Learning to Lose

We need to stop treating education like a sport


In a recent op-ed article in The New York Times, “Losing is Good for You,” Ashley Merryman criticizes the self-esteem movement for failing to give children the opportunity to lose. Not knowing how to lose, she says, leaves them unprepared for their future lives.

But Merryman’s argument, valid in a limited context, misses the larger point that winning and losing are peripheral to learning. We need to teach children to recognize that sports are just games. Winning is part of the fun, but not nearly as relevant in other endeavors.

The problem isn’t that we are teaching the idea that everyone is a winner.  It’s that we have linked winning to learning. This is the basis of the culture of testing that now pervades our educational system. Test culture is like sports culture: the score is the outcome. Another recent article in the Times discusses how New York City parents are obsessed with having their children score 99s on the preschool entrance exams—which suggests a society in which winning is made the basis for success from the earliest age. The end result is predictable: adults who seek the biggest paycheck, the biggest apartment, the most expensive car and vacation. Wisdom, happiness, kindness, mastery of a craft, fulfillment, and peace of mind—such values, which give life sustained meaning, are not sought when winning is the measure of success.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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