I was watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee this morning and it hit me, year after year, the kids all seem to be Indian. A few years back my dad told me that Indians were so smart because they were educated by the English during the British Raj; I thought he was being bias because my dad was born and raised in England. But according to the following explanation, my dad’s explanation was partially correct:
For millennia, India was a land where the poorest scholar was held in higher esteem than the richest businessman. This approach to life proved disastrous for modern India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister and a Brahmin to his manicured fingertips, had such contempt for business (and for profits) that his economic policies condemned his people to two generations of stagnation.
But Nehru would have approved of spelling bees. Indian pedagogy relies heavily on rote memorization–the result of a fusion of Victorian teaching methods imposed by the British and ancient Hindu practice, in which the guru (or teacher) imparted his learning to pupils via an oral tradition. (The Victorians, for their part, regarded correct spelling almost as a moral virtue, and certainly as a caste “signifier,” to use a clumsy anthropological term.)
So the act of sitting down for months with dictionary on lap, chanting aloud the spellings of abstruse words and then committing them to memory probably taps into an atavistic stream coursing through the veins of Indian bee-children. A friend tells the story of how, in his childhood, he’d had an Indian boy home for a sleep-over. He awoke in the middle of the night to find his guest poring over the host family’s Random House dictionary. “I own an Oxford dictionary,” the boy had said, by way of bizarre, nocturnal explanation. “This American dictionary is so different!”