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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Is Cooperation Evil?

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Is Cooperation Evil? San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2003. www.KaganOnline.com

Dr. George Jacobs, a long-time proponent of and author on cooperative learning, sends Dr. Spencer Kagan a satirical piece on the evils of cooperation from the ETJ English Teachers in Japan list. Dr. Kagan responds to the letter and shares his reflections on cooperation. Below is the original letter and Spencer's response.

The Evils of Cooperation

I think it is clear that co-operation is bad for a healthy society.

For example the recent U.S. invasion of sovereign Iraq was achieved largely through cooperation. Coordinating all that military intelligence, combining it to send land sea and air forces to sweep through a country twice the size of Japan, and remove its government in two weeks could be achieved only by a highly developed sense of cooperation. Likewise the involvement of British allies not to mention help and intelligence provided by several other nations and organizations involved a massive degree of cooperation. Yes, winning a war is the ultimate act of cooperation.

But if the U.S.-Iraq war is morally questionable for some, let's look at some more undeniably pernicious cases of mass cooperation. The Cultural Revolution in China, Stalinism in Russia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Nazism were all mass movements designed to order society into a cooperative whole. Each involved intricate coordination of a mass type and a sense of working together, cooperating, to build a better society. We all know the results. And we all know what happened to those who resisted. They 'failed to cooperate'. Where are they now?

Now, as educators, we talk of wanting to foster more cooperation among our students. "Please cooperate with us" has always been the mantra of the powerful and the dominant who really want subservience from the masses. Cooperation is merely a way of making the plebian jump through hoops. Cooperation is arbitrarily determined and carried out by those in power, those with vested interests in having others work for them.

Cooperation is evil!

From: Spencer Kagan
To: George Jacobs
Subject: Re: Is cooperation evil?


My first response was to dismiss the Cooperation Is Evil article as a simple confusion of cooperation with obedience/submission, but upon reflection I think it should be a stimulus for reflection among cooperative learning advocates.

Cooperation itself is neither good nor bad. It can be used for good or bad ends — To build a house or wage a war. Like mastering the principles of physics, mastering the principles of cooperation releases energy. Physics can be used to build a bomb or to increase our ability to communicate and travel. Cooperation can create a more vicious gang or a more loving family. Physics is not evil. In itself, it is neither good nor evil. It can be used for good or evil ends, just like cooperation.

As educators for a more peaceful and just world, we need to couple our work in cooperative learning with work in character development, moral development, and social skills. Because cooperative learning has the potential to develop empathy; it has the potential to create a more peaceful and caring world.

In the late 60's and early 70's, together with Millard Madsen, I did a series of research studies on cooperation and competition among rural and urban students (Kagan & Madsen, 1971, 1972a, 1972b). The findings were remarkable. The rural students were far more cooperative than the urban students. But neither group was more rational. That is, the urban students would compete in situations in which only cooperation would result in desired rewards; rural students would cooperate in situations in which only competition would result in desired rewards. Each group persisted in their social orientation even when it was not adaptive. Like Pavlov's dogs, you placed the students in a situation and they ran off their conditioned responses. The cooperation of the rural students was no more rational that the competition of the urban students. If you put rural students in a situation in which cooperation was the adaptive strategy, they look smart, quickly settling on the cooperative solution. In the same situations, urban students would engage in self-defeating competition; many would not even see the cooperative solution. They looked dumb. Many would say, "This game is too hard!"

My conclusion was that our job is not to make students cooperative or competitive, but rather to empower them with the skills of cooperation and the skills of competition and to couple that with the ability to see when each is adaptive. As educators, we do not want to create a future generation of conditioned obedient students, but rather a skilled and rational generation. Obedience to the norm of cooperation is just as disempowering as obedience to the norm of competition.

A major problem of traditional classroom structures and traditional playground structures is not that they are too competitive. Students need to learn to compete — there are many situations in which competition is adaptive. The problem is that they are exclusively competitive and individualistic. Where will students acquire the skills of cooperation if they do not regularly cooperate? We want to add cooperation to the classroom and playground not to condition students to be cooperative, but to correct an imbalance — to allow students to see and choose the cooperative possibility if it is adaptive.

As educators we do not want to replace one unhealthy, imbalanced diet with one that is imbalanced in the opposite direction. We want to empower students with a full set of skills and the wisdom to know when to use each.

Dr. Spencer Kagan, Director
Kagan Publishing & Professional Development


Kagan, S. & Madsen, M.C. Cooperation and competition of Mexican, Mexican-American, and Anglo-American children of two ages under four instructional sets. Developmental Psychology, 1971, 5, 32-39.

Kagan, S. & Madsen, M. C. Experimental analyses of cooperation and competition of Anglo-American and Mexican children. Developmental Psychology, 1972, 6, 49-59.

Kagan, S. & Madsen, M. C. Rivalry in Anglo-American and Mexican children of two ages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, 4, 221-228.