The previous week saw the social media uproar over the “government service” award given to Palace Communications Assistant Secretary Esther Margaux “Mocha” Uson by the alumni association of the venerable University of Santo Tomas eclipsing, quite irritatingly, more important issues like the eruption of Mayon Volcano and efforts to amend the Constitution.
That silly news cycle, thankfully, is over. There’s a takeaway, however, from the controversy over Uson’s award.
Awards used to be rare commodities, reserved only for the cream of the crop. As such, people attached a tremendous value to them, even if there were no accompanying monetary rewards.
The current generation’s culture of entitlement and hunger for undeserved affirmation however has given rise to the proliferation of awards and honors. From grade school all the way to business school, just anybody gets an award for showing up, hence the “participation award.”
That’s exactly what happened with Uson, whose last-minute confirmation to the UST alumni homecoming landed her a spot on the list of 20 or so government service “awardees.” Cut-outs of her name were hastily pasted on the program; it was literally a patch-up job.
It wasn’t Uson’s fault, actually, as she didn’t campaign to get an award from the UST Alumni Association. The organizers are to blame for thinking of giving such awards in the first place.
As UST’s statement has explained, the university had nothing to do with the alumni association’s awards rites; UST has its own outstanding alumni awards, which it said has a strict vetting process.
If UST already hands out awards to its top alumni, why did the alumni association decide to give its own awards? Why only those in “government service”? Why only 20 people?
The award given to Uson seems to be the kind of accolade in which the award-giver wants to feel more important than the awardee. In such a situation, the latter could feel indebted to the former.
With or without the organizers knowing it, such dynamics decrease the value of the award to the public, especially if such is given to someone who doesn’t deserve it, or if it is freely given and there are no clear and objective criteria.
As scholars Bruno Frey and Janna Gallus write in the new Oxford University Press book titled “Honor versus Money: The Economics of Awards,” “Another reason for bequeathing awards is the private benefits gained by the decision-makers in the award-giving institutions.”
“The media and social attention gained raise their status in society and among peers, making them important personalities. In the case of famous recipients, award givers also share in their glory if the recipients accept the award,” they add.
Frey and Gallus also explain why some awards are prestigious (Nobel, Fields, the Oscars) and others are not. The only way for awards to remain valuable, they argue, is to make them limited.
In the Philippines, alas, awards and award givers are a dime a dozen.
It’s time to make awards prestigious again. The best way to start is to stop giving them away.