This year’s national Spelling Bee competition ended on Thursday and, to no one’s surprise, the winner was once again an Indian-American. All but three winners since 2002 (and every one since 2008) have had Indian-sounding names. I have written many times before about the Spelling Bee, expressing my view that it seems like a colossal waste of time and effort by children and their families spent in learning to spell obscure words that they will likely never encounter again in their lives, apart from the fact that they could always simply look it up if they needed to.
The words the 16 finalists spelled correctly before getting eliminated illustrate what I mean about the obscurity of the words. They were in the following order: Millefleurs, Paucispiral, Ascyphous, Diploe, Uraeus, Clausewitz, Heautophany, Orrisroot, Marseilles, Plumetis, Thymiaterion, Serac, Dereistic, Escamotage, Escamotage, and Tychopotamic. Of all these words, the only ones I knew were Clausewitz and Marseilles. The words that were used to eliminate 14 of the last 16 contestants were: kanone, carmagnole, pavillon, vinhatico, paillasson, cabalassou, loratadine, funest, perduellion, fourrier, cento, gelinotte, philonium, aalii, and illustra. I knew none of these.
That left just two contestants. One of them got the word bewusstseinslage and spelled it wrong. The other person got the word koinonia and won. Oddly enough, although I would have got eliminated very early, I did know the winning word. It is a word with religious connotations that, according to Wikipedia, “identifies the idealized state of fellowship and unity that should exist within the Christian church, the Body of Christ”. It was the name of an obscure journal that I was familiar with way back in the days when I was religious and read such stuff. But here we see the big role that luck plays in this format where each person gets a different word, in that if you get a particularly tough word you can get eliminated even if you happen to be the best speller.
Reader Jeff sent me an article that describes the amount of time the contestants and their parents spend on preparation. Jeff also pointed me to articles that say that this has become a big business. You now have coaches that sell their services at $200 per hour and require students to memorize 90,000 words or courses that charge $3,450 for 16 one-hour sessions via Skype.
I have also written before about why it is that Indian-Americans, and even more narrowly South Indian Americans, have dominated this contest. One the appalling facts is that there are other contests that are open only to children of Indian and South Indian ethnicity whose purpose is to prepare students for the national Bee completion and where they get valuable practice in the conditions they will encounter. These families already tend to be well-to-do professionals, often with one stay at home parent who can help the student even more. Giving them an extra leg up purely based on their ethnicity seems very wrong to me.