Why a Prize in Support of Controversy?

Some comments from the Sterlings…

Will Socrates Win This Year's Sterling Prize for Support of Controversy?

Few people do not know at least that Socrates was a famous Greek philosopher, that his philosophy is one of the fundamental supports of our moral and political society, that he practised a method of inquiry (the Socratic method is named after him), that in some way or another he challenged all the sacred beliefs of his fellow Athenians for which he was tried and sentenced to death, and that he finally drained the cup of poisonous hemlock.

We had some such person in mind when we set up a fund at Simon Fraser University to establish, in perpetuity, an endowment to honour and encourage work that either provokes controversy or contributes to its understanding.

We stipulated that the Sterling Prize may be given for work in any field, including - but not limited to - the fine arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and education. It does not matter if a student, a staff member or an academic at SFU did the work. What does matter is that the work should be of the kind that presents new ways of looking at the world, ways that are daring and creative. It should be work, which is decidedly unconventional and distinctly untraditional. In short, work which challenges complacency. As with all endowments to the university, SFU invests the initial funds and provides for both a cash award to the prize winner (currently at $5,000) and the operating expenses of the administrative department.

A number of our friends have asked us about this investment. Why controversy? Are there not more worthy social or medical needs that cry for adequate support? Next, why Simon Fraser University? Finally, what about Socrates? Is he really a shoo-in?

We chose to support work that is controversial because controversy challenges firmly held beliefs, the immutable, and so makes room for new ideas. Controversy tweaks the nose of the righteous, commits acts of seeming treason, and defies acceptable speech and action. On the other hand, established norms and values defend the status quo and may bring the bearer of new ideas into disrepute, as lacking proper morality and, as well, threaten possible punishment. Despite the so-vital role controversy plays in our society, we have not founded a similar endowment to support the process of controversy itself. In fact, the first two winners of the Sterling Prize created the controversy in which they were immersed. They were each a provocateur, to be sure, but they provoked in constructive ways.

As to why create such an endowment at Simon Fraser University - there are two reasons for that. First, Simon Fraser University has been embroiled in controversies ever since its inception. In fact, the university managed one time to be discredited by two professional organizations that went so far as to recommend to their members not to take employment at Simon Fraser University. Hence, there is hope that Simon Fraser will at least lend a sympathetic ear to contentious issues. Secondly, while Simon Fraser University has been ranked repeatedly among the finest in Canada, it has never lost its left-wing sympathy small that tends to discourage some well-heeled benefactors.

Thus, finding nobody else answering nor expected to answer the doorbell, we hoped a prize would help stimulate, reward, and focus attention on the importance of controversy in the arts, politics and sciences.

Finally, what can we prognosticate about Socrates’ candidacy for the Sterling Prize? With what we know about Socrates, he would not have cooperated with the Sterling Prize Committee. After all, Socrates firmly believed that he had never said anything controversial. He was assured by his own reflections that he had failed to grasp true wisdom and therefore was wiser than his fellow citizens who wrongly believed they were wise and by the Oracle of Delphi that reinforced this conclusion by proclaiming him a truly wise man, the wisest in Greece. Most likely, he would insist that it was up to the Athenians to learn from his discourse and not for him to change his style. However, he might not even have been nominated in the first place. Most of his fellow Athenians disliked him enough, in fact, to vote for the death penalty when he was tried.

On the other hand, after all he was Socrates who helped found our civilization. This ought to count for something.

Nora & Ted Sterling
August 20, 1997