I don’t know any of this for a fact, but I would imagine that, if you were to administer a spelling bee to a given middle-school classroom, there would be a fairly significant correlation between success at the bee and overall writing ability. I’d further imagine that this correlation begins to fall apart the closer you get to a country-wide scale, like the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Perhaps I’m being ungenerous there, but I don’t see too many future Hemingways in that crowd.) The reason I’d wager that these propositions are true is that good spelling is wrapped up with wide reading, which is the font of a whole host of verbal proficiencies. And so I think if you foisted an impromptu spelling contest on some group of unsuspecting eigth-graders, it’d be likely to shake out that the ones who did well in it know their way around a book. And that they could on the whole write sentences with more clarity and grace than their lower-scoring counterparts.
But the national spelling bee is a different animal altogether. Success at that level doesn’t mean you’re an “avid reader” or the kind of student who writes little short stories and poems in her spare time. It doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily got a knack for pleasant turns of phrase. Not at all. What it means is that you’ve got a freakishly capacious memory. And reliable recall under pressure, too. It means you’re willing to forego in large measure normal childhood entertainments. It means you’re willing to grind out hour after hour of tedious rote learning, inscribing obscure etymologies and variant spellings and all manner of curious linguistic fauna in careful runes upon your young heart.
I’m not saying this latter set of skills isn’t impressive in its own right, or that it’s never worth cultivating. (Years of spelling-bee prep strikes me as somewhat of a misspent youth. But then again I logged more than my fair share of hours on the Nintendo so who am I to throw stones?) I’m just pointing out out that the people who succeed at trial like this in its native environment and the people who succeed at once it’s been elevated to the status of a major contest are two different groups of people. And also that, as the bee makes that journey from afternoon diversion to national competition, the corpus of abilities it tests transforms radically.
Now like I said at the onset: I haven’t researched every last particular of my speculation here. I’ll admit it. If there are Scripps champions who went on to produce works of timeless literature, be sure to list them in the comments (and include a note on how to pronounce their name as well). But you can observe the same sort of phenomenon all over the place. Once a basic tool of training or assessment becomes incentivized heavily enough, it tends to lose all relationship to the qualities it was originally meant to train or assess. Look at Crossfit. The pull up is a staple of strength training. Classic. Respectable. And it’s a fair enough measure (taking bodyweight into account) of whether you or your lifting buddy have the stronger upper back.
But once you elevate that means of strength training to an end all of its own, once you elevate the pull up to the status of contest, well… you end up with something else entirely. Not classic. Not especially respectable. Just a bizarre arms race of ever-specializing techniques that people innovate because they’re more interested in winning than in maintaining the movement’s place in a larger scheme of physical improvement. In other words: once something becomes worth gaming, it will be gamed. And it will lose almost all of its former virtue in the gaming process.
There’s a lot of mileage to be had from this observation, which needless to say isn’t original to me. One of the largest, most thorough failures of modern educational policy (besides mandatory public schooling, of course) was occasioned by an oversight of this simple fact of human nature. No Child Left Behind, a law that was perhaps as well-intentioned as the name would have you believe, wanted to cut through all the nonsense and politics and unevenness of different school districts and “hold them all accountable” to “higher standards” of educational success. NCLB mandated that schoolchildren all over the nation would take tests throughout the year, and the schools they attended would be judged by the amount of progress they made in raising their scores on those tests. Schools that didn’t post steady progress would suffer interventions of various sorts. Schools that did would be spared.
As you can imagine, though, this set of incentives transformed the nature of classroom education. Once those test numbers were imbued with such a terrible significance, educators and administrators found all sorts of ways (both legal and non) to game them. Blatant cheating aside, teachers started teaching “to the test.” Practice tests became the order of the day. And the drive to perfect the science of Scantron bubbling crowded out more meaningful pedagogical practices, not to mention the sort of teachers who engaged in such practices in the first place.
The artificial levelling of “outcomes” (educational or otherwise) is a major preoccupation of liberals. It’s a sort of Marxism, you could say, applied to any number of cultural arenas. It’s a positively evil preoccupation, though, whatever you call it—especially when taken to the extremes in vogue today. The capable are punished. The incapable are patronized. And any ideal worth the name of justice gets sacrificed to our precious conviction that life really ought to be fair after all.
Sometimes, however, we on the Right tend to adopt the opposing position too vigorously for our own good. When they say “beatify the halt and the lame,” we say “let the devil take the hindmost.” When they offer social Utopianism, we counter with social Darwinism. Their positions are worth opposing. Yes. But not at any cost. In fact, that concept of “meritocracy,” so near and dear to many an honest conservative’s heart, brings its own set of ills, some just as serious as those that communism of outcomes does. And the larger the scale on which meritocracy is applied, the more prone to abuse it is, as in the case of Scripps or NCLB. The truth is almost any assessment of “merit” is gameable at that level. And so the nature of what is being assessed will differ dramatically from the nature what was intended to be assessed. And bad faith actors will operate at a decided advantage.
Within a single classroom or gym, it would be feasible for someone familiar with all of the faces involved to spot the bad faith actors. But if you include a whole nation of classrooms and gyms, those sort of judgment calls become impossible, and the grinders, the grifters, the unscrupulous rule the day. So it’s unwise, I think, to charge too far into the territory of meritocratic competition, even if that presents itself as an answer to the injustices of enforced equality. Our solutions need more nuance than that.