Award System

prizes are no prize at all.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, 1872.

Once again, I reiterate my seemingly cranky, miserly (but in fact righteous and generous!) argument that prizes and awards are the bane of the academy—and maybe of society beyond the academy too.

At first, it sounds like I’m just being petty and jealous of those receiving such commendations, but as I watch yet another round of American Historical Association prizes announced and my own campus administration run a nomination process for various “persons of the year,” let me explain what I mean more carefully. I offer my perspective not to be a curmudgeon (ok, maybe a bit), but rather to ask: what is going on with the focus on prizes and awards? What cultural, political, and economic work are they doing?

My argument? The prize is not a prize at all. Rather, it is a device used by those in power to undermine collective flourishing and maintain control by encouraging atomized self-aggrandizement in place of putting resources into a robust public life and the common good. Prizes, doled out by the powerful, are paradoxically a means of producing a mood of scarcity and austerity. When you see a golden medal, it is gilded. You are actually receiving a poisoned chalice.

Why the mania for prizes? Why are those in charge of our professional organizations and institutions so keen on awarding just a few individuals prestige merely, well, for just doing their jobs (for scholars, the job is to research, teach, and steward our institutions and disciplines)?

Because the prize is not for the awardee, that’s why. The prize is almost always a self-congratulatory handout, given for the giver not the person to whom it is given. For the rich and powerful, or the managerial elite atop an institution or a profession for that matter, the ribbon, medal, plaque, or cash is a way to mark and separate, and to declare “I own you, you work for me.” To the sycophant go the spoils.

Which is to say that prizes and awards are also meant to keep everyone else in line. They divide and conquer, intimidate and reduce, create competition instead of cooperative solidarity.

To be clear, I am all for giving people money and status to do things. Fellowships, grants, and lots of money and support to do the work—yes to all that—but awards and prizes? All they do is make peers resentful, bitter, and demoralized.

Now I am sure I will possibly be awarded my own petard, as it were, for writing this, but so be it. Let’s have no more awards for scholarship and teaching and service. Down with excellence, innovation, disruption, and distinction. Up with competency, sustainability, stewardship, and solidity. Down with the star system, up with individuals thriving within more robustly funded, diversely rich, equitably distributed collective endeavors.

In the academy, if we wish to foster a world of discovery, knowledge, and understanding—classrooms for democracy, laboratories for advancement and improvement—let’s remove the trophies from the cases in the foyer. Let’s put the money into carrying on with the overall, ongoing work of social maintenance and intellectual enrichment. Let’s have no parade of prize winners in a true republic of letters. Instead, let’s have distinction within correspondences of mutuality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *