The result of this misbegotten competition, even in the best suburban schools, was intense social pressure to minimize, not maximize, studying. Low achievement, in other words, wasn’t a bug in the high school system. It was an essential feature.

On the other hand, students didn’t think twice about honoring athletes. Coleman theorized that because most athletic events pit school against school, the achievements of star athletes bring prestige to the entire school, which benefits everyone. A student spending her lunch hour studying “is regarded as someone a little odd, or different, or queer,” he wrote. But the basketball player who shoots baskets at lunch “is watched with interest and admiration, not with derision.”

In high school athletics, Coleman wrote, “there is no epithet comparable to curve-raiser, there is no ostracism for too-intense effort or for outstanding achievement. Quite to the contrary, the outstanding athlete is the ‘star,’ extra effort is applauded by one’s fellows, and the informal group rewards are for positive achievement, rather than for restraint of effort.” The athlete’s achievements, he wrote, “give a lift to the community as a whole, and the community encourages his efforts.”

So Coleman challenged educators to rethink how they viewed competition.

Writing two years later in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society, he noted that educators had long been suspicious of academic competition, but that they unwittingly used it every day when handing out letter grades. The problem, he said, was that the competition in most classrooms was interpersonal. Shift the emphasis—make it interscholastic, that is, school versus school—and the suspicion gives way to celebration.

“When a boy or girl is competing, not merely for himself, but as a representative of others who surround him, then they support his efforts, acclaim his successes, console his failures,” Coleman wrote. “His psychological environment is supportive rather than antagonistic, is at one with his efforts rather than opposed to them. It matters little that there are others, members of other social communities, who oppose him and would discourage his efforts, for those who are important to him give support to his efforts.”