Opinion|The Scripps Spelling Bee Is Broken. Please Don’t Fix It.
The 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee wasn’t supposed to end like this. For the 2016 competition, following two years in a row with two co-champions (not seen since 1962), the contest changed to increase the final round of words and make them even harder. Yet that year, again, it was a tie. After single champions in 2017 and 2018, a remarkable number of contestants were crowned as winners earlier this week.
It was the first time that the spelling bee had seen so many indomitable participants. As Jacques Bailly, the event’s pronouncer, said at one point in the evening, “We’re throwing the dictionary at you. And so far, you are showing this dictionary who is boss.” Eight adolescents kept beating the dictionary until it, in the form of Mr. Bailly, gave up, and they were all declared co-champions.
Is this acceptable? Shouldn’t a national championship be able to figure out how to winnow the field to one person or team? We don’t want co-N.B.A. finals champions, we want just one.
But a spelling bee is not like any other competition. This is one case where multiple winners are actually something to be celebrated, or at least allowed.
Young people have enough spaces in which they must outcompete one another for prized goods, whether on the playing field, for the lead in the school play, or for that coveted internship. Youth stress is a growing pandemic, creating significant mental health concerns. Why not allow for competitive spaces that recognize sometimes more than one person is the best, rather than reserving that for a singular person?
If there is one venue that is best suited for multiple winners, it is the spelling bee. Both onstage and offstage, spelling kids high-five one another, share study techniques and root for others once they have fallen. They realize that they are not competing against the other participants but against the word lists.
I have met with scores of families, attended multiple spelling competitions and visited the homes of competitive spellers. These are happy, energetic, committed children. The notion that they are forced into this by their parents is a myth. Studying can be a chore, but committed spellers put in hours a day, even in the “off-season” of the summer and fall, because they like it and are motivated. Moreover, it is a social affair, with parents and siblings helping out and dedicating time. Young people study in groups online.
This is not to suggest that Scripps should encourage eight co-champions again. But the most obvious fix — to make the words even harder — is a mistake. Scripps has already tried to weed out co-champions, and seems to now be pulling words from the back pages of Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary. Gradual increases in word difficulty are to be expected, but nothing more.
Contestants already spend an inordinate amount of time studying the dictionary. They enjoy much of the process, but it consumes enough of their time, effort and money. I have sat with parents as they quiz their children on German root words, break for lunch, and then continue for hours. Families create their own word lists based on their appraisal of likely words. They purchase word lists. They read through books of nothing but prefixes. They hire coaches.
If Scripps wants to allow for multiple champions while keeping the total number in check, it can devise various means of weeding out contestants in the final rounds besides ratcheting up word difficulty. It could offer fewer clues to spellers than in the previous rounds. Or further limit the time finalists have to spell the word. Or ask them to offer the correct definition of the word, as in the preliminary written test of the bee. Other ideas abound.
But Scripps should not shy away from multiple champions. Assuming it cannot afford to give each winner the full $50,000 package, as it did this year, it can lower the reward amount. No speller enters the competition purely for the money, nor would he or she not still give it 100 percent effort if the prize were cut in half.
We don’t want co-NBA champions, but we should want there to be more spaces for children to strive for excellence and to raise up that trophy alongside — rather than always above — their peers.
Pawan Dhingra is professor of American studies at Amherst College and is completing a book on the growth of extracurricular academics among young children.
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