The XX Factor

Should the National Spelling Bee Make Us Squirm?

Tonight you can see the finals of the National Spelling Bee on television and watch as the kids contort under the mounting pressure. They “tug at their hair and display preadolescent tics that are hard enough to manage in front of malicious middle-school classmates let alone a nation of living-room critics, sportswriters, and live bloggers,” as Steven Fatsis, author of Word Freak , writes in a column today on the Daily Beast .

I’m inclined to agree with him that the spectacle should make us adults squirm, too, at least a little. But I’m not sure the problem is that we’ve blown this event into something way too serious, as we do so many of our kids’ endeavors these days, destroying open-ended fun by forcing them under the performance spotlight. I’d say something like the opposite is also going on: Should it make us squirm even more to recognize that part of why we go overboard with this display of brain exertion is precisely that we don’t really take spelling very seriously at all?

Photograph of  Sidharth Chand in the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee  by  JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images.