“Competition breeds excellence” is a mantra I heard growing up. But excellence at what exactly? Some of the most competitive business schools in the United States have trained finance wizards to gamble on the value of basic human necessities, like food and homes, winning huge profits for themselves, while bankrupting many others. In the weeks following the Haitian earthquake, we saw many distributions of food that were unannounced and took place in a very short time period, creating brutal competition. When people must continually compete for their very survival, how can we ever hope to end violence?
At the same time, many of us are learning that more innovative paths toward excellence can draw on the wisdom of groups. Collaborative learning that truly leaves no one behind can enable an average group of students to achieve extraordinary results. Crowdsourcing has developed resources like Wikipedia that may be imperfect but are self-correcting, multi-lingual and continually updated in ways that no printed encyclopedia could ever hope to match. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki shows how the diversity of a crowd can increase its knowledge so that it can make a more informed decision than any single member of the group could have.
Today more than ever, we need to diversify and increase our collective wisdom in order to cope with the many environmental, economic and human challenges we face. And yet there are a billion people in the world who never have the chance to contribute to the fount of human knowledge because they live in extreme poverty. In Africa this may mean having only a few years of schooling; in Europe it may mean schooling that is continually interrupted by getting burnt out of one home, evicted from another, and remaining the outsider who is bullied in each new neighborhood.
Despite these obstacles, it is possible for people living in some of the most difficult situations of poverty to develop their own capacity for excellence through innovative projects. In Madagascar, for instance, a group of young people living at a garbage dump and in a very disadvantaged district have made a commitment to helping one another to complete a unique computer training program. The idea that none of them would be left behind became a strong motivation and they went out of their way to work together. They did so well that despite not having completed high school, they have now been hired by a company that considers their work on a par with college-educated computer technicians.
Instead of competing to exploit the planet’s abused resources, we owe it to ourselves to enable every one of the “bottom billion” people to contribute to our collective knowledge, in hopes that one day the human race as a whole will achieve excellence as we find new ways to live together.
 “Calculus Students Made the Forbidding Familiar,” http://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/23/nyregion/calculus-students-made-the-forbidding-familiar.html?scp=2&sq=friends%20seminary%20math&st=cse
 “Unknown Volunteers: New Technologies for All,” http://www.atd-fourthworld.org/New-technologies-for-all-in.html?