by Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD
This is a collection consisting of parts of two letters, an essay, a speech, and a final comment. The subject is awards and the main point is that awards are part of the process by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I now wish to go on record as saying that I disapprove of any type of scholarship that is based on “merit” rather than need. More intelligent or more athletic persons are already blessed with a surplus; there is no need for society to provide them with additional advantages. One might even question whether an accident of birth ought to be considered merit. Even the propensity for hard work might be an accident of birth.
Dear Prof. H.,
Congratulations on your award. I won an academic award once and when it came time to step up there in front of 200 people to refuse it, I didn't have the guts. (Besides that, my wife told me what she'd do to me if I “made a scene”.) So, I certainly don't blame you for accepting a little recognition for all your hard work. That's one of the reasons we do it, isn't it! But, there are still a number of difficulties with receiving such an award and having an article about oneself printed on the front page of The Houston Post Style Section, on the same page as Betsy Parish's gossip column. Just in case you are not aware of them, let me point them out.
1) What is the probability that you really are the outstanding professor in America? I submit that it is very low but probably greater than one divided by the number of professors, since probably you are pretty good.
2) When you receive such an award, every other professor receives an un-award. What will be the effect on them?
3) Should teaching and scholarship be placed in a competitive arena? They are, but is that proper? Remember the ultimate competition is war.
4) Should academics be drawn into the star system, where deeds and events are blown out of proportion with mountains of hype?
In the music business there is an obscene difference between the incomes of the top 1% and the incomes of the bottom 99%. There are pure stars, i.e., personalities that have no attribute other than stardom itself. (I exaggerate somewhat. What I mean is there are famous musicians who can't play music.) The star system has all but destroyed music, mainly because nearly all musicians are now willing to make whatever compromise is necessary to become a star. It is difficult enough to play music when the motivation is pure. When it is corrupt, nearly impossible. (Eventually all who pander to fame sabotage their own talent, in music as in literature.)
Is this what we want to happen to academics? It has already started to happen. The star system is vicious; it is a magnification of one of the worst problems in the world today, namely, the differences between the rich and the poor.
September 19, 1989
The reply to this letter stated the usual benefits of awards: (i) the award called attention to the importance of teaching, (ii) it gave the author a chance to express his views, and (iii) it might attract more people to the teaching profession, which is perceived to be better appreciated because of the award. Further, his reply did not address any of the drawbacks of awards enumerated in my letter.
I replied as follows:
Thanks for your letter of January 2cd, however I do not think that your reply is altogether satisfactory. By your own admission the award has allowed you to have greater influence on the community, including the teaching community, than non-winners (losers?) have. This is just the sort of inequity that I find unacceptable. It doesn't matter that your ideas about teaching are correct, if they are. Also, it is not clear that attracting more people to the teaching profession, as it is presently constituted, is a benefit. If the new people don't see anything wrong with the system, they will do more harm than good. If they do recognize the moral bankrupcy of the academies, they are guaranteed to be miserable, unless they are outstanding geniuses blessed with an extraordinary vision of a better world and the will to carry it out, in which case they don't need you to influence them.
But there is something more disturbing still in your reply. Your letter leaves us in a position similar to that of a mathematician who has both a proof and a counterexample to the same theorem and can't find a mistake in the proof. I think the proper thing for you to do is look for a mistake in my argument and indicate the first sentence that is in error and why.
Perhaps you grow weary of this discussion. Perhaps you feel you are in a position to continue your work of reform without further discussion of fundamentals. If so, I beg you to reconsider. I don't believe we have a good grasp on where we should be going. Unfortunately, I have not collected my thoughts on academia in a single paper yet [however see “On Honor in Science”, submitted to The American Scientist and available from the author], but I could send you some mini-essays taken from a number of papers and documents, including a grievance document I prepared for a committee at Clarkson University. I think these ideas deserve individual consideration. Is it possible that a forum for discussion of the direction academia should take could be initiated? Can we engage in concerted effort to institute much needed reforms? I do not believe Bennett, Hirsch, and Adler understand the problem at all. I am following the debate on the canon somewhat and I do not hear the voice of reason among the debaters.
January 5, 1990
So far (March 2, 1990), I have not received a reply to this letter.
Why Common Cause Should Not Sponsor Awards
The history of society can be analysed in terms of cycles of corruption and reform. People become powerful. Power corrupts. Forces for reform gather. The powerful are swept away and replaced by reformers. The reformers grow powerful. Power corrupts. ... It seems as though the cycles will never end and many religionists believe that they will never end until a savior comes walking through the clouds or some such supernatural event occurs. If so, we are probably wasting our time, but no one has ever proved that a just regime can never be established. In my opinion, it is possible for a society to exist with freedom, equality, justice, prosperity, and abundant leisure provided that society is informed by the highest sense of morals.
By morals, I do not mean religious superstition or sexual and pharmacological prudery. I am referring to respect for the freedom of others (and their posterity), respect for the environment, and respect for truth.
The active members of Common Cause are reformers. Even if they don't intend to replace the current regime, they intend to exert an important influence on the people who do replace it. The structure of the political system may not change, but, presumably, the cement that holds the structure together is to be made of nobler stuff. Thus, it is crucial that Common Cause conduct its own affairs with the greatest possible (perfect?) moral integrity. If the soil is poisoned, can the tree grow up straight and healthy? Let us agree that whatever is done by Common Cause must be based on the highest possible morals. To complete my argument that Common Cause should not sponsor awards, then, I need only show that giving awards is never consistent with the highest possible morals.
An acquaintance of mine (a person I can't stand) made an excellent suggestion concerning the constitution of the International Olympic Games. As we all know, the Olympic Games are a mess, with each nation playing according to its own rules pertaining to who may participate, the financial support the competitors may receive, the policing of the use and non-use of steroids and other substances, etc. His suggestion was that all competitions that are decided by the number of points assigned subjectively by judges be eliminated or reformed so that at the end of the competition everyone knows who won. In basketball, football, and baseball we always know who wins by the number of points or runs scored. In a foot race the runner that crosses the finish line first wins. Period. But in gymnastics, figure skating, water ballet, etc. the judges decide how many points to assign to each competitor and the competition is never fair. There is point inflation as the contest proceeds; the judges have national preferences; the reaction of the crowd influences the judges; there is a home-team advantage (or disadvantage); etc. The awards given by Common Cause are like the awards given in diving and syncronized swimming. They are never fair. I'd like to give you a specific example of some very sour grapes. An award was given to Felton West for journalism. Now, Felton West is indeed a journalist and as part of his job he writes a column in The Houston Post that appears several times a week. This is a tremendous advantage for a writer; he has a platform from which he can express his views. Felton West is not a liar, which is more than I can say for some journalists, and, occasionally, he says something that shows genuine courage; so, these remarks are not intended to detract from Felton West. But, there are writers who write better than Felton West, who have deeper insights into what's wrong with America and how to fix it, and who have not spent years working for an establishment organization. This might be part of the reason they do not have permanent podiums and are not invited to write editorials. In addition to an editorial position on a major daily newspaper Felton West now has a prestigious (?) award to give him an advantage over these more-deserving writers.
Just so you don't think the set of writers offended by the award is empty, I'll admit what you must have already guessed: I'm a member of that set. I think I deserve the award more than Felton West does. What I write is more profound and more to the point. Moreover, I'm a better writer ... or so I say. I have sent many letters to the editor of The Houston Post and he hasn't printed a single one even though my remarks have been original, definitive, and incontrovertible ... or so I say. So, what chance do I have of getting a column on the editorial page! Maybe I'm wrong about the quality of my writing. That's not the point. The point is that it was never given a fair trial and there is no way to judge it with certainty even if it were given a trial; therefore, giving the award to someone else shows disrespect (disregard) for the truth, which is immoral. Q.E.D.
If Common Cause wants to give an award for some sort of endeavor it must be certain that the best person gets the award, i.e., that the contest is fair. But, contests like this are never fair. Arm wrestling is fair. Would Common Cause like to give an award for arm wrestling! In any case, when you give an award to one person, you give a nonaward to everyone else in that field of endeavor. In the next section, I show that, even if the awards could be distributed fairly, they would be harmful and can be shown to be immoral.
In America today we have a crisis of importance. Importance, as recognized by society, can be defined to be a combination of wealth, power, prestige, and fame. These attributes can be converted one into the other according to certain laws, which vary from time to time and place to place. Differences in wealth are tearing our nation apart. The millions in jail are only a small percentage of the people who commit crimes that can be traced directly to poverty. The streets are not safe. In Los Angeles killing a driver of an expensive foreign car is a form of initiation for some teen-age gang members. They don't have to worry about killing an innocent person, as all are guilty.
The differences in wealth are nothing compared to the differences in importance. The star system and the cult of fame pervert people's sense of self-worth. People feel worthless. “If you are not famous, you are nothing.” Why should a young teenager want to see his graffiti in a public place? Because it gives him the feeling that he actually exists. A comic-strip child sees her grandfather on TV and exclaims, “Gee Gramps, you are a real person!” “Senseless” crimes should be called “very understandable crimes”. At least, if you commit a horrible crime, you will be on TV and in the papers, even if you don't live to see it. You will be somebody. Who ever heard of Ivan Boesky until he committed his crime? He may have been wealthy and powerful, but he was not a household word. The conviction may have increased his feeling of self-worth. This is a sad state of affairs, but it is the natural result of competition for importance. The awards game is vicious. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. One begins by getting good grades in school, for which one is awarded an academic prize and membership in an honor society, awards for having gotten other awards. These go on the resume and lead to the the awarding of a larger salary. Each new award becomes a credential to be used to acquire further awards. Finally, prestige is converted to wealth.
Countless artists and academicians have played that game, blowing their own horns and, sometimes, bribing judges. In Richard Barker's biography of the great Marcel Proust, one learns how Proust manipulated the judges for the coveted Goncourt Prize in literature, routinely taking critics to The Ritz for dinners that cost 2000 francs!
Everyone is familiar with the nauseating Academy Awards for motion picture “art” that are broadcast on TV. Can you imagine? awards for popular music? Executions would better serve humanity. Many scholars, scientists, or artists, such as Proust, have genuine merit, but the star system has progressed to the point where people are celebrated who have no attribute worthy of celebration other than fame itself. I call these people “pure stars”. Their stardom is unadulterated by genuine worth. In the music business things have gotten as bad as they can possibly get (although next year's outrages may prove me wrong). The highest-paid 1% make millions while the bottom 99% struggle. People are recognized as superstars who have negligible musical talent or ability. The result is that one cannot get through a single day without having one's ears assaulted, if not by going into a public place or by being put on hold when calling one's dentist, then by having a neighbor with a “hi-fi” set that is designed to emphasize everything that is out of proportion and in the worst possible taste.
The fundamental axiom of morality is that one is free to do anything one pleases so long as the freedom of others is not abridged. This is the prehistoric basis for society, giving everyone his own share and space. When one person accumulates greater wealth and importance than another that margin of excess can be used to abridge the freedom of the other, in one case by purchasing excess political power, in another by bidding up the price of land and acquiring unfair access to part of the earth's surface, in another by holding a stronger negotiating position in an economic transaction, which might be the employment of one person by another, a practice that is essentially immoral, as is easily shown. Thus, and this is the bottom line, awards aid and abet the exaltation of one person over another person, which, in turn, leads to all the excesses and disorder of modern society. The exaltation of one person over another is immoral, therefore awards are immoral. Q.E.D.
It is essential for Common Cause to adhere to the highest principles of moral behavior, since Common Cause will influence the morals of the leaders who replace the immoral leaders we have now. Awards of the type given in the recent awards banquet are never fair, which is an affront to truth and justice, which is immoral. Even if they were fair, they would exacerbate the differences between the haves and the have-nots, which is immoral. Moreover, they would perpetuate the loathsome star system, which is immoral. Thus, in order to maintain the highest standards of morality, Common Cause should abandon the giving of awards.
Let's face it folks, Common Cause benefits even more from the award than does the recipient, thus the whole business is deceitful and improper from the beginning. Please examine your consciences. The end does not justify the means. The well-meaning but harmful reformer is practically a proverb. We don't want to be like that.
December 4, 1989
Elitism Is Elitism
What is Common Cause (CC) trying to achieve? CC is trying to achieve a society wherein, for the first time in history, political power resides with the people on an equitable basis. This was the dream of the founding fathers, in so far as they were able to determine who was a person. They believed in one-man-one-vote, although they were not clear about what constituted a man. Most of us have come to realize that all adult persons should have equal political power. This is called egalitarian democracy. The concept of elitism, whereby certain persons are regarded as privileged, either because of birth, wealth, popularity, achievement, even intelligence, is the antithesis of egalitarianism. The powerful members of government and the political power brokers consider themselves an elite class, as do other members of the ruling class.
For those of you who do not recognize the existence of a ruling class, I shall attempt a definition. I could define the ruling class by virtue of its attributes, but that wouldn't prove the class isn't empty. It's better to define the ruling class by naming its members, then there is no question as to the existence of the ruling class. Of course, one might still doubt whether the attributes of the members give the ruling class the power to rule. While it is true that no one has absolute power, it is necessary only that people exist who have a disproportionate share of (political) power in order for democracy to be subverted.
The ruling class consists of: Everyone who can afford to give $50,000/year or more to political campaigns, PACs, or lobbies. I chose the number 50,000 for definiteness. [Clearly, large accumulations of wealth (in the hands of individuals) subvert democracy unless people are on their honor not to use wealth to gain influence or to sponsor political campaigns and people are on their honor not to be influenced by wealth.]
Other members of the ruling class are holders of high office, unless they are ruled by the will of the people, high-ranking bureaucrats, the heads of corporations, the most important lobbyists, the leaders of the military, the presidents of the “great” universities, academic superstars, church leaders, organized crime bosses, leaders of secret societies, such as the Masons or the Knights of Columbus, who might be able to dictate the policies of elected officials, members of conspiracies, such as the Trilateral Commission, if they exist, leaders of enterprises, other than government, that have a great influence on society, such as the AMA, the NAACP (maybe), perhaps even CC, people who have acquired enough prestige, possibly by receiving awards, to be able to influence any of the above, and, perhaps, others.
This may seem like a lot of people, but it probably doesn't amount to more than 1% of the population. The attribute that is shared by all of these people is a disproportionate share of political power and influence. For all practical purposes, the U.S. is a plutocracy rather than a democracy.
Members of the ruling class generally consider themselves entitled to privileges that CC is trying to prevent them from enjoying. These privileges usually increase their opportunities to accumulate even more wealth, power, and privilege, thus perpetuating their class and, of course, elitism itself. My objection to the CC Awards was a two-pronged attack on elitism. The manner in which the invitations to the awards dinner were distributed, to the rich only, was elitist. The event itself, a fancy dinner in fancy clothes in a fancy hotel, was elitist. Thus, I recommend that, instead of an event for 60 people paying $25 each, we substitute an event for 3400 people paying just $5 each. If only 300 people attended, the proceeds would be the same. A possibility for such an event is a pot-luck picnic to which holders of political offices would be invited to answer questions from the membership-at-large of Houston CC. The office-holders are already office-holders, so we would be doing nothing to enhance their elite status. The questions would come from whoever raises his or her hand, so there is nothing elitist about that. The second, and main, thrust of my attack was an attack on awards themselves, which tend to create a new elite and perpetuate the notion that elitism is harmless. There is no possibility that CC will be able to have a desirable effect on society unless it recognizes that elitism is elitism and that all forms of elitism are part and parcel of the same thing - an institution that is incongruent with an egalitarian democracy.
February 18, 1990
I can understand why we might think that we will never be able to effect positive social change. After all, if Congress were ever in danger of doing the will of the people and the will of the people were congruent with the best interests of the people, i.e., people were not hopelessly brainwashed, the ruling class would simply dissolve Congress on some pretext or other. We cannot even arrange for existing laws to be obeyed. I can even understand why we might continue to engage in destructive acts even though we know better. All of us are prone to commit numerous errors of omission and commission every day due to thoughtlessness and stupidity. We even engage in premeditated, cold-blooded, institutionalized evil because we are in the habit of doing so. But what I don't understand is how we can continue to deceive ourselves even after we have been presented with incontrovertible logic. Perhaps Molly Ivin's recent quote of Upton Sinclair explains the problem. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.”
February 26, 1990