Competition and Cooperation

(The Nationalist, 25 October 2002)


Which is better – competition or cooperation? Competition challenges us to try harder, to do better, to reach out for success. It helps to develop in us initiative and creativity. It can strengthen the individual. The down side is that it can set us against others, it can make us believe that their success is our loss. Competitiveness can divide people.

I know a university where, in the library of the engineering faculty, they stocked an expensive engineering journal. It was much in demand among students, but because of limited budgets they bought just one issue at a time. What they found was that, in order to get ahead, one student would borrow the periodical, photocopy what he wanted from it in the library, then tear out the pages, rip them up and throw them in a waste paper basket. That way he had a copy and no one else had. That was the kind of competitiveness that drives people apart.

Competition was one of Mrs. Thatcher’s mantras. It had successes and failures. It has led to better and cheaper phone services, to take just one example. But it has also brought stress-filled lives, a sense of isolation and a loss of community. It operates by the survival of the fittest. There are many casualties, and we may not mind that until we become one of them.

Cooperation, on the other hand, brings people together and builds community. It enables them to share their work and their lives, giving them a sense of partnership in a common enterprise. Irish farmers for a long time had the tradition of the meitheal, a cooperative effort in harvesting the crop. But the downside is that it can lack the cutting edge of competition, it may subsidize the lazy, and fall into an easy-going rut which no longer bothers to try harder.

I know of a school which considered this matter and made its own response to it. It tried to get the best of both worlds by telling pupils that the way to work was to cooperate with each other, and to compete against themselves. Each child was urged to do better, not better than some other child, but better than he or she had done before, while working cooperatively with others. The school timetable, curriculum and rules were structured to facilitate this.

Did it work? From limited observation, I think so. I know two young men who attended that school throughout their post-primary years, and they did well both then and later.