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A Case Against Government Awards of Recognition
(Particularly by Schools)
Rick Garlikov

While it may be true that people who are singled out for special recognition for their work and given awards are deserving of the praise and honors bestowed upon them, it is not right, except in one kind of case, for government organizations or public institutions to bestow such awards. That is because many other people who also are deserving are mistakenly not recognized and are, with the one kind of exception, therefore implied to be undeserving. It is unfair and demoralizing to people who are deserving to imply they are not by recognizing a limited group of others as being those, and thus only those, who are meritorious. The process of selection in these cases is not only subjective but subject to the vagaries of chance knowledge and familiarity. 

That does not mean that merit, character, and achievement should go unrecognized. It just means the recognition should be of a personal or private institutional nature, not a governmental one. However, since the same problems plague even private institutions in selecting those to be given awards, many of the same arguments below will apply.

The possible exception is where awards or honors are given in a way that show they are non-exclusive and are obviously deserved because of something meritorious that is apparent to almost anyone. If someone does something obviously exceptional or worthy, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out publicly, as long as there is not the implication attached to it that this act or this person is the only one worthy of praise or honor, and as long as there is not the implication that this is the most worthy act or person, since that may not be true, and should therefore not be the official position of a governmental agency.

Part of what makes institutional awards seem exclusive is that they are given out on something like an annual event where some, or some specific pre-determined quota of, people are singled out as deserving of awards. The implication in such a situation is that those not being so honored are not deserving, or are less deserving. That is a very different thing from an institution's praising or honoring someone whose contribution they have noticed and particularly want to point out and explain. In this latter case, the institution makes quite clear their recognition does not exclude anyone else's merit, and that they are simply praising someone for something that has been particularly noticed while not implying what has gone unnoticed that other people may have done is any less important or worthy.

Subjectivity of Exclusive Awards

First, awards for general contributions or general character traits are subjective in either or both of two ways:
(1) Belief that a person has met the criteria for recognition are in many cases subjective; e.g., rewarding a student for "effort" can easily be mistaken in that the student may be going through the motions of physically taking notes, copying passages, spending time with their book open, etc. but may not be doing the kind of thinking about the material that is the important effort needed to learn. Their effort may be primarily physical, instead of mental. In a similar vein, often players who can not find favor with the coach of one team will not only find it with another coach, but will demonstrate star quality when they do. Talent, merit, effort, or character of any sort may be recognized by some people while others are oblivious to it. Enrico Caruso is today considered to be the finest opera singer of the entire 20th century, but he had great difficulty as a boy finding a voice teacher because none of the ones he went to thought he had sufficient talent to teach.

(2) The criteria themselves may be subjective, so that even when they are obviously and objectively met, the process is still subjective or ultimately arbitrary. If, for example, loyalty in an organization is prized above honesty, then "character" recognition will be a reflection of those who are considered the most loyal people, not necessarily the people who might be recognized as having good character by those who consider honesty, common daily kindness, good results, good intentions, or some other criteria, or combination of criteria, as equally or more important. 

Chance Knowledge and Familiarity

Because awards involve recognition of merit, they involve doing something that is noticed by someone in a position to select those who will receive the awards. That means what one does has to be noticed by people in a position to bestow the awards. This could mean doing things for such people or doing things those people are likely to see or hear about. That often requires some sort of proximity or relationship, and it tends to eliminate from consideration those who do things quietly for people who "do not count" or in places or at times not likely to be seen by those who select honorees. 

Even in those cases where anyone may nominate someone for an award, it still requires that the candidate did something that on behalf of or in front of someone willing to make such nominations who remembers to do it. It is my contention that many people contribute a great deal in ways that go unnoticed or unremembered, and they often do it for people who are not likely to think to report it as something deserving of special company wide recognition. A personal expression of heartfelt gratitude for something particularly special, and a simple thank you, general appreciation, cooperation, and reciprocal behavior for normal decency and kindness seems to be the proper recognition to most people, not a report up the ladder to some awards committee or supervisor. One should not be penalized for benevolence to people who do not tattle about it, while those who may do less for those more vocal or in positions of authority receive the awards. 

Furthermore, most people take pride and satisfaction in doing the right thing, and do not require some sort of official recognition for doing it. The need for official recognition is likely only fostered by the existence of such ceremonies because those who do not seek any particular recognition under normal circumstances will not normally appreciate being left out of such a program if it is going to be held. People who don't miss a party that is never held will justifiably feel hurt by not being invited to one that is.

I worked in an office one time where someone was promoted based on obvious coincidence in being noticed. It was even funny. There were staggered shifts in this particular office and one fellow's shift coincided mostly with the hours that the boss kept, beginning just prior to the time the boss usually arrived at work. Moreover, because this worker could never figure out anything for himself he was always asking the boss questions about his cases, and because he was slow, he worked late in order to keep up with his, quite normal, workload. What the boss perceived was someone who was conscientious enough to work all hours, stay late, and be so inclined toward perfection that he was diligent in consultation. Other people in the office were far more competent and conscientious, but they worked at the wrong time or did not require the boss's attention and therefore did not receive his notice. 

One of the noticeable threads in a book about corporate leadership (Big Boys : Power and Position in American Business; Ralph Nader and William Taylor; New York: Pantheon Books, c1986) is that those who have risen to the pinnacle of power in established international corporations are often those people who work for the person who works for the person who works for the person that works ... for the CEO, so that as each CEO stepped down and influenced the appointment of his successor, the eventual CEO simply moved along up the ladder with his immediate superior. It is not that each successive CEO did not deserve the job; it is that those who may have deserved the job equally or more were not necessarily in the right position to be able to be noticed and promoted by someone in power.

One of the interesting things to me is that often those who are appointed to boards or other positions of influence based totally on their celebrity or wealth - boards or positions for which they have absolutely no experience, reasonable preparation, training, or apparent qualification - rise to the occasion and make a great contribution to the institution or to society. The question that raises in my mind is how much greater any society or culture would be if more people were simply given the opportunity to be in a position of power to do more good. It seems to me that if, say, an athlete or movie star, can make a great civic or corporate contribution, perhaps millions of other normal people could do the same thing if only given the opportunity. If that is correct, then limiting power and/or recognition to a chosen noticed few in any institution also limits the amount of good that gets achieved.

In closing, official recognition ceremonies that honor a predetermined number of people implicitly demean, deprecate, dishonor, and disserve those deserving people who are not honored. Because the selection process is usually not objective or accurate, it is unfair to the deserving people not chosen and it potentially lowers their morale. Whatever benefits to morale and workplace attitude are achieved by those who are honored are more than likely offset by disappointment and perceived injustice of those deserving people not recognized, and by the envy of those who may or may not be equally deserving. This may even be more particularly true with regard to children, who are not as likely as adults to understand subjectivity, and is then particularly counterproductive and cruel.

Moreover, award ceremonies are not usually necessary, especially if people throughout a company, institution, or industry show, on a personal level, proper appreciation, respect, and reciprocity for all talent, deserving effort, and quality work they see. Recognition of merit need not be official, because often official recognition is simply only the personal recognition of someone in power to speak for an institution. It therefore demeans not only the merit of those deserving people not recognized, but it demeans the appreciation of others that is held by those people not in a position to speak for the institution. It is bad enough that private institutions and industries do this to their employees and colleagues. There is no excuse for government officials (including school administrators) to do it by speaking for society in an official capacity.

The possible exception to the above is if everyone in an organization wants to make known some sort of appreciation for something particularly noticeable, wants to do it as an event in order to share the joy, and it is clear that the honor is not somehow exclusive or unappreciative or disparaging of the merit of others.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.