MacArthur genius awards

Most people are realistic enough to know that they will never win a Nobel prize. But winning one of the annual MacArthur Fellows grants, the so-called ‘genius’ awards, seem much more realistic. For one thing, there are many more of them awarded annually, with the this year’s crop numbering 21. And while the awards of $625,000 are given to “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”, many of the winners seem to be ordinary people who have been plucked out of obscurity.

This funny article is about someone named Mark Oppenheimer who mistakenly thinks that he has won an award this year because his last name matched that of an actual awardee that appeared in the headline of a news story.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, whose fellowships, known as “genius” grants, are each worth $625,000, one of this year’s winners is Joshua Oppenheimer, “a documentary filmmaker illuminating the social, psychological, and emotional dimensions of controversial subjects in works that redefine the dynamic between filmmaker and subject, film and audience.”

Mark Oppenheimer, by contrast, is a journalist and occasional adjunct teacher. He serves on the membership committee of Congregation Beth El – Keser Israel and has thought about volunteering for Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, “if and when I can find the time,” he said in an interview earlier today.

“I just feel like what I do may not be seen as quote-unquote ‘genius’ stuff, but I do everything I do with a certain genius,” Oppenheimer said. “You know?”

Asked for specifics, Oppenheimer shrugged.

“I don’t know, it’s just, like, a way of moving through the world,” he said. “You feel me? Wherever I go, I class up the joint. Like, I remember birthdays. There may be girls who remember birthdays, but do you know any dudes who do? At a wedding, I’ll get the Electric Slide going. I’ll be that guy.”

Lloyd Fishbane, Oppenheimer’s sophomore-year roommate in college, said that Oppenheimer has been talking about the MacArthur grant since the mid-1990s.

Although the article is satire, this belief that winning a MacArthur is within anyone’s reach can be a problem for some. I have a friend from my schooldays who is depressed that he has done nothing meaningful with his life, nothing that he will be remembered for, and the measure he uses for this judgment is his failure to win a MacArthur award. As far as I am aware, he has not done anything even remotely deserving of one. But then, very few have.

It does not seem to matter to him that he has had a good life. He has a desperate need to feel that his life matters and is recognized by the world and never finding his name on the list of awards hits him hard each year at this time.


  1. Holms says

    I can see why a person might aspire to that award, but I can’t see why someone would expect to win it. Even at 21 awardees per year, odds remain dismal when you are competing against some 7 thousand million.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Not only do I expect to win it… I have based my retirement strategy on that eventuality.

    It goes like this: Keep teaching at this pathetic rate of pay until age 90, win the MacArthur for having invented the Sepielle at age 50ish, die less in debt than I otherwise would have.

    If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is!

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