Is an Academically Competitive Atmosphere in School a Pro or a Con

At my public high school, over fifteen seniors typically graduate as valedictorians each year, with about an equal number as salutatorians. The standard is so high that a single “B” grade guarantees “lowly” salutatorian status. Adding to the competition is the fact that colleges across the nation are declaring record low admission rates seemingly every year. Students are often competing across state and national borders against people they have never met.
One result of this keenly competitive atmosphere is that a growing contingent of students are very interested in obtaining good grades and taking advanced courses in everything from music theory to physics. Yet, too often they seem to have little actual interest in the course material itself. An “I’m here to put in the minimal effort for an A” mentality is common among even (or perhaps especially) honors students.
If metrics such as GPA and SAT scores were the only factors used in determining academic success, these type of students excel. It seems logical that good students should obtain good grades and high SAT scores. In a world where SAT prep courses and personal tutors are widespread and easily offer advice on “beating the system” (one SAT prep course advises selecting the longest answer choice available when guessing) however, the converse is no longer true: a student with good grades and high SAT scores may not necessarily be a good student.
The problem is that competition tends to center around end results that are easily measurable. While this may be acceptable in a capitalist economy, its merits in education are debatable. Students obsess over GPA and standardized test scores because they are exacting numbers that make it easy to compare themselves with others. Meanwhile, subtler successes such as gaining an appreciation for Wordsworth or being able to follow an elegant mathematical proof, goals which have admittedly never been high on teenagers’ agendas, become even less important.
Of course, the only surefire way of obtaining academic success remains in having a solid command of the course material. Discerning students will still strive for such knowledge, but when many students’ concerns are simply in quantifiable results, it is inevitable that some will pursue minimal-effort high-return routes. When a competitive environment attaches high rewards for success without raising the value of the methods used to obtain those successes, the incidences of cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty will undoubtedly rise. What is especially troubling is that this emphasis on grades taken to the extreme makes academic dishonesty not only more worthwhile, but also easier to justify, since the ethics involved are no longer applicable.
In the end, academically competitive environments motivate students towards indications of achievement but do not motivate achievement itself. For some students, this is helpful as it adds extra impetus to study and delve deeper into intellectual subjects; these are often the students who enjoy learning anyway. For many others however, the competition simply encourages students to take shortcuts with their education.