The Definition of Life Isn’t Found in a Dictionary

By Jason Menard

I suppose congratulations are in order for California eighth-grader Anurag Kashyap for his impressive achievement of winning the United States’ 2005 annual spelling bee. But, for some reason, I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the kid.

Cruising through the world appoggiatura, the 13-year-old Kashyap took home the grand prize: scholarships, savings bonds, and books from Encyclopedia Britannica. And, officially, the 15 minutes of his fame is rapidly winding down.

Now I have no doubt that the home-schooled Kashyap is going to be a phenomenal success in life. Why he’ll probably finish high school early while taking university courses at night, so that he can graduate from his Ivy League university at 20. But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but feel that this kid – and others like him – will miss out on something important in life.

Pageant moms have become a running joke in our society, symbols of parents living vicariously through their kids to satisfy their desire for recognition and success. North of the border, we’re familiar with the hockey dad, who takes his kid’s involvement in the sport way too seriously – and occasionally being barred from the local arena for his, uhm, enthusiasm.

But while we’re free to condemn these parents for their obsessive behaviours in the athletic and aesthetic fields, why don’t we do the same when obsession rears its head in the intellectual field?

Words are my way of life. They’re my passion. I love writing, I love editing, I love the whole communications kit and caboodle – but, save for the purposes of this column, I’ve never had the need, nor do I ever anticipate ever having the need to use the word appoggiatura. In fact, unless you’re deeply immersed in the world of advanced music appreciation, chances are you could happily go through life without this particular collection of letters appearing in your vocabulary.

Kashyap? He didn’t come by this word on his own volition – he studied it as part in parcel of attempting to win this spelling bee. It’s not learning for the sake of gaining a greater appreciation of the world, it’s obsessive studying of obscure words for the sake of this contest.

And what do we do with it now? Like the mathematician who tries to impress his or her friends with the fact that they have memorized Pi to 132 digits, their feats become nothing more than party tricks – and, not to stereotype, but I’m not certain they’re getting invited into too many parties. And I’m pretty sure most of us wouldn’t want to go to the types of parties that they are getting invites for – that the majority of people don’t appreciate.

So this kid has learned to be the top speller for his time. But where does he go from here? Does obsessively poring over dictionaries adequately prepare one for life after school is done? Where is the social interaction, where is the physical development, where is the ability to function as a part of a greater community on a variety of topics that’s so important in both business and life?

Many of us shake our heads at athletes who drop out of school in their high school years for a chance to live the dream of playing their chosen sport for life. And then, when the inevitable crash comes, what are they left with? What have they learned? Is this obsessive dedication to intelligence any better? While it may leave one more financially secure in the long run, how does it impact their social abilities?

What ever happened to the idea of raising our kids to be diverse, independent thinkers that are open to new experiences? By focusing them so acutely on one task or one interest, we do them the disservice of giving them tunnel vision – and they miss out on the little things that make childhood, and life, special.

I was in the advanced/gifted classes in my youth. I had friends who went that route, focusing only on things that made them smarter – not necessarily things that made them better. So, while some of us chose to balance our thirst for knowledge with a desire to broaden our perspectives, others withdrew within themselves, shying away from others, and only feeling comfortable with topics that were familiar to them.

The bitter irony of all of this is that experiencing life affords you the opportunity for a greater appreciation of the things we learn as we age. Anyone can study enough to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets by wrote, but it’s not until you’ve experienced love first-hand that you truly understand what the words mean.

If variety is the spice of life, some of these kids need to be shaken up a little and experience more than a dictionary. Education isn’t bad – but it’s not the be all and end all. What we need to realize is that an education is best at teaching us how to learn, how to appreciate, and how to contextualize our experiences.

Simply put, you can’t find the answer to everything in a dictionary.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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