The new movie Akeelah and the Bee, about a girl from LA who wants to compete in the National Spelling Bee, is sparking some renewed interest in these contests. The National Spelling Bee has been a bit of a draw for curiosity-seekers since Rebecca Sealfon shouted out "euonym" to win it in 1997. Indeed, small children who can spell big words are always a TV draw, showing up on Jay Leno, Oprah, etc.
My one run at spelling bee glory was in 4th grade, when I was a runner-up in the 4th (or possibly 5th) grade Washington Elementary School Spelling Bee in Raleigh, NC. I lost when I spelled "attorney" wrong (little knowing that 15 years later I'd marry one). I blame my lapse on the fact that I studied the whole spelling list we'd been given, A-Z, not realizing that the bored teacher tasked with runnning the thing would only ask words from the A section. Turns out I should have concentrated my cramming there.
But I digress. My mixed feelings about spelling bees come not from my own lack of ability to spell, but because they're mostly about memorization. Rebecca Sealfon talks about the memorizing regimen she used in this article from the Nassau Weekly (a Princeton paper I used to write for, here. (Sealfon graduated in 2005 with a biology degree, and also studied creative writing). While Sealfon is very intelligent, broadly, the ability to memorize is not the same thing as intelligence. Intelligence involves piecing bits of information together, discerning patterns, and solving problems. There is some element of this in spelling bees ("eu" is Latin root for "true," "-onym" for name; so if you were told or knew the word meant a well-suited name, you could figure this out). But generally, students who do well in spelling bees have been drilling words from the dictionary into their heads. English is not a language well-suited to discerning patterns and piecing together spellings based on that information.
There is nothing wrong, per se, with a contest that rewards memorization. Nor is there anything wrong with kids devoting themselves to a goal and training hard for it. Kids do this all the time in rather useless sports; the fact that spelling is a rather useless skill these days shouldn't detract from the hard work winners like Sealfon put in to their victories.
The problem is that the population-at-large then thinks the ability to memorize is what being bright is about. Very bright toddlers often memorize things as they try to learn about their world. But being able to recite the long names of dinosaurs does a lot less for you as you get older. The kids on the Leno show may pursue that interest in paleontology when they grow up, but then being "good" at dinosaurs will mean discerning patterns from random bones, recalling links to other species found nearby, and using all the available research tools to learn more about the prehistoric world. I'd love to see a contest for kids that tapped all these skills. Then I'd love to see it get as much press as the National Spelling Bee. But "a-ha" moments don't necessarily make for good television. Or movies. So we get dramatic spelling moments, where the answer is clear-cut. Too bad learning in general doesn't work that way.