The Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee has begun weeding out spellers at the local level. The finals have become moderately compelling television viewing, especially at the end when the pressure is at its highest. Who doesn't remember the kid who slowly toppled over to his side while standing in front of the microphone. He may be the first person in history to fall sideways while fainting. I can't remember whether anyone caught him or not but my admittedly faulty memory says that after returning to an upright position, he spelled his word correctly. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen, a response that can be admitted because the kid wasn't hurt. There is a great deal of pressure on these kids. That is okay with me so long as the pressure doesn't come from the parents but from the competition itself.
I come today not to celebrate this Bee but to debunk it as a largely anti-intellectual enterprise that celebrates form (the graphic composition of words) over content (meaning). Before defending this surely unpopular position, let me say that learning to spell at the level these kids have to does force them to understand English word morphology (that is, word composition) to some degree, to learn the linguistic origins of words, and to learn what dictionaries say the meanings of these words are. However, this isn't a sufficient payoff to justify the time and effort these kids put into learning to spell words they will never use again.
Those who are familiar with my blog Incomprehensible Language may recall my claim that it is possible to know the meanings of all of the words of a sentence and still not have a clue what the sentence means. My example was drawn from a physics doctoral thesis at Ohio State:
In practice, almost all reverberation mapping data has been insufficient to constrain the transfer function, and reverberation analysis has instead relied on cross-correlation techniques.The problem I faced is that to understand that sentence you have to understand astrophysics at some level. I have had the same sort of experience when tuning in some born again preacher's radio show while on the road where some very odd things are said, things like "I am in the Lord" (I'm not sure this is a meaningful born again utterance but it illustrates the problem). If you don't understand the theology of particular born agains you are unlikely to understand some of what they say. That's assuming these things actually do mean something.
In many cases, words refer to observables and it is the job of parents and others to teach kids the names for various observables. Such words presuppose z theory of how to individuate objects and, more interestingly, how to individuate actions. Check out this Temple University web site on early child language development, where we find a characterization that illustrates what is involved in learning to individuate actions.
Action Categorization : To form a foundation for verb learning, children must first be able to parse an event to find an action, distinguish between actions, and form categories of actions.It has been a long time since I studied epistemology but some sort of nontrivial theory of knowledge is presupposed to account for our learning to individuate objects and actions. I am thinking of Hume's challenging the notion of causation, saying it is not derivable from our sense perceptions but we don't want to get into that here.
So, we come now to the spelling bee and the sometimes very obscure words these kids have to spell to win. Take the word "florin." I suspect that the vast majority of you all could spell this word correctly on hearing it (you might want to put an "e" in for the "i," however) but have no idea what it means or even from what field of human knowledge it derives its meaning. I asked my wife, who is at the tail end of a course certifying her as a Master Gardener and she didn't know. The word list you can access through this blog's title link says it refers to "a genus of sweet-scented herbs with narrow tubular red, white, or yellow flowers." Knowing this, I guarantee you that I wouldn't be able to reliably identify one after surveying a large herb, flower, and weed garden. The kids are told what any word means since they have to deal with homonyms which have different spellings as in "sun" and "son."
I am a terrible speller. I learned this when I got my first word processor that did spelling checks. After learning this, I thanked the Linguistic Department's secretary for correcting all my mistakes when she typed my first book and my papers. If I forget to use the spell checker Blogger provides me, I can guarantee that there will be misspelled words that aren't just typos. This doesn't bother me a bit. English spelling is ridiculous and learning to do it properly is surely a good thing but it is a total waste of a child's time to force, encourage, or abet a child's trying to win spelling bees. This involves an enormous expenditure of time unless the kids have photographic memories. This is an anti-intellectual enterprise since it doesn't involve learning anything of any great importance. Their time would be better spent trying to learn some mathematics, physics, chemistry, and other worthwhile disciplines. Indeed, I would love to see Scripps-Howard trash its spelling bee and create Math Bees, Physics Bees, Chemistry Bees, or perhaps, a single Math and Science Bee, perhaps identifying a set of texts that would form the basis of the test questions. What this nation needs is more mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, not more spellers. [For the record, the Blogger spell checker identified about 15 problem words. Some words like "agains" as in "born agains" aren't really words so Blogger objected to it. Only three words were actual misspellings and all of these were typos. Unfortunately, if you have a typo involving a word you have capitalized which isn't normally capitalized, Blogger provides an uncapitalized version. Of course, if you can't spell pretty well even a spell checker won't save you. In adding this addendum, I originally spelled this word as "adendum." I can't honestly claim this was a typo. Double letters have always been my downfall.]