I HATE CONTESTS. I think they are vicious, frequently dishonest, always unreliable and misleading, antisocial, demoralizing (not to say immoral), and the root and father of many psychopathic ailments. And that’s just the beginning.
As a teacher and an educational supervisor, I have often had to organize contests or act as judge. These duties I have performed with a sense of frustration. Knowing well, as Justice Holmes once said of himself, that I am not God, I have realized that my most careful, most positive judgments may be wrong. Besides, time after time it has been utterly impossible to be positive. Is A’s sentimental short story or B’s sociological essay more deserving of the gold medal?
Who knows? So I either trust to some vague, intuitive “sense of literary value” or devise some highly artificial mathematical formula (so many points for facts, so many for style, so many for originality, so many for correctness including commas) and thence proceed to calculate the incalculable with the aid of a slide rule and a table of logarithms. In either case, despite prayerful leaning backwards to be perfectly fair, there is a pretty good chance of honest error.
The unreliability of personal judgment is illustrated when the decision is rendered by a board of judges. Almost invariably there is some disagreement of opinion. Then they may talk it over, and eventually the loudest or most aggressive talks the other judges over to his view. Volubility, rather than validity, wins. Or the judges may vote by secret ballot and, through some system of weighting the choices, the election lights upon one lucky chap-and others almost as good, or possibly better, get nothing. Yet the entire purpose of the whole affair is supposed to be the discovery and selection of THE BEST.
Within the past couple of years, the contest fad has been lifted bodily out of the school and, through the agency of radio sponsors, has become part of the national mores. Not only are there quiz programs in which one (who happens to have been chosen by lot from among the studio audience) can win four silver dollars (actually half dollars) by remembering at the right moment, with suitable hints from the master of ceremonies, that Columbus discovered America in the year 1492. Now there are even charades and conundrums that give somebody in Oskaloosa, Tenn., who happens to be in when the M.C. calls on the telephone, and who further just happens to be an enthusiastic listener to the same program and user of the sponsor’s product, and who happens to recognize the voice of the motion-picture actor employed to recite some imbecilic jingle-yes, I say, there are now programs that award someone like that a new car of an expensive model, a super-gorgeous refrigerator, twenty-four thousand cans of baked beans, two years’ free maid- and-butler service, an airplane trip to Xanadu and two weeks’ prepaid vacation there, a complete paint job on the old homestead, a two-thousand carat diamond ring, a royal blue mink coat, a life pass to a box in the opera, the first fourteen volumes of a Library of card games and other parlor tricks, an electrically heated horse-blanket, a new home to be erected on the winner’s lot, and, as a special surprise feature, a mechanical pencil!
Sometimes this flood of fairy-godmother benefactions is given only to the lucky winner among those made eligible by sending in three box-lops and an entry-fee of seventy-five cents. Or perhaps, to get into the lists one must make a donation of “one dollar or more” to some extremely worthy charity. In short, the generous donors don’t really have to take anything out of their own pockets. Maybe they even make a profit on the entire deal, besides capturing masses of valuable publicity.
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You see, many contests, as conducted today, amount to little more than gambling enterprises. In theory it is not so. In theory, human beings are supposed to test out their powers against one another, so that the best man can win. However, as shown previously, it isn’t always possible for even the most honestly conducted contest to arrive at the truth. Error or difference in judgment may rob the best man of his merited triumph. Often, too, it seems as though little serious attempt is made to find out the best. Often the element of mere chance far outweighs any possibility of a real measuring of talents against one another.
Some of the contests are so framed as to minimize all skill or ability; the terms call for “sincerity rather than elaborate literary or artistic skill.” Do you know how to estimate the relative “sincerity” of eleven million twenty-five-word advertising slogans if the literary skill with which they are composed must be eliminated? … Neither does anyone else.
In such cases, it is inevitable that the winner might just about as well be drawn at random out of a hat. The affair might almost as well be announced as a lottery except that several states have laws against lotteries. If an entry fee is charged, if the superiorities tested are unreal and unimportant, if the element of chance amounts to 99.44%, is there anything except a narrowly technical legalism that prevents the law from proceeding against the sponsors? True, such contests differ from the sweepstakes or the numbers racket, for they do appear to go through the motions of testing ability and rewarding the best. Nevertheless, the only sensible approach for a participant is to tell himself that all he has to lose is a little time and even less money, while, with luck, he might win a fortune fit to rouse the envy of Croesus or Plutus or Fafnir; so why not take a chance without considering the merit of the outcome too seriously? In short, the only sensible approach is the gambler’s.
That gambling may be a dangerous vice is surely no news to anyone. Of course, we all know that a friendly little game, with some minor element of chance, may be relatively harmless, especially if the stakes amount to no more than a tenth of a cent per point. However, just as soon as the stakes go up, just as soon as a certain fanatical glare appears in the Victim’s eye, beware! There are states in which every kind of gambling is illegal, and one can go to jail for tossing a pair of dice or spinning a put-and-take top. Every man or woman beyond the years of adolescence can remember some friend or relative whose life was ruined by the endlessly defeated hope of making quick and easy money by a lucky break. The horses, the dogs, the stock market, pinball machines — these grip the old instinct for self-preservation by getting hold of something or other that will bring a fortune.
The hope to win a radio “contest” differs from these chiefly in that the rewards are so inordinately high. Maybe it is harmless to play these games, too, if one plays in moderation and doesn’t really care about the result, but as soon as one begins to depend, even in imagination, on the hope for success, he is entering upon a Via Dolorosa. What adds even more to the meanness of many contests is the fact that they are really nothing but schemes for spreading propaganda, rather than methods of discovering and rewarding talent. You are asked to complete (in twenty-five words or less) the following statement: Sorghum’s toothpaste is better because….
Naturally, you beat your brains out trying to think of ways in which Sorghum’s toothpaste is better. If you try long enough and hard enough, perhaps you may find some reasons for actually preferring that particular brand. You may even be tempted to buy a tube or two of it (especially if a box-top or label “or facsimile thereof” must be enclosed with each entry). That is probably why the so-called contest was organized in the first place. So what has happened? Well, a large crowd of gullible souls contribute enough in entry fees to enable the sponsor to offer one lucky individual a ridiculously exorbitant reward for an absurdly
trifling achievement. All of them have been induced to write, and therefore to think, in terms of extravagant praise of the sponsor’s product, in most cases to buy some of it. A sane or reasonable judgment of winners is impossible; the outcome gives some people undue self-satisfaction and many, many others an equally undue frustration.
There is nothing worse for a human being, especially a growing young fellow, than the conviction that he simply cannot win when placed in competition with others — except the notion, bred of a few easy victories, that he simply can’t lose. Think of the harm done by establishing that sense of futility or of overconfidence. And the truth is that, no matter how silly or irrelevant the nature of the contest, defeat instills a feeling of despair and the fact of success itself inspires a sense of superiority. Remember the case of Little Jack Horner, you know, the one who sat in the corner eating his Christmas pie; remember how he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, “What a good boy am I!” Like all the rest of us, Little Jack thought that his luck was the inevitable result of merit. It never occurred to him to say (as he would have done, had he been a philosopher instead of a normal human being) “I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in finding a plum in my particular slice of pie, but of course I can’t expect this sort of thing to happen again.” So, when one has earned a grouse shooting lodge in Scotland as a reward for the enormous exertion of writing a last line for a limerick telling how a certain brand of soap is “better,” (without ever saying what it is better than) isn’t it natural for one to presume that one’s poetic genius is at last beginning to be recognized?
Yes, even if contests were all valid, if they all really tested actual gifts, they would still be bad, because they must inevitably stress superiorities and depress the less gifted. Even if the big-name judges really could read the hundreds of thousands of entries, instead of leaving the first “sorting” to battalions of low-paid clerks, and could actually perform the miracle of retaining their sanity and their aesthetic sensitivity, so that the results would come out honestly and wisely, the rewards would still be too big, the defeats too numerous, the gulf between goats and sheep too immoderate in its yawn. Democracy never meant that all men have the same amount of strength or talent, but it cannot be served by overemphasizing the inequality.
A contest worthwhile should be free from the horrid stigma of the old struggle for existence and the survival of the “fittest.” It would be something like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland, a race in which every competitor from the Mouse to the Dodo did his level best, whatever that was, and won a prize of some sort — a thimble, a “comfit,” a spool, or whatever it might have been. Such competition brings forth constructive effort and the rigor of the game, without invidious comparisons. It stimulates all to try, assures all who do try that they will be rewarded in proportion to their deserts and not in proportion to their ability to ride ruthlessly over others. It spares even those with the happiest faculties the harmful effects of gaining too much success for too little effort. Such, for example, is the annual qualifying field day of the Public Schools Athletic League, on which every boy who can run a hundred yards in specified time (varied according to age groups), jump a certain distance, and chin the bar a certain number of times is awarded a bronze medal and all the satisfaction and glory that goes with it. Thus there are thousands of winners, and every youngster in normal health who makes the requisite effort in training can be one of the successful group.
Better still, there might be contests like those encouraged by the Jansenist schoolmasters in seventeenth-century France, in which each student strove to excel “his yesterday’s self.” Then there was no sadistic triumph of winner over loser, no jealous heartburning, no gamer’s lust for easy riches, no dishonest or unfortunate injustice, no clever scheme to trick people into undesired purchases, but just a thrilling struggle to attain a worthwhile goal for its own sake. Such contests might serve good purposes. Others are so packed with jeopardy that a wholesale house-cleaning is in order. If the advertising industry and the various well-meaning or ill-meaning sponsors won’t mend their ways, thoughtful educators, parents, and others will be forced to feel that “there ought to be a law.”
Original “EDITOR’S NOTE,” from 1950: Mr. Drachman hates contests, whether they are held in school or on a radio program, and whether you consider them from the point of view of the contestants or the judges. His first paragraph lays the groundwork for his attack so explicitly that you might well read it instead of anything further we can say here … except the fact that he is head of the English department in New Utrecht High School, Brooklyn, N.Y. Julian M. Drachman (1950) I Hate Contests, originally appeared in The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 24:9, 515- 518, DOI: 10.1080/00098655.1950.11473519
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