We Must Abolish Eleetist Spelling Bees!

By Tom Gilson Published on June 3, 2017

I watched the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on TV Thursday night. It was upsetting on multiple levels.

For one thing, the sixth-grade girl who won it, Ananya Vinay, has a disturbingly large vocabulary. No one should know so much. Not at her age; not at any age. I’m a writer. I score well on vocab tests. But good grief, who ever heard of marocain? cheiropompholyx? Tchefuncte? zeaxanthin? And who knows how to spell them? Last night’s finalists did. Hearty congratulations to them all.

Work Ethic and Its Cultural Unacceptability

I couldn’t help noticing, though, that all of the finalists were Indian Americans. One contestant said it was because they had a “work ethic.” I knew those words, at least. I didn’t even have to look them up.

Maybe the rest of us aren’t supposed to have a work ethic. It could be cultural appropriation.

But I’m confused: I don’t get why they have such a lock on this “work ethic” thing. Why can’t they share it with the rest of us? Maybe the rest of us aren’t supposed to have it. It could be cultural appropriation.

Besides, this “work ethic” has a dark side. It sounds like the term a dead white male named Weber called the “Protestant work ethic.” Clearly that’s unacceptable. Church and state must be kept separate! Let’s mount a campaign! Let’s file suit! Who could even think of allowing a work ethic in our public schools?

Wait. Are these Indian American students even Protestant? One probably was, based on info we were given. Others? I don’t know. If not, then that’s still more cultural appropriation. Or rather, cultural inappropropration.

Whatever Happened to Spelling Fluidity?

I’m also more than a little concerned about the historic male-female imbalance in this spelling bee. Girls have won 49 times, boys 47. You might say, “That’s not much of a difference!” You’d be right.

But get this: When the announcer reported this fact, he called them girls and boys! How binary of him!

It’s all about dropping people into two simple categories: girl/boy, boy/girl — as if those were the only two options. But hold on: the very same kind of thing was going on all night there! They had a judge (don’t they know it’s wrong to judge?) telling contestants whether they spelled the words right or wrong. Did you get that? Right. Or wrong. Just two options. No more. Where’s that leave any room for spelling fluidity?

Toward a More Humble Spelling Bee

How shall we deal with horrors like these?

But I’ve blazed right past a glaring error of my own. I mentioned a minority group, Indian Americans, without apologizing for my own white privilege. I repent. Actually I’ll go one better. I’ll go into reparations including full intersectionality, by calling out the real problems with spelling bees, and offering corrective advice.

To do this I’ll draw from Aaron Goodwin,* a white male representing black feminist mathematicians. (Don’t you dare ask me that question you’re thinking!) Goodwin has noticed the terrible truth that “like many white men,” mathematics:

  • Believes himself [sic] to represent infallible reason.
  • Believes himself to be objective.
  • Is highly competitive.
  • Is not concerned with any of the problems that matter to you.

Is there anything there that couldn’t also be said about spelling bees? Every spelling bee:

  • Believes himself to represent infallibly correct spellings for each word
  • Believes himself to be objective
  • Is highly competitive
  • Is not concerned with any of the problems that matter to you

How shall we deal with horrors like these? Let’s go back to Goodwin and his recommendations. You can look up his original; it’s exactly the same, except I’ve substituted in various spelling-related words where they belong.

Spelling bees may start by considering:

  • How and why spelling has been framed as an elite form of knowledge.
  • How spellers and their subjectivity have shaped our supposedly objective spellings.
  • The harm that authoritative dictionaries and actors of spelling have already done.
  • Ways in which spelling can be less authoritative, both as a discipline and as an academic institution.
  • New interesting, relevant, and meaningful questions that could induce a new way to understand how to spell words.
  • How working people already think about letters and words on a daily basis.
  • Unconventional spellings that have been ignored.

Theese mezzures wil shurely help uliminate speling bee eleetism, and alow contestents from all jenders and aull wolks of life tu join in, withhout any nead too appropreate Indien Amaricans’ werk ethec inapropriatelie.

 

*Note: This is satire. Aaron Goodwin’s article is not. 

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