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Sur Prizes

Prizes are just things handed out by a bunch of people, not by God. God’s ones don’t come with announcements, are harder to identify, even harder to understand, and often a mixed blessing. The world would be better off without all the awards being handed out in the names of dead people and living corporations. Mostly, the prizes are there to glorify the distributor.

Prizes have some value when they recognize both effort and achievement. The American educational system, as I witnessed in grade schools and universities, has become willing to give prizes for effort independent of achievement, as a kind of faux egalitarian encouragement, very postmodern, and apparently the Europeans are heading that way too. Although it can be fair to acknowledge that sometimes effort itself is an achievement.

Some prizes elevate the person they’re awarded to before he or she has been properly recognized, e.g. Albert Schweitzer, and can act as inspiration to the world. Maybe these are the only defensible ones, in that they can help the person continue their good work.

Other prizes simply recognize someone long after everyone else has. Einstein got his for his explanation of photoelectric effect via the photon, but in his annus mirabilis he also developed the theory of Brownian motion as an indicator of the reality of atoms, and the theory of special relativity. He could have received three prizes in physics alone. His prize was long overdue, had already been pledged to his divorced wife, and was merely a formality, a nice but superfluous coda. He would be no less famous or influential had he never received it.

Some prizes are almost toadying. Fischer Black while he was still alive received some prizes from foundations neither I nor anyone else had ever heard of who were clearly trying to glorify themselves rather than him. Or maybe they were angling for a job at GS.

And some prizes can provide no elevation and simply lower the value of the prize and the people that award it.

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