The kings of the Geobee

29 May

The other night, I happened to tune into the National Geographic GeoBee, which is exactly what it sounds like: a geography version of a spelling bee, in which students, grades 4-8 compete for college scholarships. The students’ level of geographic knowledge is, well, global (and oh so local at the same time).

What immediately struck me as the camera zoomed out from the 6 remaining contestants was that they all appeared to be boys. A quick search on-line came up with this list of the 10 semi-finalists:

  • Raghav Ranga, Arizona
  • Varun Mahadevan, California
  • Anthony Stoner, Louisiana
  • Adam Rusak, Maryland
  • Karthik Karnik, Massachusetts
  • Gopi Ramanathan, Minnesota
  • Neelam Sandhu, New Hampshire
  • Rahul Nagvekar, Texas
  • Anthony Cheng, Utah
  • Vansh Jain, Wisconsin

Of the 10, 9 are boys. Neelam Sandhu was the last girl standing. The success of boys in the GeoBee is striking, given all the current statistics and research about how girls are dominating in school. Interestingly, the bee seems to require some very specific old-school (if you will) academic skills: rote memorization, chief among them. Successful in general though girls may be academically, they didn’t seem to be able to transfer their success to this $25,000 academic competition. The reasons for this might include the very fact of the occasion: I have no idea, but the GeoBee makes me wonder if and how competition might facilitate some students’ learning–yes, boys, but not necessarily only boys.

Returning to the 6 students I saw when I tuned into the GeoBee, I also noticed that all of them appeared to be of Asian heritage: going by names, 1 seemed to be Chinese-American, while the other 5 seemed to be Indian- or Pakistani-American. Looking at the top 10, the trend was already set, with only 2 non-Asian finalists.

I wondered about the thoughts running through the heads of all the parents sitting in the audience, as well as the people watching from home: what did they think about the racial homogeneity of the top competitors? Who was thinking, “Well, of course…” And who was actively not going there, adamantly seeing the kids just as children (of no particular race or sex)?

I also wondered why the top contenders were Asian-American. The tiger mom theory presents itself all too readily. (I couldn’t help thinking of the Indian-American tiger family portrayed in the national spelling bee documentary Spellbound, which is worth seeing for the familiar racial and ethnic narratives that the directors use to frame the stories of the individual young competitors they follow.) And as these were all boys, I started wondering about how tiger parenting may differ for male and female offspring, and in families with mixed versus single-sex siblings.

Because it does seem, at least in this GeoBee (and I’m curious about the finalists in past years), that more than one aspect of identity matters in the making of top GeoBee-ers.

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