Sukanya Roy spelled the word “cymotrichous” (= having wavy hair) correctly and won the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee Contest.
She will take home more than $40,000 dollars in prices and cash.
According to ABC, Sukanya Roy is the “fourth consecutive Indian-American to take the title at the Scripps spelling bee, and the ninth within the past 13 years.”
But far more interesting than her origin (why is it so important?) is the nature of The Spelling Bee, a spelling contest staged like American Idol, looking for the spelling superstar.
The semifinals were broadcasted live on ESPN, a channel not exactly known for educational programs but for sports and adrenaline rushes.
And I believe this is a good opportunity to question some of our assumptions regarding education.
Do educated people spell correctly?
Probably. Maybe. Quite often…
But does spelling correctly automatically make you educated?
What kinds of signals does it send to a 14 year old if she gets $ 40.000 for spelling a word that 99 % of grown-ups in her society have never heard before nor use because there’s a simpler alternative (wavy hair).
Does it mean she’s a Wunderkind?
Is being smart proved by achievements such as winning the Spelling Bee?
Do we value learning by rote over creative thinking?
And what does that say about our society?
Put differently: In an age of ubiquitous computing, where spell-checking is integrated into all of our devices, what is the meaning of “good spelling”?
If somebody sends you a letter which is spelt correctly, how high is the likelihood that he used a spell-checker to double-check himself, even if he’s fairly educated and a good speller?
In Germany for example, there have multiple orthographic reforms, trying to impose patterns and a more systematized rule-system, causing headaches for everyone trying to conform to the changing status of “correct spelling.”
Goethe and Schiller on the other hand, two of the great so-called literary geniuses of German literature, didn’t care much about spelling or interpunction. They believed that it was redundant to always spell the same words in the same way!
If you’d do this today in a college paper you wouldn’t win a metal for creative genius. Instead you’d get a bad grade.
Some people will say, the Spelling Bee is not so much about education per se but about giving children self-esteem. That reminds me of a quote I once read saying that American students are ranging low on the educational scale but ranking highest on the self-esteem scale.
On a more serious note, I have met many people with low self-esteem based on inadequate spelling. Whatever the reasons for spelling disabilities, it affects people, they feel less educated, less adequate to tackle anything literary or text-related.
Sure, you can blow up kids’ self-esteem by giving them truckloads of cash for spelling irrelevant words.
But are bad spellers bad people?