As one who did time in academe — hard time in fact — I have always wondered why those in charge are so reluctant to give out awards and rewards for exceptional work. Those of us who taught, for example, knew who the hard workers and good teachers were. Everybody knew. But those folks were seldom, if ever, acknowledged in any way — except by the students who tended to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest. I worked very hard, for example, and when I retired I received a framed certificate signed by the governor of Minnesota (or one of his toadies) thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. It was the same certificate that was handed out to all of us who retired at the same time throughout the state system, including one of my colleagues who taught the same courses with the same syllabi for years — only in the mornings, so he could spend the afternoons in his office downtown making real money. Eventually it occurred to me that this is because a reward draws attention to those few who are rewarded and is resented by those who might feel slighted.
That is to say, in fear that someone will take umbrage at the fact that they were passed by, those who deserve to be noticed are ignored. The sentiment here is clear and in some ways admirable: we should do nothing that makes a person feel bad. I suppose this is why so many who teach are reluctant to fail their students — though a friend of mine who taught in our small school in my town once told me he passed poor students along because he didn’t want to have to teach them again! In any event, the outstanding students and teachers who deserve to be noticed are ignored out of a somewhat distorted sense of justice that leads many to the conclusion that it is a form of discrimination.
But let’s give this a moment’s thought. Discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. We discriminate all the time when we choose the red wine over the white, or the steak over the hamburger, the Rembrandt over the Rockwell, Joseph Conrad over the latest pot-boiler. Discrimination used to be a sign of a well-educated, “discriminating” person. That person can choose good books, music, and art and avoid things that might have little or no real value, things that will surely rot his brain. It was supposed to be a good thing. But now, in our postmodern age, we insist that there is no such thing as a “good” book or a “good” paining or composition. There are just things that are written, painted, and played, things people like. It’s all relative. With the absence of standards and the push to greater equality, including the refusal to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color (or ability), we live in a world awash with confusion about what is and what is not to be selected as worthy of our attention and effort. Anything goes. Words like “great” and “excellent” are no longer allowed in the name of political correctness which insists that it’s all a matter of opinion.
Interestingly enough, this hasn’t happened in athletics. Though there is a push among those connected with youth athletics to avoid keeping score and to give every participant a trophy at the end of the season (!), by and large those few who stand out in sports are recognizes and praised for a job well done. Perhaps this explains the craziness of those in our culture when it comes to collegiate and professional sports. At last, they seem to think, we can point out the outstanding athletes and discuss over a beer (or three) who were the GREAT ones! We don’t have to worry about political correctness, because everyone knows that some athletes are better than others. There are winners and there are losers and in sports we side with the winners and stand by the losers hoping that they will soon become winners — or because they are our sons and daughters.
My point, of course, is that we have a double standard. We are willing to recognize and talk about greatness on sports — and even allow that losing may teach vital lessons — but we refuse to do so in every other walk of life because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It never seems to occur to us that the “hurt” may become a motivator to push the one who fails to be recognized to work harder in order to become recognized sometime later. Losers who hope to become winners, if you will. It applies in sports, and it most assuredly applies in life as well.
A friend/professora/doctora retired from a selfless career of teaching university students and was given a reception; when she reached ecuador and was unpacking, she asked, ‘would you like to see what they gave me for a lifetime of service?’
yes! i exclaimed…
she held up a t-shirt….
what she didn’t say all but broke my heart, as words were not needed.
i wonder how that university rewards its coaches?
Believe me, I know how she felt! I know of one retired golf coach who was given a leather golf bag upon retirement! I suspect they do very well. They are certainly paid a great deal of money.
‘hard time in academia’ 🙂
Not one of us can do everything well. What you say makes perfect sense – that we should all find what we CAN do, and try to do it well.
And then hope that someone pats us on the head and says “nice job!”
Learning on the job, in the moment and sometimes failing is part of the creative process. Thanks for the post, Hugh.
Indeed. Failure is an important learning tool. We seem to have forgotten that!
There are people who realize themselves early in life and others who need a lifetime of learning and failures to figure it all out.
And some never figure it out! Thanks, Robert.
Hugh, the students know. They flood the classes of professors who teach, where as others have a hard time filling a class. My two youngest in college speak often of preferred professors, versus ones to avoid. And, it is not about ease of class.
I vividly remember how poor my high school Calculus teacher was. She gave us all A’s before weighted classes came later. We learned little. I contrast her effort to my favorite math teacher in high school, who was energetic and you learned through her passion. The same could be said for my favorite college professors.
We must recognize merit, otherwise we penalize the high achievers. This happens often in business with a lower average salary increase of 2%. It flattens the increases for all, hurting the better performers. Good post, Keith
Yes. You and Jill agree. I thought as much, but wasn’t in a position to say.
Good post, Hugh! I have long felt the same, and it isn’t limited to academia. I feel the same about companies that give ‘across the board’ raises … everybody gets the same 2% or 4.5% or whatever. First, it is a slap in the face to those who have worked hard, spent Saturdays and evenings in the office, while others barely put in their 40 hours, doing sub-standard work. Second, where, then, is the incentive to excel? Yes, many of us do (did) it because we take pride in our work, and we do it for our own satisfaction. But other than that, there is really no incentive to work hard and excel, because at the end of the day, everyone receives the exact same.
It shouldn’t matter. But it does. Everyone needs to know when he or she has done good job. It’s basic psychology. People work harder when their efforts are recognized. Yes, there are those like you and me who are motivated to work, but I must say I missed the recognition that I thought I deserved — especially when I retired and received that damned certificate! It is interesting to note that Lisa (“Zebra”) — above — has a friend who has much the same experience.
Yes, a little appreciation goes a long way! I think that is one of the biggest problems in business, and apparently academia also, these days … there is little appreciation for a job well done, and slackers are sometimes kept, or even promoted over the hardest workers.
I do think, in academic at any rate, it is done in order not to get anyone upset. The cynic in me says it is because they fear law suits. And that may be the case in the working world as well. It is a litigious age and people like to feel as though they are the victim — even when they earn the sleight or slack off and don’t deserve to be rewarded. But the fact is some people do a better job than others and that is being lost in the confusion, as is the incentive. The same problem arises in our schools with the growing determination to reward kids for poor work — “entitlement” as they call it. But I won’t go there as I have written about it (some would say) ad nauseam.
I tried to reply to this earlier but when I realised how little sense it made deleted it! I think ideally we would work out as a society how to show we value success and excellence in all walks of life, from bin collecting to astrophysics, given we all have differing abilities and preferences and aptitudes. And accept that some things we value leave other cold – but that doesn’t make them any less worthwhile. Then we can all accept the praise of excellence/endeavour in everything of any value at all. Valuing football expertise, for example, seems silly to me, but valuing classical music seems silly to some (not me) and as for jazz… And a confession … I prefer Rockwell to Rembrandt (though I’m not sure that’s a fair choice to give me, I’d prefer Hockney or Picasso or Monet or … lots of others to Rembrandt) See what I mean? 😉
I gather you’re not a big fan of Rembrandt! Perhaps I should use a different example next time! I think we need be wary about rewarding everyone for everything — that’s what’s happening in American public education and it has lead to a sense of entitlement among young people. But genuine effort should be met with sincere appreciation! Thanks for (both) comments!😊
Oh – and your followers here are a sure sign your knowledge and insights and thinking are highly valued and worth way more than a measly certificate – at least, the ones who’ve already commented are (as opposed to this one who can’t say what she means!). Onwards.
Thanks. I do appreciate the kind words.