The O-B-S-C-E-N-I-T-Y of Spelling Bees

(Photo: Greeblie/Flickr)

(Photo: Greeblie/Flickr)

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee made headlines yesterday with the announcement of a new champion. Stories like this one at CNN gush over and theorize about how students from certain backgrounds perform better than others. Other stories focus on how much practice goes into each performance or how the events are sources of great pride for the parents involved.

But there’s something missing from each of these stories.

What are the young people looking to get out of participating?

Nearly any report on spelling bees and the winners spends more time focusing on the parents, what they do, what they want to gain out of the event, and their backgrounds rather than asking the young people why they are participating.

Some inquiry into the life of the parents is important — yes. It is an interesting sociological question to ask why South Asians dominate in spelling bees, and appropriate to see what their home lives are like compared to non-South Asian students. But focus on the parents goes to a point of obscenity.

Take the above-linked CNN piece, for example. It condescendingly notes, “While you were out taking your kid to baseball practice or music class, Puthenveedu Jayakrishnan was helping his 12-year-old daughter spell words that don’t readily surface in daily life.” The point here being that Jayakrishnan made sure that his child was focused on winning the spelling bee, rather than engaging in frivolous activities like sport or music.

But just as many middle class white Americans pressure their children into sports for the social value or for the college-signaling value, isn’t it just as likely that South Asian Americans (and anybody whose child is a semi-professional spelling bee-competitor) pressure their children into such events in lieu of allowing them to participate in what they want?

We can all imagine the horror of forcing Sally to play softball when she really wants to do ballet because mom wants live out her own dead aspirations vicariously. This situation is starting to earn more of the appropriate disapprobation that it deserves. So why do we idolize and gawk at the parents and children of spelling bees? Isn’t it just as likely that a sort of signaling or vicarious living is the primary motivator for those participating in spelling bees?

The answer can’t be sure until stories that report the success of spelling bee students shift from interviewing the parents (or interviewing the students with the parents hovering over their shoulders) to delving into why they choose to participate in the event in the first place.

If they voluntarily choose to do so because they enjoy it, it challenges them, and it allows them to hone a specific skill set in a framework of rules and requirements, then excellent! They’ve successfully found what very few people ever do in life — an activity that helps them fall into flow.

If they are doing it — either consciously or subconsciously — just to appease parents and authority figures and meet the expectations that society defines as “successful” (as so many high-achieving students do), then they are doing so at the cost of finding such an activity that helps them achieve a happy state of flow. The opportunity costs of practicing how to spell “harpsichord” or “transcendentalism” at home each evening is the number of events — like baseball and music classes! — that might otherwise be enjoyable activities worth pursuing.

A culture of over-achievement is only valuable if it is voluntarily entered into and created by the people doing the over-achieving. Spectacles like spelling bees are oftentimes the consequences of doting, over-controlling parents who, though well-intended, are stymying their children’s capacity for achieving a fulfilled state of mind.

Zachary Slayback is the Business Development Director for Praxis, a ten-month program for entrepreneurial learners. Zachary dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after seeing firsthand how college fails the most ambitious students. He writes regularly on education, schooling, and philosophy at zakslayback.com.