The National Spelling Bee Has Become a Fucking Nightmare

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Late Thursday night, after twenty grueling rounds, a historic eight winners were crowned at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The bee’s long-time pronouncer Jacques Bailly described the winners as “the most phenomenal assemblage of spellers in the history of this storied competition.”

Congrats to all of the kids, who are, I’m sure, charming and smart and have worked hard to make it where they are today and know how to spell words like “huiscoyol” and “bremsstrahlung” and “erysipelas,” which is a cool skill to have I guess? I bear them no grudges whatsoever, because they are cute, nerdy kids who are willing to face the possibility that they might utterly embarrass themselves on national television.

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But by now it should be readily apparent that, through no fault of the spellers but definitely the fault of their parents, ESPN, and the bee itself, the forces of competition and commercialization have ruined the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s time, I’m sorry to say, to get rid of the spelling bee altogether.

Once a paean to an increasingly obsolete skill, a delightful competition that could be won by correctly spelling “croissant,” the spelling bee has turned into a fucking nightmare. To become a champion speller these days, kids must study dozens of hours every week, and it’s become so hyper-competitive that parents now hire private coaches to train their kids to do well in the spelling bee; coaching is almost a requirement for those who wish to advance to the final rounds. Elite spellers “spend practically every waking hour studying in preparation for this moment,” in the words of the Washington Post.

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This coaching culture has turned the bee into the equivalent of an elite sport—the lacrosse of academic competitions, if you will—in which doing well requires not only endless amounts of time but also money. As Shalini Shankar, a professor and the author of a book about spelling bees told the Post, “It’s rare that you see someone of really humble means making it here anymore.”

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And the bee has recently introduced a pay-to-play model, further destroying any notion of the supposed meritocracy of the bee. Per the Post, the families of more than half of this year’s competitors paid thousands of dollars in order for their kids to be in the bee:

Another game-changing development is the new invitational program known as “RSVBee,” now in its second year. In the past, spellers reached the national event only by winning a regional bee and securing a sponsor, often a newspaper, to cover expenses. But with the advent of RSVBee, which supplied 292 of this year’s 565 contestants, families who can afford a $1,500 entry fee — plus six nights at the $300-a-night Gaylord and other expenses — can bypass the traditional path to the Bee.

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Capitalism ruins everything. The spelling bee now sucks. Sorry kids.

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