Competition and cooperation: Finland’s school system

By Johan Galtung

“The Secrets to Finland’s Success with School—and Everything”, The Atlantic (11-Jul-2013), has many messages to a US readership from that particular welfare state. One of them is a school system which ranks as one of the world’s best with no standard testing or South-/and East!/Asian “cramming”; limiting student testing to a necessary minimum; there is less emphasis on competition. And another, closely related, Finns have an incredible equality and very little poverty; an extremely low child-poverty rate. The two points are related.

The article, written by Olga Khazan, wisely points to smallness and high homogeneity as two factors underlying the “success”, also known to the other Nordic countries. However, as pointed out, there are “sizeable Swedish and Russian-speaking communities – the former ruling the country till 1809, the latter on till the Russian 1917 revolution–took time to even it out. What the article has not picked up is the closeness to that revolution, and its impact on the labor movements: lifting the bottom up for more equality is possible; education and health are basic tools; it is the task of the government; it requires planning; and, what USSR failed to pick up: it works better with democracy.

The article could have been stronger on how the students are taught to cooperate in class rather than competing for the highest rank, “valedictorian” and such stuff, “finished as No 1 in the class”. However, our focus here is not on Finland, but on testing and competition.

Where does that idea come from? Ideas travel in many ways. One is through space, from country to country, diffusion. Another is through time, from generation to generation, transmission. And a third is from below, from deeper ideas, archetypes, in our cultures; isomorphism, same structure. Maybe not recognizable to those living that culture, taking the archetype so normal and natural that they are protected from challenge by a very low level of consciousness.

And yet the exam, being examined, subjected to examination, the ultimate testing, is obviously related to the Judgment Day, the Eternal One being the Judge of souls in Abrahamic religions. Whole life spans are up for testing, the grades are not “pass-fail” but “salvation-damnation”, for an eternity to which a lifespan is a split second. Of course, other religions challenge that. Hinduism: give him-her a second chance, as reincarnate! Buddhism, as reborn! Softer Catholic Christianity has purgatory and (saints-Mary’s) intercession. But the general idea is clear: a quick test evaluating something short-lasting – like schooling – for something very long-lasting–like the rest of one’s life; putting an indelible stamp on the person.

Isomorphism, similar structure, pattern, is a very powerful mechanism. People feel on safe ground. They may not like it; The Day is feared months, years ahead of time; the judgment praised or damned. But the pattern perseveres, of course particularly upheld by the true believers, fundamentalists who feel in their bowels what is at stake.

Ultimate authority; nothing less. Teachers, professors become judges, God-like. Some rather like it. But they are only servants of something beyond themselves, the State, with monopoly not only over force, but also over exams. Exams gone, so are they–they may feel.

As Hinduism challenged Christianity, the judgment became less forever; students are given a second, third chance. And it has been challenged by Buddhism: improve yourself, do better, take on challenges, compete not with others but with yourself; doing better every day, improving, but not competing with whom has improved more.

For a particular position in society there may be requirements, but then those niches can organize the tests for that position, also by ranking if there are more applicants than openings; as opposed to general, multi-purpose tests with graders around one’s neck for the entire life and beyond; even the way a person will be remembered.

Competition and testing have serious repercussions.

There are winners and losers; inequality is institutionalized, even rewarded. Any competition is a conflict for a scarce goal, winning; the more competition the more unresolved conflict.

Inequality has serious repercussions.

The more unequal the society is the less positive participation from below. People who are told they are unworthy may believe it. The more unequal the society is the less capacity for solving conflict; the social distance is too high to place them around a table. Conflicts become protracted, festering, getting worse, hitting the social body.

There is no denying that competition may stimulate some individuals to give their utmost; but there is also a denial that this cannot happen when competing with oneself, without producing unsolved conflict and unbridgeable inequality. Everybody has dimensions for self-improvement, but may need some advice, also not to become too ambitious. Competition with others leads to conflict; competition with oneself may lead to frustration, maybe with aggression turned more inward. But the warning signals are in oneself; therefore more easily detected and acted upon. As in smoking, it hits oneself to reduce or stop. Burning fossil fuels is more like competition; let others–future generations, other countries–suffer the consequences, not me.

With harsh, judgmental Christianity fading out so will testing and exams. The archetype upholding exams that mirror nothing but themselves – for instance testing adolescents in totally useless second degree equations math – may no longer be there. Thus, Finland is highly secularized with a rather soft Christianity; but was not always like that. Cooperation distributes good ideas; competition makes them private property, monopolies, secrets, leading to spying. Cooperation with self-improvement and mutual aid in doing so makes quite a nice society, with very high happiness. Like Finland.

This article was first published at Transcend Media Service here.

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