By Segan Helle
My friend sighed dejectedly. The awards ceremony drew to a close and the students began filing out of the gymnasium. I clambered down the bleachers, medal strung by a red, white, and blue ribbon bouncing around my neck, and slid down next to her. She frowned.
“I just wanted a medal.”
I love Speech and Debate. It gives students access to an entirely intellectual and like-minded community. It can open students’ minds to differing perspectives in important national and international affairs. But, at the same time, Speech and Debate can be a toxic culture. At the end of every tournament is another awards ceremony: another night to award those who exceeded at their events over the course of the day, and for those who did not, a night to applaud those who did. The concept of an awards ceremony is not foreign to any of us. However, when it comes to the ways we view them, our perspectives tend to differ.
Speech and Debate’s competitive culture can warp competitors’ minds. It can distort their perspectives on what is important, changing the focus of joining the activity from one of self-improvement and gaining academic insight, to one of winning. It can gnaw at people’s self esteem, equating success with gold and silver hardware instead of equating success with what really matters: learning something from the experience. Worst of all, they can lose sight of the reason that they enjoyed the activity in the first place.
The “I just wanted a medal” attitude is something that I see a lot in Speech and Debate, but it is not just exclusive to that sphere. This hypercompetitive mindset is something that has rooted itself into almost every aspect of American culture, from our social lives to our education. We live in a culture that tries to quantify everything, from our popularity to our intrinsic worth. Numbers rule our lives. Meaningless averages and statistics have infiltrated our cultural and institutional normalities in the form of follower counts on social media sites, obsessive GPA calculations, and the number of trophies that sit upon our bookshelves.
We live in a culture in which we strive for the bumper-sticker college, take the courses in school that will boost our class rankings, and choose the activities that look nice on our resumes. We no longer evaluate the worth of what we involve ourselves in based on what we can learn from it, or even on whether we enjoy it, but rather on whether or not it will give us a leg up somewhere else in the future. In this process, we often lose ourselves instead.
We need to rid ourselves of the attitude that the only success worth noting is that which is measurable. Value should not always have to be tangible. It should come from how we feel we have learned and grown from any given experience. It is high time that we stop wasting our hours in activities that we are only in for the trophies and start making sure that we dedicate our time to things that truly matter to us. After all, medals are only worth as much as the lessons you learned to earn them.