Monday, September 11, 2023

What's The Point of a Spelling Bee?

Kids who win spelling bees end up going on to doing great things, like getting jobs, having a career, and retiring.

I was curious as to whether spelling bees are an indication of advanced intelligence.  I was never a fan of them as a youngster - rote memorization was never my thing, although I tended to be second or third place.  Maybe this is just sour grapes.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

Memorization is used in many cultures as a sign of intellect.  In Japan, kids go through grueling exams, and their entire life is determined, at an early age, based on their scores on these exams.  And one thing they test you on is vocabulary - how many kanji symbols you can memorize.  The more words you know, the smarter you are deemed to be.

But memorization and intellect are two different things, as I noted before.  And many people - even teachers (or especially so) conflate the two.  Learning history?  Memorize the names and dates!  Learning math?  Memorize tables!  Learning Science?  Memorize the names of scientists and their discoveries

Of course, history is more than names and dates - understanding what happened and why is more important.  And much of the "history" I learned as a kid was pretty superficial.  Columbus "discovered" America, which was empty except for a few "friendly Indians" who helped him plant corn, or as they called it, maize.   Washington told King George what for and Lincoln ended slavery.  The End.  Amen. It was more of a tribal history - hooray for our side, which is always the right side.  Not a lot of nuance. It was much like the style of teaching in North Korea - which we shame them for.  Sadly, a lot of people want to "go back" to that form of "education" - why decrying anything else as "indoctrination."  Irony alert!

And higher mathematics has nothing to do with memorization and more to do with understanding.  Calculus, Differential Equations, and Number Theory are about understanding "math" not memorizing answers. And Science?  It isn't about lauding the great inventors and scientists - indeed, Science is all about trying to disprove much of what they did, or expanding upon it.

But I digress.

I found an article that listed the "accomplishments" of National Spelling Bee winners, and while some of them had nice careers (one working for the National Spelling Bee - a feedback loop!) others are not mentioned at all (we can only guess).  None appear to be famous household names you would know.  Most of those listed are professionals who have done well in their fields, but are not famous in them.

A more recent article tells about a dark side of spelling bees - children who are pushed into them by parents who hire coaches and have the children practice with software all day long to learn new words.  It sounds a lot like child beauty pageants.  The prize - a scholarship - is a worthwhile goal, and while it may allow a poor child to attend college, chances are, the winner will be from a fairly affluent family, or at least one that values education.

In a way, I was disappointed, but not surprised.  Child prodigies end up burning out quickly, in many cases.  Even Mozart, who was writing symphonies while most of us were soiling out pants, lived a very short life.  You read about these kids graduating from Harvard at age 12 or something, and then you never hear about them again.  None seem to end up as Doogie Howser, MD.

Granted, we do end up with Pascal and Stevie Wonder, but the rest of these super-smart kids seem to flounder later in life.  And I mentioned this before, that people - decent people - who are super-smart, often have trouble adjusting to society, particularly a society where dumber brutish people dominate, through sheer force.  The "smartest people in the room" don't always come out ahead - often the CEO of the company they work for is a blithering idiot.  You do read the papers, right?

And that is a shame, not because smart people should run everything, but because it is a shame to see a nice person who has a great intellect, fall down the ladder of society due to mental health problems, drug addiction, and low-self-esteem.  There are probably more geniuses in the homeless shelter than at the country club - but that's just a theory.  And once they've fallen that far, even a genius has trouble bouncing back.

So, congratulations to this years' spelling bee winner!  Hope you have a good life.  But whether it is an indicator of success in life, well, that really hasn't been proven.

And if you didn't win the spelling bee, or weren't a child prodigy, don't sweat it. From what I can see, these super-smart kids don't end up doing much better than the rest of us, and in some cases far worse.