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What’s So Great About Excellence? Michael Kinsley on the MacArthur Grants

The Big Mac Awards

This morning the MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of this year's “genius”  grant, awarding $500,000 to 23 writers, scientists, artists, and academics. In 1981, the first year of the fellowship, editor Michael Kinsley took to the pages of TNR to pour cold water on the snooty enterprise.

John D. MacArthur got rich by selling one-dollar life insurance policies through newspaper ads during the Depression. “Dubious” is how Parade magazine charitably described this scheme in 1976, by which time MacArthur was a self-made billionaire and self-styled colorful old codger, fond of shoveling leftover food into his pocket at banquets. When MacArthur died in 1977, he left almost the entire billion to a foundation named after himself and his wife. MacArthur’s own soft spots were for dogs, trees, and the handicapped. But his foundation’s first original venture is a “Prize Fellows Program” designed to “honor a small number of exceptionally talented individuals who have given evidence of originality and dedication to creative pursuits.” The first 21 fellows have just been chosen, with the help of 100 secret nominators scattered throughout the country. Each winner will get $24,000 to $60,000 a year for five years (tax free) plus health care and other expenses, so that they all may “devote themselves to their own creative endeavors.” The net effect of John D. MacArthur’s entrepreneurial life and philanthropic afterlife, then, will have been to take one dollar each from a large number of poor and ignorant people, assemble the money into somewhat larger amounts, and give these piles to a very few members of the prosperous, educated elite. 

People, even editorial writers, have compared the MacArthur Foundation scheme to that old television series, “The Millionaire,” in which an anonymous financier dispatched one-million-dollar checks to unsuspecting ordinary people. But the premises of the two enterprises are quite different. The charm of “The Millionaire” was the spectacle of fate being flouted. Life had dealt these characters a lousy hand, but suddenly they had a royal flush. The MacArthur Foundation, by contrast, sees itself as fate’s midwife, combing the nation for life’s winners and making sure they are delivered safely into affluence and esteem.

Fate rarely needs such help. The redundancy of the exercise is well illustrated by the names of the first MacArthur Fellows. Roderick MacArthur, son of John D., seems to believe that his selections are more exotic than those of similar exercises that are the stock-in-trade of other foundations, fellowships, prize committees, and so on. “It’s a high-risk venture,” he told the newspapers, “. . . the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.” In fact, far from requiring 100 anonymous tipsters, putting together a list like this is a parlor game. Given one or two of the names, many people could come up with half a dozen others without even knowing what the list was for. It could be this year’s honorary degree recipients at Princeton, or a Presidential Commission on the Future of Values, or the celebrity endorsers for a particularly tony Scotch advertising campaign. Round up the usual suspects; check for diversity of fields, sexes, races; call the press conference.

What philanthropic purpose is served, for example, by conferring yet another honor on Robert Penn Warren, dear old poet though he may be? Warren won a Rhodes Scholarship back in 1928. Since then, according to Who’s Who, he has been the official poet of the Library of Congress, the Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and winner of the Levinson Prize, the Caroline Sinkler Prize, the Shelley Prize, the Robert Metzler Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize, the National Book Award, the Irita Van Doren Literary Award, the Van Wyck Brooks Award, the National Medal for Literature, the Emerson-Thoreau Award, the Copernicus Prize, three Pulitzer Prizes, and honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and 12 other colleges.

Robert Coles, the Harvard psychologist and another MacArthur Fellow, has won many of the same prizes as Warren (though only one Pulitzer), plus others. He accepted five honorary degrees in 1978 alone. The MacArthur list includes two other Pulitzer Prize winners (Carl Schorske, the Princeton historian, and James Alan MacPherson, the novelist), one other well-known Harvard professor (biologist Stephen Jay Gould), and at least one other Harvard honorary degree recipient (Elma Lewis, who promotes arts for poor blacks in Boston). Even the ones you may not have heard of are identified as having “won honors for her poetry, film-making and plays” (Leslie Marmon Silko, a 33-year-old Pueblo Indian) or having “received a number of awards” (Robert S. Root-Bernstein, a biochemist at the Salk Institute).

NOT ONE of the first MacArthur Fellows is suffering from lack of recognition for his or her talents. What’s more, though some probably can use the money more than others, not one really faces financial obstacles to exercising his or her creativity. They are already doing whatever it is the MacArthur Foundation admires them for doing, many are doing quite well at it, and presumably they will keep on doing it, unless this windfall encourages them to stop.

What the MacArthur Foundation really seems to be rewarding is a sort of generalized capacity for receiving honors. In doing so, it has created the ultimate credential in a credential-obsessed society, a reductio ad absurdum of meritocracy. Other exercises of this sort, from the Nobel Prize downward, generally require excellence to manifest itself in some concrete form, and/or insist that the honor is contingent on some duty or other. The MacArthur people wish to celebrate merit in the abstract, and seem perfectly content to let it stay abstract. Thus their prize raises most clearly the question of what social function these exercises perform. Why is celebrating excellence considered a legitimate function of charities, and even of the government itself? That is, since the winners of these awards generally are winners in the larger sense, what good do these awards do for life’s losers? 

For a democracy, we are strangely tolerant, and even enamored, of gratuitous invidious distinctions between people. I once had a fancy fellowship at a time when it was not open to women. A great fuss was made about this and the rules were changed, as they should have been. But I could never get worked up over the notion that excluding women was unfair, because the fellowship, like all such institutions, was unfair by its nature. It was restricted to men, it was restricted to citizens of certain countries, it was restricted to college graduates of a certain age. More fundamentally, it was restricted to the sort of people who win fellowships—smart, glib, capable of moderate-to-excessive obsequiousness. All these restrictions but the first remain. The founder of this fellowship, like John D. MacArthur, had made his money by exploiting the sort of people who don’t win fellowships. The only way to make the fellowship fair would be to dismantle it and give the money back, but I could never get my fellow fellows worked up over that notion. Thank goodness.

Prizes of this sort are considered part of the general incentive and reward structure that makes our society and our economy function. Perhaps some narrowly focused honors really do have this effect, operating on, say, artists or scientists like the profit motive on a business executive. But take something like the “Kennedy Center Honors,” created three years ago because, according to Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens, "We believe that there is a need in this country for national recognition of individuals who enrich our lives and our culture by their life work in the field of the performing arts.” A “need”? The first winners were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Artur Rubenstein. Have they really been underappreciated and underrewarded for their contributions to our cultural life? Is there another potentially great hoofer out there somewhere who has considered Fred Astaire’s career—the fame, the glamor, the money, the love of millions, the other awards—and who has decided it’s not worth it, until he reads that Fred has won the Kennedy Center Honors, and decides not to become a dentist after ail? That’s what you have to believe in order to suppose that giving Fred Astaire one more award serves any useful purpose.

Here’s another one. George F. Kennan recently was awarded the 1981 Albert Einstein Peace Prize. The prize, worth $50,000, was established two years ago by the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation, presumably to encourage peace through the price mechanism. Would George Kennan be any less for peace without the prospect of $50,000 before his eyes? It is a libel even to suggest as much. Have George Kennan’s previous efforts for peace been thwarted by poverty and obscurity? It would be hard to say this of the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, sundry honorary degrees, the usual. Is anyone going to work harder for peace on the off chance that someone might give him $50,000? Unlikely. So what has the Albert Einstein Peace Prize done for peace?

Roderick MacArthur said in unveiling the MacArthur Prize Fellows Program, “This program is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father.” But in fact it reflects precisely the opposite attitude. John D. MacArthur was self-made. He left school in the eighth grade and worked in a bakery, at a gas station, in the army, and at various entrepreneurial schemes. The basic theory of meritocracy is that in a free society the meritocratic virtues—imagination, daring, hard work—will produce their own reward, and in John D. MacArthur’s case, for better or worse, they did. But there is no such thing as a self-made MacArthur Prize Fellow. This reward must be conferred. The MacArthur program, with its 100 “talent scouts” and its predictable standards, perfectly symbolizes the spirit of credentialism, in which these same meritocratic virtues are tested for in the laboratory and rewarded from the common fund. The enterprise is not merely silly, but snooty: an exercise in invidious distinction for its own sake.

This article originally appeared in the June 6, 1981 issue of the magazine.