To Bee or Not to Bee

With close to a 100-years-old history, the Scripps National Spelling Bee can be considered an American institution. While the idea of studying the dictionary and memorizing lists of words might not grab you the competition, boasting both prestige and sizable cash prizes, proves attractive to many. 

It is worth pondering what it says about our society that last year’s Bee was canceled for COVID when previously the only missed years since 1925 were during World War II, but that isn’t my focus today.  Since the color of people’s skin is being elevated, noted, focused on, and highlighted endlessly today as we march boldly backward, promoting racist attitudes, I was struck by a picture of the winners of the 2019 contest.  Unlike earlier years that produced one winner, or possibly a tie between two contestants, 2019 saw an unprecedented eight youngsters grab the title. Take a look at the winners’ proud faces yourself, and you will see that seven of the eight are dark-complexioned. While Erin and Christopher carry what might be called typical American names, the other winners were Shruthika, Saketh, Rishik, Sohum, Rohan, and Abhijay. In fact, seven of the winners are the children of immigrants to the United States from India. 

In a piece titled, The Immigrant Paradox: Why Are Children of Immigrants Doing Better? Dr. Leonard Sax (whose books I strongly recommend) highlights this point. He posits three reasons that children of immigrants are excelling today, while children born in America are doing less and less well. He avoids the cultural third rail by not discussing legal vs. illegal immigration or dividing immigrants into their countries of origin. That does matter though, as each group comes to this country with a cultural background, and only some of those backgrounds promote the ideas he extolls. A little research, as well as personal experience, tells me that immigrants from many Asian countries, from many countries in Africa, and from India are indeed excelling. Meanwhile, American kids are increasingly depressed and uneducated (perhaps schooled, but uneducated). It is noteworthy that the seven spelling bee winners were immigrants from only one country, not a diverse group. Nonetheless, Dr. Sax’s points are worth noting. 

When you read about rising rates of anxiety, lowering rates of literacy and math competency, and moral confusion among American children, it’s important to remember that this is a crisis from which not every country is suffering.  What is more, it is a crisis that we are choosing for our youth, not one that is preordained. 

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9 thoughts on “To Bee or Not to Bee”

  1. The phenomenon you describe is not new. When I was in college some 40 years ago, I participated in a test of student English proficiency, administered by a graduate student who taught the psych 101 class I was taking. After she analyzed her results, she asked me and a German exchange student to remain behind. Apparently, we had both done very well compared to other students. She understood why the German student did well (a focus on studying a new language yielded superior knowledge), but did not understand why I did well, as I presented as an average American. It was not until I said I was actually an immigrant (came to US with parents when I was quite young) and that my parents emphasized academics, that she was able to categorize me for her study.
    The conclusion I make is that how parents emphasize their child’s activities is much more important than the ethnic background. What you see in the spelling bee results is a cultural linkage between ethnic background and academic performance, but that link is not certain or inherent. Any parent, of any ethic origin, can choose to emphasize academics and see the same proficiency in their child, even if not at national spelling bee levels. Sadly, the poor academic performance we lament in American children is therefore the fault of poor parenting and, I think, inattentive schools, but that latter point is for another time. Blessings to both of you for sharing your wisdom.

  2. I read the article by Dr. Sax I suspect he is correct. In addition to what he says, I suspect a couple more factors:
    1. I suspect that the people that are attracted to the USA, especially the ones that will go through the trouble, time, and expense of legal immigration, are more adventurous and ambitious than the typical person. They also have higher expectations of their children than the typical person. Immigrants to the US are not a cross section of the general population of where they came from. There is a self selection that tends to happen.
    2. There is the principle that Rabbi Lapin sometimes talks about, the leaving of one’s birth land and making a life elsewhere. That does tend to lead to greater prosperity. Beyond the reasons in #1, I am not sure why this tends to be true even among people that move to another region within a country.

  3. Everything is handed to people who are born in America. Immigrants know where they come from have been rough so we work very hard to attain and maintain. Excellent piece, Rabbi Lapin!

  4. The more “woke” a society becomes, the more emphasis is given to “equity” and “fairness” than on “merit.” India, Nigeria, Viet Nam and other Asian and African nations have not been infected with “wokeness” and their cultural values include working toward academic and vocational mastery and excellence. It’s no surprise that the son of two Korean immmigrants was the first chair violinist while he was in high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. He later went on to University of Chicago medical school, graduating as a radiologist at age 25. His American peers were more interested in virtue signalling and keeping up with pop culture.

  5. I can fault my parents in some ways they raised me, but they did the best with what they had and knew. That was seventy years ago. Things were different. They did take a big interest in my education and I always had all the books I needed.

  6. What a great article! As a child I won our school 4th Grade Spelling Bee. Many years later I have come to rely on Spell Check on my computer! I have come to know many Indian Immigrants in my life. Many of them have told me how our government discriminates against people from India by only allowing “Professionals” in. I have met many Immigrants from all over the world. It always amazes me how they all come to America and succeed at whatever they do! They are always grateful for the opportunities here! I contacted my local newspaper and asked them to do articles on this instead of the same old stories about people being hopeless and helpless victims. I received no reply. While listening to a radio program a woman immigrant from Vietnam called and told the host her family has their own grocery store and typically work 16-18 hour days 7 days a week. A certain political party keeps saddling them with more and more regulations trying to force them out of business! Since most of of the jobs of the future come from small businesses America should be encouraging Entrepreneurship instead of telling people to rely on the Government for everything!

  7. Excellent topic to publish.

    I’m from Australia and we have the same issue here.

    A friend of ours is going back to Spain because of one of the exact points Dr. Leonard Sax highlights in the article.
    They made the decision so their children can be around Grandparents & cousins with kids of similar age.

    They gave up the high paying incomes and the country citizen benefits, just so they can be around good family and friends in Spain.

  8. Too sad as a 75 year old American I know our culture ‘is going to hell in a handbasket”

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