Playing to win

  • October 24, 2013
Playing to win

My recently published book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, focuses on American childhood, education, and parenting – specifically on families with primary school-age children who participate in the competitive afterschool activities of chess, dance and soccer [football]. But I’ve received feedback from around the world. Many Asian parents write me to ask what their child needs to do to secure a place at Harvard or a similar school. Other parents, like those in the UK, correctly identify that these types of activities are less organised and prominent there than they are in the US.

Why is this? As I explain in Playing to Win, that US colleges and universities consider admissions categories other than academic merit is rooted in history and is uniquely American. In The Chosen, Jerome Karabel shows how the “Big Three” of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale developed new admissions criteria in the 1920s to keep out “undesirables”, namely Jews and immigrants. This new system valued the “all-around man”, who was naturally involved in clubs and athletics. Karabel explains that the definition of admissions merit has continued to shift over time, and parents’ concern with college admissions for their children is “not irrational, especially in a society in which the acquisition of educational credentials has taken its place alongside the direct inheritance of property as a major vehicle for the transmission of privilege from parent to child. And as the gap between winners and losers in American grows ever wider – as it has since the early 1970s – the desire to gain every possible edge has only grown stronger.”

Other historical reasons for why such elaborate, organized, expensive competitive sporting activities for kids exist in the US outside of the school system are detailed in a recent piece I did for The Atlantic as well: “When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood?” These reasons include the introduction of compulsory schooling and changes in higher ed like the GI Bill after WWII that made it easier for many to attend college – though this meant fewer available spots at some schools.

Of course, the system works differently in the UK, as described by Lauren Apfel in her thoughtful blog reaction to Playing to Win:

“My husband was a law tutor at Oxford for several years and he ran the undergraduate admissions at his college. The job of the admissions tutor, he says, is to assess intellectual ability and aptitude in regard to the particular subject of study. Unlike how Levey Friedman describes the kind of students Harvard is looking for, ‘ambitious individuals who are not afraid to take risks’ across a whole range of endeavors, what he was looking for was something much more pointed: the kid he wanted to be discussing the constitution with in an individualized tutorial at 9am on a Monday morning. This person, he says, very well might not be the student who was playing rugby or singing in the choir over the weekend. It is more likely to be the one staying in, diligently preparing his or her essay and poring over the law reports… Top-tier education in Britain is about precisely that: education, narrowly construed. It is about mastery of a subject. Accordingly, versatility and a competitive edge are not the axes on which the admissions decision turns, as Levey Friedman characterizes the US system. The goal is not to admit a jack-of-all-trades. Nor is it to admit the future valedictorian.”

Nonetheless, even in Glasgow many children are spending more time in organized activities these days – even if they aren’t competitive. While Apfel’s motivation for swim lessons for her kids isn’t to secure a place at Oxbridge, but to ensure they don’t drown, things do seem to be changing as many of her children’s classmates are engaged in many different classes outside of the school day.

I wonder if this is a reaction to new funding schemes in higher education in the UK, a move toward more American cultural norms, a combination of the two, or something else entirely? And, regardless of the reason, what does this mean for social mobility in the UK? While the US is by no means perfect, upward class mobility remains more common in the States; if afterschool activities do take up a more prominent place in childhood and perhaps in higher education decisions, will this make Great Britain an even less mobile society?

*Hilary Levey Friedman [2002] did an MPhil in Modern Society & Global Transitions and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Scholars in Health Policy programme, where she is studying youth sports injuries.

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