, we certainly should not settle for mediocrity, either. I therefore would like to propose the following alternatives:

• Competition should not be used to single out any individual as the bestor only winner. Rather, contests should offer prizes or recognition for any student able to reach a certain level of accomplishment, not by outdoing or beating his classmate. Therefore, one student’s winning or advancement does not negatively impact another student. On the contrary, as students observe their peers reaching the pre-set goal and winning a prize, more students will be motivated to do the same. That is the type of competition to which Chazal taught us to aspire.

• Our schools often hold contests or “bees” to test students on their knowledge of a particular topic. For example, many schools run Berachos Bees where the winner is proclaimed the Berachos Champion. The traditional type of bee -- in which faculty ask one question to each participant and eliminate students who answer just one question incorrectly – is embarrassing and does not provide an adequate measure to ascertain which student knows the material the best.

The winner is often not necessarily the student who has the best command of the subject, but rather the student who was fortunate not to have been asked the more difficult questions. Often, students who are eliminated early in the competition are embittered by the fact that they knew all of the remaining questions.

Were we really interested in determining who is the Berachos Master in the school, we would ask all of the students all of the questions. However, that should not be our goal. Our goal should be to motivate the students to study the foods and their berachos so that they become experts in that area and will recite the appropriate berachos throughout their lifetimes. By singling out the one Berachos Champion as our winner, we stand the chance that the weaker students will simply abandon any effort to master this knowledge.

Were we to give the same test to all of the participants and award prizes to any student who earns 80%, and a better prize for those who earn 90%, and THE BEST prize to all students who earn 100%, we would be including more winners, and motivating more students to learn the material.

• The camp situation could be remedied the same way. Instead of picking one Best Learner of the Week, we could reward all of the campers who fulfill certain criteria that had been made clear to them at the outset. Did the camper participate? Did the camper make sure not to disrupt? Did the camper know the material learned? If the camper had all of the criteria checked off for every day of the week, he could be presented with a “Fabulous Learner for the Week” certificate.

• In lieu of selecting a valedictorian and presenting academic-based awards at graduation, we should work to institute a Dean’s List. Each student who attains a certain G.P.A. would be included on this list which could be announced at the graduation. One child’s success has nothing to do with any other child; it is completely individual. Those who like to showcase their school by having a highly accomplished student deliver a speech at graduation, may choose a student from the Dean’s List for that purpose.

• In a school where the graduating class is not too large, instead of awards for middos and public service, each student can be praised in front of the audience for her unique accomplishments, talents and character traits. The teachers brainstorm together to determine what should be said about each student. At the graduation, the teachers alternate in presenting those two-minute speeches. This makes every single student on that stage feel special for her own abilities without comparing one student to another.

These are but a few suggestions to stimulate the creativity of our well-meaning and talented educators. Such educators are all capable of devising alternative methods. It just entails effort. Often the competitions that prove to be damaging to most children’s growth are the ones that are least expensive and easiest for teachers and administrators to apply. With a little extra work, educators can find better ways to give the appropriate recognition to our hard working students.

It is my hope that menahelim, mechanchim and parents will seriously consider these points and rethink current practices. Let us challenge the status–quo and only continue with competitions in our schools when we have ascertained that they are healthy and truly enhance scholarship among our students.

Rabbi Mordechai Z. Nissel is dean of the Scranton (P.A.) Hebrew Day School

[1] Baba Basra, 21A

[2] Rav Yaakov Weinberg Talks About Chinuch (author, pg. Etc)

[3] Meoros HaGedolim, #62, also, Chayei Mussar #12

[4] Rav Yaakov Weinberg Talks About Chinuch

[5] Perek 2 Mishna 2

[6] Based upon Rabbeinu Elyakim and Sefas Emes

[7] Rav Yaakov Weinberg Talks About Chinuch

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