Editor’s Note: Shalini Shankar is Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.” The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
In a year when the International Olympic Committee postponed the Summer Games in Tokyo and when March Madness and nearly every other major sporting event has been canceled, it is no surprise that this week’s widely anticipated National Spelling Bee would be called off. Initially deferred, students and parents were understandably devastated when contest officials announced on April 21 that the competition would not be held for the first time since World War II. In lieu of tuning into ESPN Thursday for the primetime finals, the cancellation of the Scripps National Spelling Bee offers a offers a much-needed opportunity to rethink childhood priorities. If the goal of the National Spelling Bee is, as their website states, to “help students discover a knack for spelling and a passion for competition,” this year’s canceled competition is an ideal moment to figure out a way it can better serve all interested kids.
In my years of research on spellers and the Bee, I glimpsed what viewers of the contest on ESPN don’t see: just how inaccessible this beloved contest has become to all but the most educated families with the financial means to train their children. Many parents hire coaches who work closely with their children, sometimes for years. As I note in my book, hourly rates for those coaches can start at $25 and soar upwards of $200 to be tutored by a former champion. Some are even flown to the finals for last minute training and support.
Training for the spelling bee has become an Olympic-level undertaking because the difficulty of the contest has increased dramatically. In 2019, only about 500 children advanced to the national level from over 11 million participants. Gone are the days when being a lover of literature and words is enough to progress through the field of competitors. Last year, elite spellers were so well prepared that rather than drag the final eight children through an all-nighter, contest officials declared all eight winners. They proudly dubbed themselves the “octo-champions.”
Expecting an even grittier contest this year, many elite spellers have spent the last 11 months aiming to secure a place on that stage. Forgoing social events to study and plunging the depths of online dictionaries instead of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons on their Nintendo Switch,” they have painstakingly spent the 2019-2020 school year in pursuit of orthographic perfection. Or at least they likely had, until pandemic safety measures intervened.
The pressure for kids to become experts and spend copious time perfecting a skill isn’t unique to spelling bees. Travel sports, national chess tournaments, dance competitions and similar extracurriculars can require significant parental time and financial investment. Choosing and honing a craft in elementary school, as many of these diligent youngsters have, marks a major shift in childhood, which is now increasingly focused on displaying preternatural expertise.
The gradual professionalization of childhood is an unwelcome development for many. Some bemoan the lack of free time and play-based childhood, an ideal in white middle class childhoods since the post-war era. The emphasis on accomplishment and recognition is taking a major toll on young minds. One recent study shows that children in schools designated as “high-achieving” have been labeled an “at-risk” group, placing them alongside children who are living below the poverty line or have incarcerated parents.
Other critics rightly point to the stark class inequalities perpetuated by children’s activities that call for major parental financial outlay. For instance, in 2018 and 2019, the “RSVBee” program introduced by Scripps invited hundreds of additional spellers to join regional winners at the national contest. Runner-ups who met specified criteria could pay an entry fee and cover their own travel and lodging for a coveted chance to spell, a proposition that cost families thousands of dollars for the 6-day trip. Without time or money to support a childhood career in spelling, working-class kids have little chance of developing skill sets comparable to kids from middle class families, despite their interest and enthusiasm.
Attending to these disparities in no way diminishes the tireless efforts of this year’s 8th graders, who have channeled their profound disappointment into an online campaign petitioning Scripps to extend their eligibility or hold an online contest. With nearly 5000 signatures, it underscores the dedication of the 500 plus kids who were eagerly anticipating the sequel to last year’s dramatic finish. Socially distanced and missing everyday contact with school friends, they are reluctant to lose out on the prized social interaction of fellow word nerds.
Offering an alternative contest and welcoming all interested spellers to compete, Texas siblings Shobha and Shourav Dasari are staging their own spelling bee online. Drawing on the extensive word lists they developed as former spellers and current coaches in their tutoring company Spellpundit, the teenagers have designed a multiday contest that includes rounds of written and oral spelling. The livestreamed contest features recent former spellers as judges and pronouncers. They even secured sponsorship from the media outlet The Juggernaut. Opening the contest to anyone in or below 8th grade who wants to compete, over 300 spellers registered. It’s not quite the real thing, but with a $25 entrance fee paid to the tutoring company that will be waived on a need basis, it puts this increasingly elite contest well in reach of many more kids.
This model of inclusion is especially important because we will soon be faced with reprioritizing for a life of social distancing. With no Little League baseball or American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) soccer, tens of thousands of kids no longer have these affordable sports options as an outlet. Many online music and dance instruction are out of reach for families struggling financially. What remains, then, are a smaller range of pursuits that are restricted to wealthier families.
In a moment when the very value of college being called into question, it is difficult to envision the future for which we are preparing our children. Especially as minority communities suffer disproportionately in the pandemic, this is a perfect time to think concretely about equity and inclusion.
Instead of professionalizing childhood, we should now concern ourselves with democratizing it. Make elite activities available to more kids by eliminating costly entry fees and opening them up to a broader field of entrants. Of course today’s DIY spelling bee hardly approximates the scale and stature of Scripps, but maybe that’s a good thing. The ease of participation, the low overhead cost, and openness to all interested kids is a very promising format for other activities that can have an online presence as well. Creating smaller digital venues for competitive dance, singing, or chess will never replace the thrill and social interaction of an on-site national final, but it doesn’t have to. Have both. Let more kids who have less find a way to still participate in extracurricular and enrichment activities.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The pandemic is already exacerbating racial and class inequalities, raising fears that the socioeconomic chasm that separates well-resourced children from the equally talented ones with no guidance or support will become untenably wide. Like so many things that will be done differently once we are out of imminent danger, creating new paths to inclusivity for the increasing numbers of children at risk of getting left behind should not only be a top priority, but a central focus of the new normal we create.