Awards aren’t evil

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A few days ago, @corisel posted this thoughtful reflection on awards in teaching. It’s well written and touches on a really important point: that teaching is a team sport. A single child is raised by a community of educators, not by any one teacher in isolation. So, individualistic awards can be a dangerous thing; they can wrongly emphasise the recognition of one person over the whole group that is really responsible for any positive thing that has been achieved.

The whole discussion reminded me of someone else who was very opposed to the whole system of awards that seems to exist in every field under the sun. That person was the renowned physicist Richard Feynman.


Feynman was an incredible scientist, but he was also an amazing personality. If you’ve got 10 minutes and want to marvel at his life, watch this very entertaining video about him by Scishow. The relevant fact about him, though, was that he hated the idea of awards. As in education, science is always a group endeavour. Every discovery stands on the progress and work of others. So, Feynman argued, it was wrong to recognise individuals with awards. In one TV interview he said:

I don’t like honours… I don’t need anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone… should decide this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use. Those are the real things; the honours are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honours. It bothers me. Honours bother me!

His words seem to capture the essence of what many people have been saying so far in the discussion. But there’s more to the story. Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 – and given his whole stance on things, you would expect him to have refused the prize (he wouldn’t have been the first). However, he didn’t; he accepted the prize. This wasn’t just because he wanted his name up in lights all of a sudden. He actually went through a philosophical reversal about prizes when he saw the response of his friends and the common populace when he was awarded the prize. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he said:

And so, you Swedish people, with your honours, and your trumpets, and your king – forgive me. For I understand at last – such things [awards] provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you.

His point is that awards have a power to draw attention to things that are good, and make people aware and curious about good things that they otherwise would not have done. Yes, they can be abused – they can be pursued for selfish reasons or given out as mere political gestures – but the awards themselves are not bad. In fact, they can be wonderful.

All this is just to think through the other side of things. I have no personal stake in the issue as I’ve never done anything to deserve such awards anyhow! But I thought it interesting and thought it would be nice to hear another point of view (namely Feynman’s – not mine).


One thought on “Awards aren’t evil

    No Longer an Echo Chamber | About Teaching said:
    January 9, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    […] particularly pleased to see that it had inspired Eddie Woo had gone to the effort of writing his own post in reply. Eddie offers another perspective, which I don’t disagree with, yet I still stand by the opinions […]

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