Wednesday, August 27, 2008


(full disclosure for this post: i have a personal investment in the subject of spelling. here's why: i was thisclose to making it to the national spelling bee when i was in 8th grade. at regionals, i missed the word that is the title of this post - peerless - because the word-giver [is there an actual job title for this?], who i have yet to forgive, pronounced it "perilous." the sentence she gave could've gone either way. had i asked for a definition, i would've easily gotten it -- and every other word that would've fallen on my turn -- and, most likely, gone to nationals. but instead, i spelled "perilous," and was eliminated. and no, i'm not still bitter about a contest that happened over ten years ago. why do you ask?)

according to this article on spiked (via), some "progressive" educators are arguing in favour of de-emphasizing correct spelling and, instead of engaging in the tedious task of correcting students' spelling, accept the most commonly misspelled words ("truely" in place of "truly," for example) as "variant spellings." they claim that an adherence to correct spelling is elitist, discriminating against people from "disadvantaged backgrounds."

my first thought: have these people not seen Akeelah and the Bee? a young girl, quite disadvantaged, from south LA, wins the National spelling bee on her first trip there. a talent for spelling did not elude her, so why should it elude other similarly disadvantaged students?

thought number 1.5: what kind of generalization is that? assuming that "disadvantaged" (read: low-income, people of color, inner city, Other) kids can't spell? talk about elitist assumptions.

my second thought: ok, there's a good possibility that kids who've grown up and have been placed at some kind of educational disadvantage perform less well in spelling than their more advantaged counterparts. it's not as if educationally disadvantaged students are the only ones consistently employing these "variant spellings." really. this fact comes from a girl who was educated in a very good public school and attended a top tier college. even if it were confined to those "disadvantaged" students, the answer is not to meet them at their misspellings. maybe a step would be to, i don't know, stop de-funding education, put a little effort into these neglected schools, actually make the educational changes we've needed to make for years.

maybe i'm a spelling purist. if it's "progressive" educators that are lobbying for the acceptance of "variant spellings," maybe that makes me "conservative." for once, for the only time in my life, i'm ok with that label. literacy is not a luxury of the elite, and correct spelling is an indispensable facet of literacy. illiteracy is not a badge of honour, or, like the article rightly bemoans, a "virtue." spelling is not arbitrary. spelling things incorrectly does not show your self-expression or creativity.

there is a place for self-expression and creativity in literature, of course. literature would not continue evolving if that weren't the case. it's ok to sometimes cast off some of the restrictive grammatical rules in order to expand literary creativity. you'll notice that i rarely construct sentences that include capitalization, and that often, i include sentences with one or two words - not a complete sentence, by definition. this is not, however, because i don't understand correct grammar or sentence construction or literary rules. i generally do not capitalize the first word of sentences for aesthetic purposes. i like the way paragraphs look without the interruption of capital letters. (i could probably make an argument challenging the hierarchical nature of capitalization, but that's really not my motivation.) my incomplete sentences exist for the sake of the literary voice that i've chosen. the voice i write with reflects the voice i speak with. i think that's an important similarity for a writer.
the difference here is that i know what the literary rules are. i'm consciously choosing to break them, for reasons that are defensible in the literary world. misspelling words due to ignorance of their correct spelling, though? that's not "variant" or "self-expression." that's just an aspect of illiteracy.

lastly, a note on the argument Frank makes near the end of the article:
In essence, variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths. Contemporary cultural life has become estranged from the idea of Truth with a capital T. In academia, social scientists never tire of informing students that there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different perspectives as representing many truths.

The demotion of the status of truth calls into question the purpose of gaining knowledge. Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

as an avid challenger of accepted capital-T Truths, i disagree with this. the calling into question of the status quo, of long-accepted social Truths (i.e. normativity and homogeneity) does not call into question the value of gaining knowledge. on the contrary; gaining knowledge is one of the things that allows the status quo to be challenged. the academy is certainly not the only place that Truths can be challenged, but it's been an important front in that for a while now. for example, i (and many feminist scholars) absolutely disagree with the long-accepted "Truth" that small children have inherent differences based on their genitalia. little boys can be just as sensitive and pink-loving as little girls, and little girls can love to play with trucks and do science experiments just as much as little boys. challenging that Truth had absolutely nothing to do with employing "variant spellings." there is absolutely no connection.
seeking and accepting a pluralistic version of truth(s) doesn't mean taking ideas less seriously. making the connection between progressive scholars advocating for the acceptance of a variety of truth and "scholars" advocating for the acceptance of "variant spellings" is a red herring, and an ineffective one at that.

No comments: