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The final round of the 83rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee starts in a couple of hours. You probably think I have nothing to say about this, and you’re almost right about that. But not quite. So here’s what I think: like so many events these days that were originally designed for children, it’s gotten ridiculously out of hand. Do we really need to be airing this thing on live prime time television? No. We don’t. We need to stop professionalizing childhood and go back to letting kids be kids.

I know. Not gonna happen. I’m just being crotchety today. So here’s the real reason I’m posting about this: a couple of months ago I was noodling around in the ProQuest archives looking for the etymology of Fannie Mae, and one of the hits I got was a New York Times blurb about the winners of the 6th annual spelling bee in 1930. The reason it popped up is because 22nd place that year went to one Fannie Mae Schwab of Memphis, Tennessee, who misspelled “primarily.”

Yes: she misspelled “primarily.” A word that, today, probably wouldn’t show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals. And check out some of the other words that knocked kids out of the 1930 contest: blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, and license. Are you kidding? I could spell all those words. But if you watch tonight’s show, you’ll be lucky if you’ve even heard of most of the words, let alone have a snowball’s chance of spelling them correctly.

So there you have it. The next time you hear someone complaining about the decline of educational standards in the United States, just show them this. I don’t know how we’re doing in producing future Nobel prize winners, but we sure are cranking out way better spellers than we used to. Too bad it’s an all but useless skill, eh?

UPDATE: I believe this makes my point for me. Get rid of all the prime time TV nonsense and none of this would have happened.

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Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

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