True, competition doesn’t always belong in certain areas of academia, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever be utilized. In certain classes, such as honors or independent study, or even small classes where a majority of students are highly motivated, competition can lead to the most creative and innovative outcomes.
For example, take a certain high school honors physics class of which I am aware. Each year, the biggest project grade is derived from the Catapult Competition. Students are assigned to form teams and build catapults (under a certain size limitation). They can use whatever materials, research, design models they wish, but in the end, whichever team’s catapult launches a tennis ball the farthest, is guaranteed an A+ (along with some extra credit points). Granted, this is not a simple assignment, and even if your catapult is able to only launch the tennis ball a foot or so in distance, you still end up with at least a B for a grade. The only way to be penalized is to not complete the assignment or show poor effort.
My point is that competition, like in the real world, is necessary to inspire people who work for technological companies, or any sector that depends on consumers. People will always be rewarded for the highest quality work, and if teachers reward mediocre, above average, and below average results at the same rate, they are only doing their students a disservice, because then the bar is lowered for everyone. The same goes for things like science fairs, and creative writing competitions. The idea is to encourage and praise all participants, but in the end there can only be a few “winners.” After all, why do you think the United States is home to the best and the brightest? Why do you think our technology is always on the cutting edge? It is because of competition (taught in the classroom), that we have these creative and innovative thinkers, who excel at pumping out fresh ideas and designs.
Now, let me insert some disclaimers. At a young age, students should not be forced to compete in classrooms, especially during tests. Of course this would cause anxiety and low self-confidence, because there can only be one person who finishes first. But in non-test situation, such as educational games or story writing, or classroom projects, why not introduce a little competition? As long as the students who do not perform the best are not penalized (and are definitely still encouraged for their hard work), then there is no problem with it.
From a personal perspective, let it be known that I have an identical twin sister. Do we compete in almost EVERY aspect of life? Of course! Probably because it is hard for people to not compare our actions and achievements. Yet we are still very different. I am a liberal arts major (who excels at language and history), and my sister (who is PHENOMENAL at math and science) is studying to become an aerospace engineer. All through elementary and high school it was competition (with my sister & other classmates) to do well in math in science that encouraged me to work hard for my grades. However, it did not prevent me from later specializing in my own interests. Without competition, I probably would not have done so well, because I wouldn’t have cared. Competition motivates students to set the bar higher, and as long as teachers aren’t constantly focusing on competition, it can produce very favorable results.