Michael Jackson has won 240 of them. Frank Gehry has bagged 130. The culture of prize-giving has gone mad. It has replaced the art of criticism in determining cultural value and shaping public taste.
Sadly, prize/award/honors mania extends to the academic sphere; more specifically, it has invaded the K-12 environment in which I work.
I won’t get into the whole “you can’t play sports unless everyone wins” thing. That would just raise my blood pressure too high for a Monday morning. I will mention that at MOPOW for years, everybody “graduating” from Middle School “won”. That’s right: all the students (usually between 10 – 15 of them) got an award. Sometimes it was an Excellence in [subject] award, sometimes a “tries hard” award. My favorite was the Good Sportsmanship Award given to the only boy in a class of 9. Why Good Sportsmanship? Because we couldn’t think of anything else. Sheesh!
And then there were the academic prizes awarded to the senior class. There were Excellence awards. There were Sustained Effort awards (for those the teacher felt really needed the ego-boost). The one award that should really have counted almost didn’t: the award for overall academic excellence. One year, several teachers (and the Head of the division) wanted to award it to 25% of the class! If that many are “excellent”, perhaps the definition needs to be rewritten, don’t you think?
At MPOW, during our start-of-year Academic Committee retreat, we were charged by the Head to think about awards and honors and the like. Recently, it was pointed out that 61% of the graduating class had received honors (general or departmental). Sixty-one percent. The mind boggles. At our end-of-year Class/Awards Day, the list goes on and on… the palms grow numb from all the clapping… and the only ones that really notice are those that aren’t receiving anything.
It cheapens real achievement when the salient point is “I didn’t get anything” (or, conversely, “I was one of almost everyone who got something”). I’d love to get rid of all of them – even the ones for the things the school claims to value most (caring for the community, living ethically, etc.).
The classes I worked hardest for in high school were pass/fail (not my choice, the teachers chose the grading system for their classes). I also had the greatest fun and sense of learning, because it didn’t matter how I did on some numeric level. The teacher comments were my way of knowing whether I was contributing well and learning. And those are the “awards” I cherish most. Not some vague GPA or SAT number – the respect of my teachers for my academic achievement, expressed personally and not in some ceremony with my name added to Those That Have Gone Before cup or plaque.
One school I know has a teacher (chosen by the student) say a few words about the student during graduation. Again, a heartfelt message that will linger far longer than the import of winning The Best in School award will.
Let’s do away with as many awards and prizes as possible, both in school and out. The only ones that will really suffer are the dressmakers. And (possibly) Joan Rivers.