Tag Archives: genius

MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free

9 Oct

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I’ve thought it too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:

Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists…but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.

Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:

“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father – the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.”

“If only a handful produce something of importance – whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences – it will have been worth the risk.”

My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency. Continue reading