About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Meaningless (but harmless) contests

Since I moved to the United States I found spelling bees a bizarre, uniquely American spectacle. You know the idea, it's kids competing on a stage, often even in televised events, to see if they can spell words in their own language. They even milked several mediocre movies out of the idea. All right, part of the weirdness for an Italian is that in my own language the contest wouldn't make any sense, since there is a much closer relationship between spelling and pronunciation in Italian, so that if you can say the word you can usually spell it.

But there is something else that always bothered me about spelling bees – besides the fact that I don't see why Americans have to turn everything, including eating hot dogs, into a competition, rather than just enjoy the damn thing for its own sake. What bothers me is that spelling bees are considered “intellectual” competitions, events for nerds. If that's intellectual, I am the king of Prussia, and I also own a large bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you at a very good price.

This morning, however, I found something that beats even the spelling bee as a senseless competition. I was reading the New York Times online while sipping my skim latte at the local coffee house (not a Starbucks!), while I came across an article on the “Dubai International Holy Koran Award.” In this extravagant event, hosted by the richest Arab country in the world, kids compete (for prizes up to $70,000 each) to show that they can recite the Koran more flawlessly and convincingly than anybody else. Some of the competitors don't even speak Arabic, and they simply memorize the text without understanding a word of it. How on earth is this supposed to please the deity is beyond me, but apparently not beyond millions in the Muslim world, who watch this thing as if it were “American Idol.”

In fact, the ultimate irony here is that of a culture that is fighting American imperialism with nails and teeth, then turns out to succumb to precisely the same desperate need for glitz and glamor (and cash) that is despised by Muslim clerics the world over. Then again, maybe that's were we can begin a reconciliation of the two cultures: by finding common ground in meaningless competitions. After all, and unlike holy wars and wars based on false pretense, they actually don't harm anybody.


  1. I don't think the UAB is "fighting American imperialism with nails and teeth". The UAB, aside from being the richest Arab country is arguably the most progressive, economically engaged, and least theocratic Muslim Country (bear in mind this is relative).

    This is a country where tourism is a major industry and that is building lavish island communities in the shape of palm trees and such. I mean the islands themselves are in the shape of palm trees. (Google it, its amazing)

    If this contest were coming out of Iran it might be more surprising.

    Then again, the general population isn't good at detecting irony. They simply see kids reciting the Koran and think that it is good.

  2. Spelling bees - how funny! As a child of the 70s I was taught phonic spelling in a special school program. As a result, spelling remains a complete and total mystery. Even with help I can’t spell. I snort and chortle in the general direction of spelling bees!

  3. I had the same reactions to the spelling bee thing. Anyway, I once heard a "world champion" or something like that of spelling bee in English was some kid from Southeastern Asia who couldn't speak English! Now that is funny -- if true...


  4. I hear that kid worked thru the nite every nite.

  5. Not to be nitpicky, but isn`t Qatar the richest arab country in the world?


  6. the above link got cut off...just look at the the wikipedia list of GDP(PPP) per capita (which is the best economic measure of average well-being in a country)

  7. I was listening to an evangelical Christain radio program once (a hobby of mine), when I heard them bragging about the high number of winners of spelling bees who are home schooled evangelical Christains. They were basically saying "see how well we are educating our kids, they can spell better than public schooled kids!"

    This reminds me of my religious upbringing when our church put alot of emphasis on the kids learning all the names of the books of the bible in order, and my parents making me do this. It bored me to death! Perhaps thanks to such empty mental exercises such as these I became and atheist?

  8. I agree that Spelling is a very poor way to judge intelligence. I believe I once read about a study that actually showed people with poor spelling and poor penmanship actually have higher reasoning capability and reading comprehension ability.
    Sheldon, in fairness to Homeschoolers, they do outperform public and private schools in every measurable way. Home schooling is not just the religous right anymore. 88% of homeschool parents have education beyond highschool vs. 50% of the nation average. But I agree that spelling bees are a bad way of measuring their success

  9. Jim

    I'm a great speller, but nobody can read my handwriting- so I half agree with you.

  10. I agree that being able to spell obscure words is a questionable talent, but is football (or any other sport) really "meaningful?"

    On pointless memorization in homeschooled kids, my brother asked why homeschooled kids and kids from private schools have higher SAT scores. I pointed out that homeschoolers and private schools don't have to teach the state curriculum. They could be 12 year SAT prep courses.

    As for handwriting, I firmly believe that no one with really great handwriting ever had anything to say worth writing down.

  11. J Krehbiel,
    Its not just a matter of homeschoolers spending 12 years preparing for SATs. Look up the stats, its really quite incredible. Grades 1 through 6 homeschoolers average 2 full years on all subjects ahead of private and public schools. The list is endless of stats showing homeschoolers outperforming. There is no way to shake it different. I am not saying that because my kids are homeschooled, cause they're not. Just a fact, perhaps we can learn from?
    Homeschooling is something many liberals are doing today as well.I believe the U.S. currently has over 1 million kids currently being homeschooled.

  12. Jim,

    A better explanation for homeschoolers high test scores, and higher academic performance in general, might be parental commitment, which is enourmous, and a nearly 1:1 student teacher ratio.

    I have 30 9th graders in my 8th period Earth Science class. Even if a dedicated homeschooler teaches that the Earth is flat, they will learn more at home than in the chaos of my class.

    It won't work for everyone, since most parents won't put as much into it as they should. When smart kids with smart parents are taught one on one, they will excell.

  13. J Krehbiel,
    I agree that the principle advantage to homeschooling is the 1 on 1. I certainly wasn't trying to say that homeschooling is better because there is no bus ride. I am sure there are many reasons, such as, when it is your own child at stake, your gonna do what it takes.

    It won't work for everyone, since most parents won't put as much into it as they should. When smart kids with smart parents are taught one on one, they will excell.

    I disagree with the statement that MOST parents won't put as much effort into it as they should. Just the fact that they homeschool requires quite a bit of sacrafice. Again, the statistics show that MOST homeschooled kids outperform private and public schools no matter which way you shake it. So if this is happening without MOST parents effort, then we really need to figure this out.

    I am curious J, as a public school teacher what is your take on the charter school system like we have up here in MA?

  14. Jim,

    I don't know much specifically about Mass. charter schools, but I know that most of them in D.C. (I'm in Maryland) are failing.

    Some people seem to believe that the secret to fixing what ails government institutions is running them "like a business." I also just retired from a part time job in a retail grocery store. Believe me, businesses, in my experience, have their own problems.

    The things that will help schools are expensive and politically difficult- more teachers, more classrooms, higher standards (both for students and teachers), accountability on both teachers and students. Kids want to get by on extra credit. They think that if they go through the motions they deserve an A. On the other hand, there are some teachers, hopefully few in number, who just don't know their stuff. Elementary teachers who quake in fear of science and math, high school teacher forced to teach out of their area of expertese.

    This is gettin well off topic, though.


  15. This is America. We need to have EVERYTHING be a competition!

    I hate to see those young kids so caught up in the competitive nature of things like this. Especially when its the parents driving it :(

  16. Do you know that in Las Vegas they have Slots tournaments?

    People come from all over the country to participate.

    How's that for a silly contest?

  17. Harmless!?

    Spelling bees are hardly harmless!

    I remember crying my eyes out after spelling bees that I won or lost! They hurt kids' self-esteem; if you win you're a nerd, if you get out too early you're an idiot. If kids learn roots, phonics, etc. as a way of spelling, it would be more useful throughout life. Besides, bees waste time that kids could be using to, you know, actually learn. Isn't that what school is for?


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