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The MacArthur Foundation — You Can’t Get There From Here!
I did something today that I often regret: I got curious. Something I was reading suggested the idea of finding out what those MacArthur Foundation fellowships were all about, and I checked out the Foundation’s web site. Now I wish I hadn’t because it has me all annoyed and disillusioned. Heretofore I thought that there was something special about those independent financial grants, but now it’s obvious that it doesn’t take a genius to see the sham in it.
I’d heard about these awards for many years, how they were grants to certain special people to pursue their goals independently for a few years. After reading about how the whole process works, I know better now. The web site lists people who have received grants this year and in past years. I’ve known lots of people over the decades who have been very dedicatedly slaving away on making the world a better place, but I didn’t see any of them on the list. It’s all so “liberal,” in the worst sense of the word. I saw lots of different recipients. (Of course I’ve changed the names. I have no desire to criticize in any way people who are truly dedicated to their visions. I’m only interested in how the Foundation works toward its stated goals.)
How Does It Work?
The faq says that “The MacArthur Fellowship is designed to support people, often unrecognized, who are expanding the boundaries of knowledge and human interaction. … The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.” Well, I thought to myself, if the Foundation tries to give support to people who might be unrecognized, how do they do it? How do people apply for such a grant?
The answer isn’t so pretty. People can’t apply for it. One must be nominated for it. By whom? They say “we limit our consideration only to those who have been nominated by someone from our constantly changing pool of invited external nominators. … Nominators are identified for their expertise and familiarity with exceptionally creative people in their respective areas of focus.” Who are these people? They don’t say; it’s confidential. But, how is it that people who are not recognized become recognized by the nominators? Well, they don’t say that either. It reminds me a lot of an exclusive (meaning that they exclude) private country club in which you must be nominated by someone who is already a member to get in, and once you are in, you can nominate new members, too.
It also reminds me of a song that was popular years ago:
Everyone Else Is Out
Most of the folks on the list seemed to be from big, well-known places and affiliated with well-known institutions. The list of recipients, at least over the past few years, is heavily weighted toward professors. Then there are those who are “founder and director of” X institute or similar organization. There are also a smattering of unaffiliated artists and a very few others who might have developed some interesting avocation while making a living as something perhaps related, but mundane. (The last group would seem to be the one that most fits the Foundation’s stated goals, over other recipients involved in more obscure and esoteric fields.)
So how does a person with really new and interesting ideas and goals get recognized? What about the person from Bull Bitch, Idaho, or West Overshoe, New Hampshire, with lots life experience, and who might be able to help society get out of its current quagmires, get one of those grants and be freed up from working the night shift to really pursue goals and “transcend traditional boundaries?” The faq doesn’t say. I guess that, since they say up front that people can’t apply and that one is only nominated if one is already recognized enough to have a friend on the inside, the question isn’t asked very frequently.
Where on the list of recipients are the community organizers? Or the people who have made fantastically rich and educational web sites as a labor of love in their meager spare time? Or the ones who struggle at the lowest levels to bring awareness of the need to protect the environment or civil liberties or democracy in labor organizations, all without the support of grant, corporation, university or other patron? It looks like people who might be a little to the left or a little to the right or who might be a union member or own a gun are just out of luck. If you have a couple of teeth missing or you didn’t attend the East Narragansett School of Design or work for Hoity Toity U., you’ll just have to struggle on, because the folks at the MacArthur Foundation just aren’t interested in you. For most Americans, no matter how original your ideas, no matter how rich your experience, if you haven’t learned to place the proper kiss on the proper tuchas, you really can’t get there from here.
November 11, 2007
Last Updated — April 06, 2013