Zhu: Education as a zero-sum game hurts collaboration

Caroline Zhu, Staff Reporter

As competition among high school and college age students rises, the negative effects begin to show themselves as students start to enter the workforce. Too many students see education, and later their careers, as zero-sum games, a situation where another person’s success means your own failure.

This perception is counterproductive because people who have it lose important interpersonal skills, which can eventually harm job prospects and other relationships.

Approaching education as a zero-sum game leads to an individualistic mentality that makes it difficult to establish relationships with peers and can worsen communication skills. The development of this mindset is one that comes with the heavy competition involved in higher education and job markets. In 2018, the number of college applicants hit record highs, with institutions such as the University of California system reporting increases of up to 12.4 percent in applications, driving acceptance rates down and competition up.

With the sudden increase in people competing for higher education and skilled jobs, it can seem there are only winners and losers in the search for job opportunities and school acceptances. However, the perception that we lose the opportunities that other people gain is reductive, as it shrinks the multitude of paths and choices available to students into two possibilities: success or failure.

In reality, there are too many opportunities in both the academic and professional worlds for students to act as though they are competing for an ultra-scarce resource. As such, success and failure must be redefined to include the many options students have, as success does not need to be limited to a single offer. Too often, they develop tunnel vision, visualising success in only one possibility, when so many are open for students to explore.

This is not to condemn students who prioritize their own careers over others but to warn against overzealous competition. In a healthy environment, students who compete with one another drive each other to be better. However, doing so at the cost of communication skills only leads to deterioration in terms of academic and professional progress.

In recent years, the emergence of project-based jobs has prompted employers to seek people who can collaborate, but the individualistic mindset many candidates have developed puts these students at a disadvantage. Students must learn collaboration and cooperative work in order to find jobs in the future. Without altering the way students perceive success and competition, we put incoming workers at a disadvantage.

In order to create a better environment for students to truly develop collaborative skill sets, we must stop describing education as an area in which there are winners and losers, but return to the original purpose of education: to learn.

We need to remind students of the value of an education which is ultimately to establish individual careers to collectively drive progress.

Caroline Zhu is a first-year computer science and economics major with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. She is currently trapped indefinitely within a block of ice due to the combination of a southern Californian constitution and Cleveland’s cold weather.