Politics & Policy

A+ For The Bee

The National Spelling Bee is a beacon of traditional ideals.

School is almost out for the summer–meaning that most students are about to transition from Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic to Romping, Relaxing, and Reality TV.

But frolicking poolside and vegging in front of the boob tube are far from the minds of some of the nation’s brightest grade-schoolers, currently gathered in Washington, D.C. The luckiest among them will spend today frantically tracing the etymology of “silicicolous,” desperately contemplating the definition of “sibilance,” and trying to remember how many “Cs” there are in “succedaneum” (and they’ll do it live on ESPN, no less).

If this doesn’t sound like normal activity for most 9- to 14-year-olds you know, don’t worry: These aren’t “normal” 9- to 14-year-olds. They’re finalists in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

Contrary to stereotypes, they are not super nerds with nothing better to do than memorize a dictionary. This year’s spellers are guitarists in mariachi bands, certified scuba divers, skateboarders, and contortionists. Many are budding poets, several are chess gurus, and even more are accomplished musicians and athletes. They participate in other academic competitions–the National Geography Bee, the Reader’s Digest Word Power Challenge–and are, not surprisingly, excellent students.

These Super Kids–from all 50 states and many far-flung territories and nations–have come together for competition, camaraderie, and the opportunity to spell some really difficult words. Over Bee-sponsored pizza parties and tours, they have spent the week discovering the kinship of shared values, both academic and personal.

Those values are, sadly, little esteemed by today’s academic establishment. But part of what makes the Bee so special is that it champions them nonetheless, standing as a beacon of traditional educational ideals.

First, there’s the celebration of spelling itself, which progressive educators decry (along with grammar instruction) as an arcane distraction and budget drain. But Bee participants obviously don’t: Speller Akshay Buddiga observes that the instruction “helps when you read, because you already know most of the words. It helps you write–you can form thoughts more clearly, and express them better. It helps you in other disciplines, too–looking up words teaches you history, and you learn about other languages and other cultures.”

It also inspires intellectual confidence. Ask Akshay if there’s any particular word he fears, and he’ll respond: “Nope. If I’ve seen a word while studying, I know it. And I can’t know about the ones I haven’t seen, so I can’t fear them.”

Also refreshing is how the very notion of a spelling bee is defined by objective standards of academic achievement. “Antediluvian” is spelled only one way; if a speller gets it wrong, there’s no revisiting it with an “alternative understanding.” Correctness is straightforward, black or white–like chalkboard exercises used to be.

Speaking of black and white: Because of the Bee’s objective, documentable standards, there’s zero room for affirmative action. It’s impossible to lower expectations based on ethnicity: Imagine giving a minority student four tries at “vivisepulture” to his white competitor’s one, in order to mitigate some perceived historical disadvantage. In a refreshing reversal, the Bee has actually moved away from any hint of affirmative action: In the early 1930s, there used to be one “boy champion” and one “girl champion.” Now there’s just one national champion, who can rest secure in the knowledge that he has won on individual merit.

The absence of identity politics and victimology may be due also, in part, to the spellers themselves. As anyone who has seen the documentary Spellbound knows, spellers come from a diverse array of personal circumstances. A disproportionate number of spellers are children of immigrants, or are naturalized citizens themselves; not a few have had parents who spoke little or no English; one recent champion is an immigrant who learned English as a second language. But these kids make it to the national championship nonetheless: realizing the American Dream at an early age despite–or perhaps because of–what they have overcome. Spellers train for hours every day; each has made sacrifices of some sort to be there. No one benefits from anyone else’s pity.

What many spellers do benefit from is strong family support and values. In these kids’ homes, education is prized, and academic achievement is encouraged. Making it to the national championship is a group effort; parents are dedicated to researching, drilling, and supporting. Even siblings get into the act–and many spellers (18 in this year’s Bee) enter the competition following elder siblings’ (and other family members’) footsteps. Like Akshay–whose brother, Pratyush, was the 2002 National Champion.

Akshay says, “We are an academically oriented family, and my parents are very supportive. …I practice four or five hours a day, and my mom helps me all the time.” (He benefits from what many American children lack: a stay-at-home parent.)

Someone else familiar with the Bee’s encouragement of strong families is Ned Andrews, the 1994 National Champion. Andrews helps administer the national competition, and his mother, Carolyn–who was Ned’s primary study helper–has been with the Bee since ‘94, and is now its word-list manager. “A look at spellers’ home lives,” he says, “demonstrates the importance of continuous family support in children’s educational and personal development. There are some students who manage to make it through despite the absence of family to back them up, but they’re very few. I don’t know how they do it; it must take heroic effort.”

The value of effort–heroic or otherwise–is one of the primary lessons the Bee imparts to its participants. “The Bee teaches you a lot about competition and life,” Akshay says. “You don’t always win, but you always have to work hard to get what you do win.” It also teaches that hard work must be persistent (59 of this year’s spellers are repeat participants), and that winners must be gracious: “It’s just like a sport. You learn to get along with your competitors, and you’re taught good sportsmanship,” Akshay adds.

An academic institution that teaches kids values? Promotes traditional coursework? Eschews the pitfalls of progressive education? Celebrates strong families? Rewards talent, hard work, and individual responsibility? And is fun and exciting, to boot?

That’s pretty A-W-E-S-O-M-E.

Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.


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