What is this fascination Indians have with spelling bees?-Opinion News, Firstpost
Spelling bees ironically reflect India’s educational system that champions rote learning and uninspired memorization of the stale and obscure over curiosity and criticism.
Is the ability to remember words or interpret their spelling from phonetic sounds really a talent? Sure, memory has its applications, but to reward how great it is over machines and agendas is practically ridiculous.
About a day ago, a short video clip started circulating on social media and WhatsApp, where a young Indian girl spends 90 seconds effortlessly spelling out words no one has heard of in her life. People remarked that the tiebreaker was “intense” and the feat, as robotic as it seemed, “incredible”. First of all, the fun of watching kids spell words that no one will ever really use or maybe even need unless they’re at the bee itself, me escaped for years. Children of the Indian diaspora have appropriated the spelling in what is a bizarre attempt to build a franchise around the talent. But is it really talent if a child can guess or vaguely derive the spelling of a word from its phonetics? What other quirky, rote skills do Indian kids have that can be celebrated? No, I’m really asking.
Indians will celebrate just about anything, from mustaches pulling tractors to nails that can probably reach into space and scratch Jeff Bezos’ back while he’s in his phallus-shaped rocket. We pursue nonsensical achievement and recognize arbitrary, bizarre, and unimplementable skills as a kind of inherent skill. Sure, having a good memory is great, but it’s worthless if you don’t have the intellectual know-how to shape and critique information. This modern frenzy over a spelling bee reminded me of a roommate from my early professional days. This guy could memorize everyone’s 16-digit debit card number. It was fun and awesome, this ability to remember because the rest of us couldn’t even if we cared enough. Surprisingly, this unquantified but eccentric talent didn’t translate into a great job at the office where we worked together.
The perceptual value of skills and talent can be subjective. An influencer who comes across as a dizzying failure to some, is an influencer because people follow and resonate with everything they produce. But the contextual freedom of talent evaporates when it comes to the young and impressionable. Because they heal more easily. I don’t really understand what’s awesome about being able to remember the dictionary, sequential events in history, or world capitals, etc. Humans command intelligence by intellect, not by their ability to remember rules but to apply them in the moment. Moreover, impressionable children tend to attribute self-esteem to things that are not even relevant in real life or have no real meaning. I imagine that many Indian parents prepare their children for bullying in high school by motivating them or forcing them to participate in abstract competitions that few other cultures value. That’s like saying my child is good at growing up, counting stars, or tying knots. Someone has probably tried the latter.
I don’t dismiss the idea of a good memory as being a valuable tool, just that it needs to be applied to things much more complex than learning words that sound funny, and probably have no use other than in medical journals or Shashi Tharoor’s letters to himself. The language is supposed to aspire to universality, and the fact that it most often struggles with it is one of its major flaws. To that effect, pandering to someone’s ability to remember things you don’t even need to remember is a cynically manipulative way of creating competition where there is none. It’s like wanting to celebrate someone’s ability to hold back their farts the longest, sting their own eyes, or scream in an unholy tone. None of these challenges is conceivable around which a sport or competition can be built. Motor recall of words and their spellings, quite similarly, is a useless exercise in trying to out-compete a computer, incredibly enough for the less impressive things a computer does – hold information. To their credit, I’m sure those kids queuing up for spelling bees are smart enough to actually contemplate and confront real-life issues. Remembering the spelling of a word no one has heard of will never be on someone’s speed dial or have an app for it. And heaven knows we build one for just about everything.
Spelling bees ironically reflect India’s educational system that champions rote learning and uninspired memorization of the stale and obscure over curiosity and criticism. That’s why despite a rich history, it’s the most boring subject in school. This is why literature, despite its variety and depth, seems obscure and strangely condescending. It’s also why students gravitate toward the sophistication of the sciences, as only they seem able to inspire intrigue, simply by being flawed at times. Go to college, and things are even worse. We learn or rather memorize things we don’t need and dive into topics that fill the gaps in the list rather than the curiosity of the human brain. The application therefore requires a massive amount of unlearning. To that effect, even the ability to coherently string together a sentence would require you to defy the thesaurus as a literary overlord. Simplicity triumphs where skill cannot. This is why it is obscene to push children to hone skills that make them comparable to machines rather than rational humans. These kids may be earning bees, but they’re closer to memorizing the Internet’s “captcha” codes than knowing about the sociopolitical referendums that made web safety inevitable. It’s like watching circus freaks do incredibly wonderful things that mean nothing outside the ring. But at least we win, right?
Manik Sharma writes about art and culture, film, books and everything in between.
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