The Spelling Bee gets even worse


I simply do not understand the attraction of the Scripps Spelling Bee competition. It now results in young people spending an extraordinary amount of time memorizing the spelling of words so esoteric that one is never likely to use or hear them except in highly technical contexts. In its early years the winning words were blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, license, and primarily. In recent years they were appoggiatura, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, Laodicean, stromuhr, cymotrichous, guetapens, knaidel, stichomythia, and feuilleton. (See here and here for my earlier posts and in particular read the comments to those posts by readers who added interesting information and insights.)

The fact that ethnic South Indians have consistently dominated this competition in recent years is another odd feature of this competition and has resulted in some ugly reactions.

The organizers face the problem that these young students are becoming ever more adept at the spelling of the increasingly harder words that are thrown at them, probably by spending yet more time memorizing, resulting in more contests ending in ties because the students are simply not messing up. Rather than recognizing that there is a fundamental problem with their model that could be addressed in other ways, they have decided to double down and make the words even more esoteric, thus causing more young people (and their families) to waste even more time learning things that have hardly any value in modern society.

At what point will parents decide that this is not worth it and walk away from the competition? It is not the wasting of time that is at issue. Who among us doesn’t waste time on some hobby? It is the combination of intense pressure on the contestants who are after all just children, the enormous time spent on it, and that the skill itself is pretty much useless and developing it has hardly any beneficial side-effects. But my biggest complaint is that the organizers of the competition are not really seeking the best spellers because that can be done in much better ways. They are going for the drama of watching people sweat in front of a national audience, and not caring that this can be a real ordeal for young children. It is one thing for adults on quiz shows to be willing to undergo this, but I don’t like it being done to children.

On the lighter side, here is one student who was asked to spell the word ‘negus’. He clearly had not heard the word before and started stalling for time. I was terrified (and I think he was too) that he would think he was being asked for the homophone that is slang for the dreaded n-word.

Comments

  1. Menyambal says

    I am fairly well-read, and those words are not in my vocabulary. Oh, a couple were not unknown, I would never use them in real life. There is no use for knowing them.

    As others have said, speed in spelling is of some use.

    There may be some use in telling a prospective employer that you can single-mindedly focus on a massive project, but I’d not want such a job.

    When I was starting my debate class in high school, the teacher told us how much time she had put into her debate prep when she was a student. I just gave up right there.

  2. starskeptic says

    “Rather than recognizing that there is a fundamental problem with their model that could be addressed in other ways,…”
    I’ve lately been feeling the same way about Capitalism…

  3. Matt G says

    Let’s replace the spelling bee with a vocabulary bee. And use words one might actually encounter. How words are spelled – who cares? What words mean? That is actually useful.

  4. lorn says

    Reminds me of this South Park bit:
    I was going to include a link but they all seem to autoplay so, given the nature of the video, you are going to have to work for it, just a bit.

    Insert the phrase below into the Google or YouTube search:

    “South Park Randy says the n word! GOOD QUALITY”

  5. bhj says

    Are there spelling bees in other languages than English and French?
    For example, a Norwegian spelling bee would not be very exiting, if you can say a word in Norwegian you can also spell it.

  6. says

    I know “appoggiatura” but that’s only because I’m a musician. Otherwise I can’t see the need to know that word.

    I much prefer the geography bee. At least there all the kids studying for the competition are actually learning something useful. But then I’m not a fan of the “bee” format at all. For every single person in the competition, except for the one winner, their participation ends in a personal failure. You may be really wonderful at what you do, but one tiny slip-up and you’re out. I don’t think that’s a good life-lesson to be teaching our kids.

  7. A Jones says

    Good blog post. Concerning why the spelling bee has appeal, former English professor Morris Freedman (who is now deceased) wrote a couple of insightful articles on the matter:

    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1984/10/17/05590017.h04.html
    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-07-03/news/8602170404_1_national-spelling-bee-words-hedda-gabler

    In addition, I think the spelling bee symbolizes the American dream to many. It also taps into a desperation that a lot of people have for success and fame. There’s something about winning a spelling bee that carries a drama that winning, say, a tennis tournament does not.

    Journalist Neil Steinberg devoted an entire chapter (about 60 pages) to the ills of the spelling bee in his book “Complete & Utter Failure,” and that chapter is definitely worth reading.

    “At what point will parents decide that this is not worth it and walk away from the competition? It is not the wasting of time that is at issue. Who among us doesn’t waste time on some hobby? It is the combination of intense pressure on the contestants who are after all just children, the enormous time spent on it, and that the skill itself is pretty much useless and developing it has hardly any beneficial side-effects.”

    Great question. Sadly, too many of the parents seem hopelessly obtuse.

    “But my biggest complaint is that the organizers of the competition are not really seeking the best spellers because that can be done in much better ways. They are going for the drama of watching people sweat in front of a national audience, and not caring that this can be a real ordeal for young children. It is one thing for adults on quiz shows to be willing to undergo this, but I don’t like it being done to children.”

    You hit the nail on the head. The spelling bee is child abuse. It exploits kids for entertainment value, pure and simple. It is not and never has been about finding the best speller, but unfortunately most folks (including the boneheaded organizers) just can’t seem to see that. It’s a silly, out-of-date competition at best, and an evil, unfair, disgusting one at worst.

    I hope one day the spelling bee will go the way of the dinosaurs.

  8. A Jones says

    Matt wrote:

    “Let’s replace the spelling bee with a vocabulary bee. And use words one might actually encounter. How words are spelled – who cares? What words mean? That is actually useful.”

    Vocabulary is useful, but a “bee” is a terrible format. Would you want to play in a golf competition where everybody plays a completely different hole, and then as soon as you goof up a single hole, you’re out??

  9. A Jones says

    Uhi wrote:

    “You may be really wonderful at what you do, but one tiny slip-up and you’re out. I don’t think that’s a good life-lesson to be teaching our kids.”

    Amen. It teaches kids that mistakes are bad, and encourages fear and perfectionism. The thing is, mistakes can be very valuable if you learn from them.

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