Spelling Bee Madness

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The final round of the 83rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee starts in a couple of hours. You probably think I have nothing to say about this, and you’re almost right about that. But not quite. So here’s what I think: like so many events these days that were originally designed for children, it’s gotten ridiculously out of hand. Do we really need to be airing this thing on live prime time television? No. We don’t. We need to stop professionalizing childhood and go back to letting kids be kids.

I know. Not gonna happen. I’m just being crotchety today. So here’s the real reason I’m posting about this: a couple of months ago I was noodling around in the ProQuest archives looking for the etymology of Fannie Mae, and one of the hits I got was a New York Times blurb about the winners of the 6th annual spelling bee in 1930. The reason it popped up is because 22nd place that year went to one Fannie Mae Schwab of Memphis, Tennessee, who misspelled “primarily.”

Yes: she misspelled “primarily.” A word that, today, probably wouldn’t show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals. And check out some of the other words that knocked kids out of the 1930 contest: blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, and license. Are you kidding? I could spell all those words. But if you watch tonight’s show, you’ll be lucky if you’ve even heard of most of the words, let alone have a snowball’s chance of spelling them correctly.

So there you have it. The next time you hear someone complaining about the decline of educational standards in the United States, just show them this. I don’t know how we’re doing in producing future Nobel prize winners, but we sure are cranking out way better spellers than we used to. Too bad it’s an all but useless skill, eh?

UPDATE: I believe this makes my point for me. Get rid of all the prime time TV nonsense and none of this would have happened.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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