by Tobias Peterson

6 July 2008

Cooperation is undone in favor of personal advancement, victory takes precedence over uniqueness and creativity, and meaningful intellectual activity is shackled to regulations and a stopwatch.

I can still remember the workbook—an oversized, neon orange monstrosity, festooned with garish illustrations. Perhaps my memory distorts some of the details, as I dreaded my elementary school spelling class and the inevitable call to produce that hideous tome from the dark recesses of my cluttered desk. It wasn’t that I was a terrible speller—my work was passable enough—but on every Friday we were subjected to a spelling bee, the memories of which still make me shudder today.

Lined up before the chalkboard like captured partisans, every student in the class would shift nervously back and forth, awaiting execution by our teacher. Upon misspelling a word, we would be forced to return to our desks, shuffling dejectedly away from our classmates in public acknowledgement of our failures as spellers. There we would sit, relegated to mere spectators who would eventually applaud the last of us to remain standing, beaming and triumphant, at the board. Every Friday, one victor left the classroom floating on air, while 20 publically-confirmed losers trudged glumly after. 

I couldn’t help but recall those grim exercises recently when, flipping around on ESPN, I was treated to the latest installment of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The event, a culmination writ large of hundreds of smaller, local, preceding versions, is stylized to heighten all the suspense, heroism, and heartbreak of the competition. Such is the stuff chronicled by the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which features alternately heartrending and heartwarming tales of sacrifice and dedication on the part of the Bee’s participants in their bid to become the country’s top speller.

This drama—encapsulated in the spellers’ furrowed brow, shots of nervous parents in the darkened crowd, and the impending knell of the disqualifying bell—has been played up by ESPN since 1994 in a manner similar to any other sporting contest. However, the question remains: just what’s so sporting about spelling?

The answer, simply, is nothing—other than the spectacle of organized competition. The challenge of the tournament, of facing a host of contenders in order to prove supremacy, is a structural aspect of athletics ranging from little league soccer tournaments to the NBA playoffs. The object in any of these scenarios is to survive and advance—a test of the players’ stamina, fortitude, and luck. In one sense, ESPN’s treatment emphasizes a universality of competition by highlighting a spelling match alongside a basketball tournament. The spellers, like other athletes, use their skills, as well as strategies (asking for pronunciation, the language of origin, to hear the word in a sentence), to improve their chances for success. Such similarity, however, hardly places them in the same category as the professional athletes who earn large salaries to entertain the network’s viewers. 

Just what, then, is so entertaining about the Spelling Bee? Sure, some of the spellers are quick-witted or quirky enough to garner a laugh, while others may have hard-luck stories to inspire us. There may even be viewers who like to spell along at home. For most, however, the lure of the event is, again, in its re-enactment of the spectacle of competition.

The novelty of pitting eight- to 15-year-olds against one another for popular amusement can be glossed over in the name of educational achievement, but academic success is not the Bee’s selling point. (There are, after all, a variety of extra-curricular events that more accurately measure a student’s creativity and intelligence than spelling.) Instead, what’s on display is pressure, and persistence in the face of it. Such drama is endemic to sports, hence ESPN’s role in broadcasting the event.

More specifically, this pressure results from the imposition of systemic competition. The idea of a single champion who has bested all other competitors structures the Bee and drives its competitors to greater heights of difficulty (with words like “hyphaeresis” and “prosopopoeia”). And while we should rightly applaud the ultimate victor (this year it was 13-year-old Sameer Mishra), we should also recognize that his achievement says more about our own insistence on competition as a cultural value than his (or others spellers’) academic abilities.

In this way, the Bee is symptomatic of a larger blending of ostensibly separate spheres: academics and athletics. Both, particularly in the United States, are driven by rankings, competitions, and quantifiable results. From the compulsive insistence on standardized test scores set in place by Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, to the popular fixation on class ranking in the college admissions “game” (the term is used here advisedly), the competitive ethos of sports has infiltrated a large portion of academic endeavor.

No longer is learning an end in and of itself, but is rather seen as a means by which to measure oneself against one’s peers. As an instructor, I know first-hand that the quickest way to motivate my students to learn the class material is to divide them into teams and organize a competition, all the while lamenting the need for artificial rivalry to incite my students to action.

Perhaps it’s asking too much for every student to come to class intrinsically motivated to learn. And, certainly, it’s difficult to argue that winning ESPN’s Spelling Bee is not a laudable achievement. Still, we see in this event a cultural conflation of winning with learning. Cooperation is undone in favor of personal advancement, victory takes precedence over uniqueness and creativity, and meaningful intellectual activity is shackled to regulations and a stopwatch. Generally, sports are held to be pedagogically valuable for students as reinforcing the importance of fair play and sportsmanship. The Spelling Bee, however, shows that sports aren’t the only model by which our students should learn. After all, would ESPN (or any other network for that matter) televise an event in which students demonstrate their studies without the pressure of a competition? The hundreds of thousands of students who were asked to take a seat before the victor might like to know.

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