The National Geographic Bee finals were held yesterday in Washington DC, with 10 finalists selected from all the state champions. Seven out of the ten were of Indian origin, one was of Chinese extraction, two were Caucasian. As always, we wonder why there is a preponderance of kids from India in competitions like these. Is it the curry after all?
We had a long email discussion about the results. Here is the thread of those emails.
National Geographic Bee is going the way of the National Spelling Bee. The three top places in the 2012 quiz competition went to Indian Americans. (The winner is a young man from one of my neighborhood schools) There was a fantastic documentary (Spellbound) a few years ago that followed some spelling bee contestants for a year before the national competition and recorded their routine for the preparation. I actually found the film a bit depressing. They should follow up and see if these kids distinguish themselves in adulthood in any special way other than possessing a prodigious memory.
Is this a particularly bad thing? Sure, it seems like a pretty dismal way for one's child to spend time, but doesn't seem any worse regarding time commitment than school sports or beauty pageants or violin playing. Granted, the social correlates of working hard at learning geography are rather different from those of doing football, but psychologically the business of learning lots of spelling stuff instead of playing online RPGs is probably pretty epiphenomenal here. Typically your average geography geek would make a pretty lousy footballer, while possibly being decent at band stuff or math camp.
It certainly IS interesting that Indians with geeky kids are unusually likely to push them to learn spelling and geography instead of making them study for (physics/math/computing/linguistics) olympiads or learn piano or something. Maybe it's that Indian culture places a fair premium on memory, while East Asians a) value this less b) have acquired to a greater extent the idea that memorization is uncool.
I think it's a disservice to assume that the kids involved in this didn't care for it and were pressured into it in the usual manner of immigrant parents, hypercompetitive to a fault. I'm sure the kids plunge into the prep work involved with the same enthusiasm and dedication (and occasional weariness) that would be the hallmark of others in so many other activities, whether it be competitive cheer leading, or piano or ice-skating. Mental effort is made, instead of physical.
I think that the reason why Indian parents love the Spelling/Geography Bees is because the investment in equipment is minimal -Nothing more than a decent broadband link, computer and a few books is needed. The parents can focus intensively on training the kids, without carting them around to distant locations or spending precious time in traffic jams. Plus it isn't too heavy on the mental calisthenics (unlike Physics or Math Olympiads,which require more rigorous training and intricate explanations by the parents, who may not be adequately equipped for this).
Wait till the Indian immigration gets reversed and some new group takes over (Hispanics). Maybe in a few years, it will be an all-Latino final.
Perserverence and time spent on deliberate practice were the greatest indicators of success in the spelling bees, rather than other traits with which one might associate that success, such as results on Verbal IQ tests, or time spent on leisure reading. For both kids and parents, no doubt there's a satisfaction in devoting oneself to something that particularly rewards devotion/hard work, per se.
The entry bars for Spelling and Geography Bees are perhaps lower than most, requiring little more than an ability to memorize basic facts or sequences of alphabet tied in with sounds. The rest is sheer determination, practice, practice, and more practice. It's not hard to be obsessive about these-it can come naturally, or with some encouragement.These kids have been living and breathing their obsession with geography for more than a few years now.
Rest assured that the grit exhibited by the students in their quest for Geography Bee or Spelling Bee glory will some day be put to good use in other fields. Whether those are showy ones or not will depend on their inclinations.