In a society that seems to only get excited for things that are relatively inconsequential, the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee stands out as a chance for us to hold up some of America’s smartest youth as pillars of success.
Screw “Friday Night Lights.” Bring me more high school debate bus rides.
It’s rare for students to get major coverage for academic pursuits. Our society has grown to increasingly focus on physical, particularly athletic, achievements. But just once a year, some of the youngest and brightest are given the chance to shine on a national stage.
There’s no shortage of information about the shortcomings of US students. For years, US students have trailed in a variety of categories. Public education budgets have been slashed consistently as states try to find a way to close budget gaps. The US has some of the worst drop-out rates in the developed world. Conservatives are pushing for more private and charter schools which critics argue will put most students at a distinct disadvantage against children from wealthier families.
With all the pessimism about American education, the national spelling bee is an artifact of a bygone era when celebrities extended beyond athletics and stars of “leaked” sex tapes. It’s a reminder that the US once valued intelligence and innovation as much as they did physical attractiveness and athletic prowess. The spelling bee is an American institution, Americana at its best.
Of course, the event itself has turned into something of a sideshow. While still garnering national media attention, commentators discuss the event with a very clear subtext: “Look at these weirdo dorks.” The winner gets $30,000 cash and a $2,500 savings bond. 30 grand … and a 2,500 savings bond? It’s like the spelling bee has the winner's own grandparents bestowing the winner's purse. She should also get some ankle socks and a horribly unstylish tee shirt from Key Largo.
Consider the impact it would have on young students to routinely see the smartest among them competing for the national spotlight. Growing up, there are few positive academic role models that receive media attention. The US needs to put together some sort of showcase that highlights an important reality – competing in academics will be important for the US to compete as a whole on an international level.
As such, the US needs to take the simple idea of the spelling bee and grow it. We need a Hunger Games for academics.
Consider it more Little League World Series than the spelling bee. Teams of students from areas across the nation compete in a variety of disciplines. The competition could last most of the year, from low level competitions at the beginning of the summer to national finals toward the end of the calendar. The competition would be televised with the nationals eventually being shown on primetime network TV.
If “American Idol” can showcase great singers and “So You Think You Can Dance” can showcase great dancers, there’s no reason brilliant kids representing their communities couldn’t find a serious market. Of course, scholarship money will be on the line, along with sponsorship deals and the like.
Perhaps it’s just a pipe dream. The spelling bee seems to be little more than a curiosity. It’s quite possible that the US just does not value intelligence like it once did. Sadly, that’s depriving young students from an arena in which they can see that being intelligent is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit.
The spelling bee reminds us that year after year there is a crop of terrifyingly smart kids out there that already think about words on a level that is incomparable to even most of our greatest talents. In some ways, they’re freaks in the same way that LeBron James and Tom Brady are freaks. In other ways, they’re legitimate freaks by design, oddities whose skills aren’t particularly celebrated by society in an open forum.
On the upside, these kids will probably be fine. They almost certainly come from educated and financially secure families that value education to such an extreme that they are willing to have their child travel around the country to compete in spelling words. For them, academics and intelligence are already worthwhile pursuits.
But for millions of young students around the country who receive next to no positive reinforcement – be it from family, teachers, friends, or the rest of society – it is sorely needed.
And not in the “Let’s put together a bunch of half-assed PSAs where second rate celebrities tell kids to stay in school” type way. That only further reinforces the idea that there is no real way to provide students with the concept that intelligence is, for lack of a better word, “cool.” Think TED Talks, but for kids.
But for anything like this to be successful, it requires not only interest from kids as much as from adults. This highlights one of the quietly disastrous parts of the US education discussion: everyone says they care about teaching our kids and making sure they succeed in school, but what proof do we have?
Education couldn’t possibly be less of a campaign issue in the upcoming election, unless you count the fact that it is again facing the chopping block to help close the budget gap, as well as the mountain of student debt that continues to hang over the economy and graduates across the country. It’s all about the money and how we can use less of it on students. It is no wonder then that students have trouble valuing their education when everybody else sees it as a line-item expenditure.
Perhaps that’s the sad reality of the US now. Education is going to continue to be marginalized because it can, and because there’s nothing really driving it to be a part of the modern media consciousness.
For now, the spelling bee will remain one of the few bastions of academic glory that exist in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. There’s more competitive eating on TV than competitive thinking. No wonder everybody’s fat.