11 October 2009

Abstract Notion of the Day - Let Systems Compete and People Cooperate

Competition and cooperation play together in nature. Some like to emphasize the competition that pits the gazelles against each other, the loser becoming lion lunch. Others like to emphasize the cooperation that enables the lions to bring down the gazelle or that prompts the mother to raise the child.

So which should we bring into our social and economic life? Should we emphasize competition or cooperation?

I'd like to offer this suggestion: competition between systems and cooperation between people.

Let companies go bankrupt, political parties, ideologies, and administrations lose power, and educational approaches go out of favor. Let systems compete to win or lose based on how well they do. Meanwhile, ensure cooperation between people, doing what we can to ensure that everyone thrives.

To reverse this - to have no competition between religious or political or educational systems (essentially some kind of a monopoly) while forcing competition between people is to create a system that arrests progress and makes even the winners miserable, worried as they are that they might lose their place.

One of the problems with this goal, though, is that people become the system they are a part of. It is hard to become intimate enough with a system to use it and yet not become defined by it. "I am a Stanford grad ... a mechanical engineer ... a Pentecostal ... a Republican ... a Jungian ..." we say and these systems we've adopted become less our tools than our selves. With such a belief, it is hard to casually accept the failure of systems and not see it as, somehow, a threat to ourselves.

The religious martyr may be the most extreme example of someone who no longer holds the system loosely in hand but, instead, is held tightly by the system. For them, Islam or Christianity or the cult has become more important than life itself and they will die for it.

This might be the biggest challenge we have in our education system: raising children to learn how to use systems without becoming defined by those systems. I'm convinced that we're not going to make much progress with our current definitions of liberal or conservative, for instance, and as long as major swaths of the polity or politicians define themselves this way, progress will be slow. And yet people need some orientation, even if it is one they'll abandon as goals or processes change. As long as people define themselves rigidly by these systems, competition between systems will equal competition between people.

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