Some Quick Thoughts on School and Envy

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In his book Envy, Helmut Schoeck provides an anthropological and sociological analysis of the role of envy in human society -- mostly about how envy is one of the primary drivers of discontent, chaos, and insecurity in society. Different cultural institutions arise as ways of reducing envy -- everything from paranoia about witches (the accused-witches in primitive societies were often the weakest, sickest, or oldest -- those with reason to envy -- and were accused of witchcraft as a way to drive them out of the society and prevent their attempts at undermining the social order) to the incest taboo (to prevent envy in the family) to the rise in meritocracy (to reduce the power of political envy) -- and promoting general stability in the society.

Envy is generally an emotion or attitude felt by the weaker against the stronger -- whether stronger sexually, intellectually, strength-wise, financially, or other ways -- and is differentiated from jealousy by its exclusivity and globalness. You feel envy for a person and his successes, not just for one thing, and you want to see him deprived of his success. You feel jealousy for a specific thing -- like a lover or an award -- and want to see it become yours.

Some quick thoughts on how this relates to the institution of schooling...

My hunch is that schools have a higher level of envying than society at large. This is largely due to their heavily controlled and regulated nature. Schools, like prisons, do have miniature cultures arise in them, but they sit in this weird hybrid spot between the "real world" and an artificial world -- one where people are divided by arbitrary age groups and alphabetical ordering -- but only for a limited number of hours per day. The cultural institutions that would arise to mitigate the negative effects of envy and jealousy really don't get an opportunity to develop. These things take a long time to develop and may conflict within the school with the institutions at large.

We see things like bullying arise as a consequence of the over-structured environment of schools. When in normal society, you'd have social pressures to prevent envy-driven conflict (i.e., older people watching after younger people, younger people acting as a pressure for older people to be role models), you don't see this in schools and bullying arises in lieu of conflict reduction mechanisms.

The winner-takes-all model of education that crops up around a grading system and a class-ranking system is also more conducive to envy-driven conflict. Somebody who does worse at a test and gets lower grades does so to the benefit of the class valedictorian. This incentivizes an above-average student to underperform to avoid the envy of his fellow students -- why become valedictorian when third in the class will do just as well and avoid as much envy from others?

Students then work to undermine each other when it wouldn't make sense to do so in an environment that isn't winner-takes-all. Envy arises in stronger forms in ultra-competitive environments. Students grow up not picking up the skills for win-win environments -- they become skilled at politicking and succeeding in ultra-competitive, winner-takes-all environments. It becomes harder for them to succeed in the former and easier to succeed in the latter. This is why elite students thrive in careers like politics, law, consulting, investment banking, and others that are marked by everybody-but-the-winner-really-loses.

If young people spent more time in the real world -- or at least outside of super-artificial, hyper-structured world of school -- they could pick up the skills and the familiarity with the cultural institutions designed to mitigate the negative effects of envy. Is it any surprise that these people have a more difficult time forming a fulfilled vision of their lives than their lesser-schooled counterparts?

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at

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