Participation Isn’t the Same As Performance

When I first started my Phd program, I took an American poetry class with a professor whose impatience with inane comments was legendary. Or so I thought. Evidently, the student sitting on the front row didn’t get the memo. Each day, he felt compelled to throw out comments in much the same way a politician hurls accusations at his opponent hoping something sticks. About half way through class the third week, the professor stood up, pointed to the little chatterbox, and said, “Please join me in the hall. Bring your backpack.”

We never saw, or heard, from our colleague again. I know in the back of my mind that he’s alive and well someplace, but if they someday find human bones in the building I think we’ll all know from whence they came. This professor was, as we like to say when someone is blunt and gruff, old school.

Removing the student didn’t stifle conversation, though. The class simply moved on, recognizing that most of the commentary we had been listening to was not something we would miss.  “Participation,” our professor told us on day one, “is not the same as performance,” and we all learned exactly what the distinction was in that class. “You are,” he also told us, “earning a degree that 98% of the population doesn’t have. Act like it.”

In some deep recess of my heart, I had some sympathy for the student. Don’t get me wrong–I was more than happy to see him go. He was the kind of student who never met an obvious comment he wasn’t afraid to share (often more than once), but it was also pretty clear he had been told somewhere along the line that participation mattered and, more importantly, would be rewarded. I’m sure he has a shelf full of trophies from little league, soccer, and 8th grade graduation.

While it’s easy to bash our trophy-giving culture, I suspect such attacks (like the one I just made) are too easy and simplistic. Molly Kefel in her essay “Trophy Season” over at The New Inquiry, in fact, offers a defense of giving trophies to everyone, writing that kids who don’t get end of year awards “get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time.” She reminds us that we shouldn’t transfer our adult cynicism to young children and maybe we don’t have to be so gung-ho as we prepare them for the harsh world.

I’m not sure I completely buy her argument, but I do think it’s worth noting that any harm we create by giving kids participation trophies probably isn’t because every one got the award. Our problem, instead, is that in treating everyone equally we aren’t necessarily treating them fairly. Feel free, I say, to give every kid in little league a trophy for putting on the uniform and showing up, but let’s also give a little bit bigger trophy to the kids who also performed.

Giving out trophies willy-nilly without regard to performance doesn’t just create a generation that feels entitled to rewards for participating. Instead, we offer a false sense of fairness that has no basis in reality. Certainly, all animals are created equally, but, as Orwell reminds us, some animals are more equal than others. If we insist on giving trophies to everyone without rewarding those people who also perform at a higher level, then we create sense of entitlement that insists rewards are independent of expertise or effort. Worse yet, we tell the student who scored 4 goals that no one gives a “shit about you” and your hard work. The only difference between you and Billy over there picking his nose is you are sweatier.

If the kid who throws the ball fastest and hits the ball farthest or the student who writes the best essay and makes the smartest comment all get the same reward as the kid who picks daisies in the outfield or has a serious case of diarrhea of the mouth, we’ve devalued performance in favor of participation. Certainly, showing up is half the battle, but the bigger trophy should go to the people who do something once they get there.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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