Through the lens of spelling bees, an anthropologist looks at how childhood is becoming increasingly professionalized.
Shankar (Anthropology and Asian-American Studies/Northwestern Univ.;Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian American Advertising, 2015, etc.) draws on anthropology, education, language, and culture to explore why South Asian Americans from the post-millennial Generation Z keep winning spelling bees. Exploring the “rise of childhood competition to shifts in generational characteristics and immigration,” her research is fascinating. The author attended every National Spelling Bee from 2013 to 2018, plus many regional bees, and interviewed numerous winners, semifinalists, and their parents, and she discovered that “no immigrant community has embraced spelling as completely as South Asian Americans.” As one parent told her, “now if you’re an Indian child, you try spelling bees. This is a common thing now.” The Indian-American winning streak, writes Shankar, can be attributed to the efforts of highly skilled immigrants who came to America in the early 1990s. They valued education and prioritized “academic enrichment “over all else.” It also helps that Gen Z kids have a very high digital fluency. “The shift from US-born Baby Boomer helicopter parenting to Generation X stealth-fighter parenting,” writes the author, “has fostered greater self-reliance.” Shankar also provides a concise history of bees, noting that by the “latter half of the eighteenth century, spelling matches were a well-established practice in American schools.” The first National Spelling Bee was sponsored by the Louisville Courier-Journal and held in Washington, D.C. The author is excellent at capturing the drama of these events on both the national and local levels as well as explaining how “Spellebrities” are created. Today, the finals of the National Spelling Bee are televised on ESPN, and comedy writers provide humorous sentences for the pronouncers.
Parents who hope to see their children compete in these word clashes—and those who enjoy word games—will find this a most enlightening read.