Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Problem With Awards

"Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need." (Emily Dickenson)

Though I grew up in a privileged world, we didn't have many awards ceremonies. I was in the Boy Scouts for a short time and remember going to an Order of the Arrow ceremony, but that was it. I believe that the prevailing philosophy was two fold: 1) that our accomplishments were minimal and 2) that the "reason" for learning was the joy of the process and not for the awards.

When my kids were growing up, I noticed a shift. There were awards everywhere. Kids would get awards for going to award ceremonies. And they (and their parents) seem to buy these accomplishments as milestones in their lives.

One of my teachers used to tell the story that when he was young he won a number of blue ribbons in an art exhibit. His teacher came up to him and said, "remember, you're paintings are never be any bigger than you are."

I called up this teacher one day when I was a hotshot senior in college and complained, upon submitting my work to some art competitions, that I had received a number of rejections. He brilliantly answered, "you must not be any good." That was the last time I complained about not getting an award.

There was a study done a few years ago about the self-esteem of students versus their chances of success in school. It was found that Asians had the lowest self-esteem but the greatest chance of success...and Americans the opposite.

A pet peeve of mine is that the award ceremony often focuses on the individual and not on their accomplishments. I like it when the MC tells what this person did to achieve such divine status. And not that their accomplishment is that they survived for 30 years. Awards should be for more than longevity.

My grandson learned to crawl yesterday and was able to investigate a silver ball in the corner of the room that he has eyed for his entire life. His award is that he gets to touch the ball and explore his own image in it. But suppose his parents pick him up and congratulate him for his accomplishment. Then will he start to explore for parental approval? And suppose he is an adolescent and wants parental disapproval. Is he going to then start on negative behavior?

Grades (especially inflated grades) are part of this culture of awards. Not once has a student said that they deserve an "A" because they've learned so much. Instead they argue that the teacher didn't give them the questions in advance, or that the teacher came late to class, or that someone else got an A so they should as well.

We just had the academy awards. Did any movie become better or worse because of the award(s) it did or didn't get? Of course not.

Another problem with awards is the way that it puts one's accomplishments above others. We achieve in so many ways, that sometimes we think less of ourselves because we didn't do as well in what someone else believes deems most important.

I remember how I squirmed when my great niece (who is truly great) told me that she was the second or third smartest kid in her class. How are these kids being rated and what damage is being done? Don't their teachers realize that we are all good (and bad) at different activities. And that the "story is not over until the end."

Well, to all those who received an award yesterday. Please put it away in the back of your deepest closet and today crawl toward that silver ball just because you want to see the funny little kid reflected in its shiny surface.

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