Each year news that the National Spelling Bee is underway forces us to realize that we hadn’t given the event a single thought since we heard the same news a year earlier. We didn’t follow the stories of the competition’s top contestants. We didn’t look forward with anticipation, discussing predictions with friends and colleagues. If we are being honest, we don’t really care.
Yet thoughts of the spelling bee are mildly pleasant. Why? Why do we enjoy it? Obviously something about it is marketable for networks to televise it and cover it on their news shows. When we consider the activity that comprises the event (public displays of spelling aptitude), it is difficult to imagine something more boring. As many parents know, the local or ‘minor league’ spelling bees are painful monotony.
So how is it that rows of spelling children can make for entertaining television? Why are we captivated?
If we search our souls, we realize that adult spelling bees would be pitiful and unintriguing. Expertise would be unrelatable and yet expected. Ineptitude would be embarrassing and sadistic. There is something crucial about the fact that we are watching children spell words.
Also crucial is the fact that they are spelling words that we adults cannot spell. The National Spelling Bee is a grandstand of precocity—a reminder that our children can still excel, and excel in the traditional pillars of education. We want to feel both our superiority over the younger generations and an assurance that we are leaving the world in able hands. Those are our kids, the products of our system. It takes the arbitrariness of a spelling bee to provide such a catharsis.
We revel in a display of youthful competence, but it is competence in a task that is simultaneously fundamental and superfluous. A paradoxical combination. We are comfortable with word processors doing the lifting, and we never need to spell the words handed to the kids anyway. Were you planning on typing ‘logodaedaly’ anytime soon? Spelling is obviously important, but it is not a skill anyone must develop to expert levels. So we are happy to cede superiority to the children. The kids also aren’t required to know what the words mean. Using the words is surely more important than spelling them.
Spelling also isn’t exactly an innate skill. With enough dedication and study, seemingly any proficient language user could do it. We adults can take solace in the common rationalization that we could do it if we wanted to. That is, if we weren’t busy doing the important stuff in society. There is only room in our heads useful, adult knowledge.
The concept of a spelling bee mixes a remarkably simple competitive structure (correct spelling wins, incorrect loses) with the appearance of intellectual complexity (tough words!). We retain the thrill of competition while taking a break from the brutish, brain-deadening activity of a football game. Intellect is blended with competition to make it tolerable. In a small dose, we get to be reminded of the intellectual aspects of culture and, more importantly, that there are other people out there who care about those aspects. Then we can switch back to the sports we care about. (Imagine if the spelling bee were a seven month season.)
A spelling bee celebrates the triumph of education, not hyper-masculine athleticism. We get a break from millionaire egos. The juxtaposition makes the mild and demure children (some of whom have an adorable foible or two) appear instantly likable. They are, after all, innocent children. But paradoxically, every single competitor is an underdog. They have achieved the impossible by making it on television—upstaging Lebron James and Tom Brady and, in effect, all the “cooler” kids at their schools. They did so with their minds, not their muscles.
The spelling bee is a subconscious sign of hope. It shows our pride in the ability of society’s children. Our children are better than us! Yet, because the event is a showcase of a trivial skill, it also affirms the superiority of us adults. Who knew we were so insecure? It is precisely the triviality of the skill that makes the event endearing and not distressing. The children are competing in an unimportant arena. They are not threatening. We empower ourselves through empowering them. And importantly, we do so in a way that shows our power is what truly that matters.
The National Spelling Bee is a revealing glimpse of how our culture treats the intellect.