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Rewards of Merit

Author John Cech
Air Date 6/1/2005

Rewards of Merit Transcript

With the school year ending, it’s the season of report cards and awards — of every conceivable kind: ribbons and certificates, trophies, medals, and plaques, tassels and testimonials, rings and letters. But, whether in school or out, awards have been with us for a long, long time.

According to Patricia Fenn and Alfred Malpa in their fascinating book, Rewards of Merit, Tokens of a Child’s Progress and a Teacher’s Esteem as an enduring aspect of American Religious and Secular Education, the earliest mentions of prizes in the West go as far back as the Iliad and the Odyssey. These were for athletic contests, and we know that there were also prizes given at the dramatic festivals in ancient Greece held in honor of the God, Dionysus. In fact, the word, “tragedy” comes from the word for one of these prizes — a tragos, or goatskin full of wine. A tragoidia was the song sung for the goat skin.

Fenn and Malpa believe that the first medals for “victors in knowledge,” were probably given to students in Germany in the late 1500s. Around the same time in England, prizes were awarded for debating and declamation (public speaking) in the form of miniature silver bows and arrows, and silver pens. By the early 1600s, educational reformers like John Brinsely, were recommending that teachers encourage their students with praise and other kinds of rewards, which he called “premiums”.– like a book or some cash.

Dutch settlers brought with them to America a vital calligraphic tradition that inspired some of the most beautiful, hand-lettered and decorated rewards of merit, created by teachers for individual students. But this unique, one-of-a-kind form of recognition could not, in the end, cope with the numbers of students that were soon filling our schools. By the early 1800s, publishers were printing standardized rewards, with illustrations, poetry, and exhortations to the young scholar, with handy blanks that the schools simply had to fill in with the name of the student who had demonstrated “punctual attendance, diligence, and good behavior.”And by the 1840s, students were receiving regular “bills”or “reports”that have evolved into today’s report cards. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were rewards of merit printed on plates, mugs, pitchers, and butter knife handles; and by the 21st century we have added rubber stamps, glow-in-the-dark bumper stickers, recognition on the school bulletin boards, and, of course, millions upon millions of smiley faces for a “good work.”

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