Writing in 3:AM Magazine, Steve Light has much the same view on the MacArthur Foundations "Big Mac" awards that I do: of macarthur grants, regimes of visibility and meritocratic orders. They give entirely too many awards to people who don't really need them, though these may, in fact, be bright and interesting folks. He mentions the he once heard an interview with a Cal Tech professor who'd just gotten his hit of special sauce on a sesame seed bun:
Yes, he said that he didn’t actually need this grant because as a professor at Cal Tech he already had all the institutional and foundational support necessary to carry out his work. He didn’t speak about professors in the humanities but I would add that although the institutional and foundational support for humanities research is much less than in the sciences, the paramount means by which an individual in modern and contemporary times can carry out research and writing in the humanities is precisely by obtaining a tenure track or tenured position at a research university or at a university or college in general. But in certain respects this was already true two centuries ago as the example of the primary exponents of German Classical Philosophy, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, shows. Many humanities recipients who have thus far been recipients of MacArthur Grants haven’t needed the grants either. [Note: When this essay was originally drafted I did not know that Heather McHugh, a superb and renowned poet and translator and also a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington, had received a MacArthur Award and that she had done something absolutely extraordinary with her award and, thereby, demonstrated precisely what the Cal Tech professor had stipulated, i.e. that he already had the infrastructure and support necessary to do his work. Heather McHugh, as a poet, works in a field with absolutely little or no remuneration for the vast majority whether esteemed and renowned or not, but as a professor at a research university she has a salary enabling her to live solidly within the middle class and to have lifetime security financially. What did she do with her award? She used her award money to set up a foundation, Caregifters, which provides caregivers respite and getaways from one of the more difficult of human tasks, respite (in the form of travels or journeys or vacations) from the tribulations, anxieties, exhaustion, and utmost stress that care-giving, particularly for the elderly, entails. What beautiful, truly beautiful and admirable generosity on Heather McHugh’s part! What a beautiful social conscience! Would that others would follow her example!].
At the end of the piece Light names a half-dozen or so people whom he thinks deserve support but who are not getting it.