One Bee Thrives; Another Died

While the Spelling Bee hogs the spotlight, a more important competition fades to black

The world is still buzzing about 14-year old wunderkind Zaila Avant-garde, who won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee last week.

Avant-garde is a rather impressive person. I’m not sure she has reached superhero status, like some would have you believe. But anybody who can be a basketball prodigy, a holder of three Guinness World Records, and then win the spelling bee as a side project is amazingly impressive.

The National Spelling Bee receives tons of press every year. It is shown on ESPN (despite not being a sport) and it fills a niche at a relatively dead time of year for live spots and other live competition program.

The Spelling Bee sucks so much oxygen out of the room that this went almost unnoticed:

The National Geographic Society is deeply proud of the 33-year legacy of the GeoBee and the millions of students, educators, parents, schools, and others who have participated in this iconic competition. In 2020, recognizing the difficult circumstances school communities found themselves in to safely educate students during the COVID-19 pandemic, we made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020-2021 GeoBee and instead focus on reimagining what a global geography experience for young people could look like entirely.

After many conversations and reflections with students, educators, and community members, we’ve made the decision to permanently discontinue the National Geographic GeoBee to make way for new, transformative, and innovative geography education opportunities in which students around the globe can more equitably participate.

That’s right. The Geography Bee is dead.

Admittedly, I take this one kind of personally. I was a middle school Geography Bee champion, and had the chance to participate in the 1993 Maryland State Geography Bee, where the winner had the opportunity to go to nationals.

Why did National Geographic can the Bee? Their reasons are…..odd:

While we are proud of the National Geographic GeoBee’s 33-year legacy, we believe that this moment presents an opportunity to reimagine geography education and empower young people around the world as solution-seekers to confront our century’s most pressing challenges. In addition to the drop in GeoBee registration in 2020, important shifts—from the COVID-19 pandemic to an increased focus on racial injustice—challenge us to find new, transformative, meaningful ways to engage young people globally in geography.

That seems very wishy-washy and political and probably has little to do with whatever the real reasons that the Bee is dying.

Unfortunately, the entire cancellation of the bee sends the wrong message at the wrong time. The knowledge of even basic geography within the public at large stinks. Most people cannot locate their house, their town, or their county on a map. Heck, most people can’t even read a map these days.

These skills are basic and important not just for getting from point A to point B. But for your basic survival, particularly in a weather emergency.

And that says nothing about the broader implications of geography. Geography, quite literally, shapes everything around us.

Let’s take a look at this from Wikipedia as a definition of geography:

Geography is an all-encompassing discipline that seeks an understanding of Earth and its human and natural complexities—not merely where objects are, but also how they have changed and come to be.

Geography is often defined in terms of two branches: human geography and physical geography. Human geography is concerned with the study of people and their communities, cultures, economies, and interactions with the environment by studying their relations with and across space and place. Physical geography is concerned with the study of processes and patterns in the natural environment like the atmospherehydrospherebiosphere, and geosphere.

Now imagine how many disciplines, how many fields, are impacted by geography. How many different ways does geography touch our individual lives? Whether it’s the weather, home construction, where kids go to school, or the tariffs levied on imports from other countries, geography is at play.

Want to be a pilot? You better know geography. Want to be an economist? You better know geography. Want to be a diplomat? Better know about geography.

Geography is part of everything because geography, at the end of the day, encompasses everything.

While the Spelling Bee is an impressive feat, it is not really of productive value in every day life. While both the Spelling Bee and the Geography Bee shared study characteristics related to memorization and recall, the practical applicability of the two varied. You may very well need to know one day Peshawar is near the Khyber Pass. You will likely never need to spell guetapens or erysipelas from memory.

And yet, at a time when STEM education is being emphasized it is the Geography Bee that falls upon the ash heap of history while the Spelling Bee continues to thrive with national attention and glory.

It’s unfortunate that it has come to this. Perhaps, one day, geography will rightfully get its due and the attention. Perhaps schools will again emphasize geographic literacy in their social and physical science curricula. But until then, it’s painful and a little silly to see recognition of the mastery of a useful skill fall to the wayside while an impressive albeit practically useless skill hogs the spotlight.