Monday, June 15, 2009

Paul Sheehan, spelling bees, Indians, and the nerd as global superpower

I do worry for Paul Sheehan.

In his celebration of Indian students and American spelling bees, he offers up the following:

When Kavya spelled laodicean (derived from Latin and meaning indifference, especially in matters of religion), her father, mother and little sister spilled onto the stage. She began to cry as the gold trophy was placed in her hands.

Well yes it does mean indifference or a lukewarm attitude to matters of religion, but from the Latin it ain't, unless you hold that the Bible was originally written in Latin. It comes from and refers to the Laodiceans - inhabitants of a town in Turkey:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelations 3)

Which might help explain why it was handy for Kavya Shivashankar, winner of this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, to hail from Kansas, where they evidently take the bible more seriously than Sheehan. Not that it would have been hard to check - the indefatigable Wikipedia offers a commentary on that lukewarm church of worshippers, and in the process Sheehan might also have discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote a novel with the title A Laodicean (available from Project Gutenberg gratis).

But that's not the only peculiar remark offered up by Sheehan in his celebration of the American spelling bee phenomenon in Brainy bunch cast a magic spell:

There is a place in the public arena for public spectacle and acclaim for young scholars who are going to shape and heal the world rather than merely entertain it.

Our public space is bloated to the point of cultural obesity with scrutiny of young people who want to be models, singers or sporting stars, no matter how banal their utterances may be. Fortunately, there is a space in the entertainment solar system, admittedly small, which revolves around displays of intellectual brilliance. Unfortunately, such a space barely exists in Australia.

But the Americans have devised a system that allows sport and entertainment to be pushed aside, however briefly, to display on a national stage young people notable for their brilliance.

Move over Susan Boyle, you are so yesterday, and so is Paul Sheehan's celebration of your achievement, even if at the time you proved the wisdom of the crowd, and were an exemplar for the great and daily upswelling of democracy, and part of the will of the people finding more expression in multiplicities of new ways.

What a pity Sheehan never bothers to explain exactly how a spelling bee, devised in a format which emphasises tension and competition and entertainment, is somehow exempt from being called mere entertainment.

When surely that's what it is. The spelling bee doesn't push entertainment aside, it's actually quintessential showbiz entertainment, and has even produced its own feature length documentary film Spellbound and its own Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Now that's entertainment.

Now the competition's perhaps even more nerdish and difficult these days, and of late it's come to be dominated by talented Indian competitors, but that still doesn't explain how Sheehan can deny it's entertainment and then write in the same breath that "the bee is one of the most compelling TV spectacles of the year."

Lordy, it might even be a promotion of E. W. Scripps Company, an American media conglomerate.  But then in America it's also a grass roots organization which is everywhere across the country, a kind of mini baseball league for nerds, and has even managed to attract its own set of protestors and picketers. 

But even in Australia we're not unfamiliar with bright kids as entertainment, with the current state wide NSW spelling bee due to hold its finals in November. Here's hoping Sheehan finds the space to celebrate it, even if it only manages to get onto ABC Local Radio (the winners last year were Jordan Powell and Mitchell Rowett, see here for details).

Indeedy Australian radio has always been up for a bit of nerdishness. Way back when, John Dease was the host of a radio show called Quiz Kids, while our very own PM John Howard won a Jack Davey quiz show at the tender age of 16. (If you've a morbid streak, you can still watch it on the intertubes).

Clever kids have always been an entertainment angle, which is why it's such a bizarro world thing for Sheehan to write about inspirational pinnacles of scholastic entertainment while suggesting that mere entertainment can somehow mystically be pushed aside.

Sheehan also makes the simplistic error of thinking achievement in a quiz show or a triumph in a spelling bee is somehow indicative of the kind of intelligence most needed in the world:

The chance that an Indian American was going to win was high, because seven of the 11 finalists this year were Indian Americans. Six of the previous 10 champions were also Indian American. They have come to dominate the event even though they make up just 0.9 per cent of the US population.

Why? Watching these Indians teenagers demolish the far larger number of Anglo-American entrants (whites still make up 79 per cent of the US population) prompted the question: why is India not a global superpower, given the super-abundance of brainpower and energy in the Indian community?

Well sure and Russia is full of chess whizzes, but actually this sort of nonsense - leaping from spelling bee to global superpowerdom - mistakes the significance of spelling as entertainment in the grand scheme of things. And there are special circumstances surrounding Indian participation in the American Bee, as outlined by James Maguire in How to Win the Spelling Bee in the WSJ.

Still, you ask, why are there so many Indian winners given the fact that people of Indian descent only make up around 1% of the U.S. population? Surely there are American kids of all backgrounds who are hard workers with a great education.

Of course there are. Yet an outsized share of Indian pride is attached to achievements in traditional education.

The cultural pride that Indian-Americans bring to the Bee is deep. In 1985, Balu Natarajan was the first Indian-American competitor to win the Bee. Winning this quintessentially American contest prompted a heartfelt reaction among a new wave of immigrants. Holding that trophy aloft as the cameras clicked proved you were as American as any of your neighbors and that you could compete -- and win -- in the new world.

In the years I spent reporting the National Bee I spoke with spellers' families from all over the U.S. Though they were from all kinds of backgrounds, virtually all the families were bookish, even wonderfully old-fashioned in their tendency to limit TV in favor of studies.

Yet it was the Indian parents that consistently repeated the mantra: For us, it's all about education. Making sure that their children performed exceptionally well in all their studies -- which supports the cross-discipline smarts of a top speller -- is of non-negotiable importance.

In short, it's a migrant thing, offering a place where first and second generation migrants can compete on an even footing. Yet when writing about the migrant experience in Australia Sheehan repeatedly offers boofhead kicks to the head.

Whatever. Spelling bees can be fun for winners, and hell for losers, and entertainment for the rest of us, who can't spell to save our lives. Remember to spare a thought for the other 292 spellers in the American competition who this year stumbled on a word (themselves winners of community bees where thousands stumbled on a word), and who thereby don't get the golden trophy or even a decent bit of prizemoney to kickstart their academic careers. As hope is given to nerds, so it can be taken away. 

And in the meantime, can we just be a little more laodicean about the ultimate significance of kids crying as gold trophies are thrust into their pigmented keratinised epidermis covered subcutaneous, collagenous adipose laden paws?

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