Gurnek Bains: Indian-American students have done extraordinarily well at spelling bees
He says a variety of cultural and historic factors may play a role in the success
Bains: The success is rightfully a source of pride in Indian-American community
The finals for the Scripps National Spelling Bee have once again produced Indian-American winners – with Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam sharing this year’s prize. Since 1999, 15 of the 19 winners have been Indian-Americans.
This year seven of the 10 finalists – of what has been dubbed “the Indian Super Bowl” – were of Indian descent. Since Indians constitute only 1% of the American population, this is a massive overrepresentation.
It is a delicate topic – made even more sensitive by some less than congratulatory commentary on some social media sites following last year’s results – which also produced Indian winners.
But the overrepresentation of Indian-Americans does merit explanation. So what is going on? There are likely both surface and deeper cultural reasons at work here.
The obvious explanations center on the high educational achievements of Indian-Americans as well as the active encouragement of learning by many parents. The intensity of effort required to win the spelling bee evokes respect, as well some envy and dissonance, in the wider population.
Doing well in spelling competitions has also become a source of pride for many Indian-Americans. Once a cultural practice takes hold in a community, it can develop a life of its own. Legions of local Indian competitions across America are often the training ground for the eventual finalists and winners. But why have these competitions taken off in the Indian community so much? And why do some Indians seem to be especially gifted in this area?
One part of the answer to this puzzle lies in the tradition of oral transmission of religious scriptures in Indian culture. The Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, comprise a vast encyclopedic series of hymns, chants, epic poems and philosophical treatises.
Just to get a sense of scale, the “Mahabharat,” an oceanic epic poem that constitutes a fraction of just one section, is 10 times the length of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” combined. The ancient Indians, faced with the task of submitting the dense text of the Vedas to future generations, decided that oral transmission was the only viable method – in part because the melodic hymnlike nature of many sections could not be faithfully conveyed in writing.
You might wonder how this kind of elaborate “telephone game” exercise worked across thousands of years with text as frighteningly complicated as the Vedas. The ancient Indians were aware of the problem of textual corruption and assigned substantial sections of the population with the task of faithful transmission of different sections. Over 15 elaborate mnemonic devices were developed that involved learning the text in many different ways. For example, the Jata method involved reciting the words in pairs, first forward and then backward.
When the British arrived in India and heard about this tradition, they assumed that the text must have become highly corrupted over time. Extraordinarily, they found barely a handful of errors across the whole of India. Furthermore, the oral tradition had corrupted the text much less than written reproduction. Huge swaths of the Indian population had been involved in this task. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed that this extraordinary cultural feat represented “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
A tradition of faithfully learning large volumes of information became ingrained in the Indian educational tradition in the past because of such challenging religious tasks.
While success in the spelling bee is perhaps one of the incidental consequences, a more important outcome is the high level of educational and professional success achieved by Indian-Americans.