The Dao of Learning

By Razib Khan | May 26, 2012 12:17 am

Accidental Blogger points me to a rather funny event, the yearly victory of some brown kid in the National Spelling Bee. ‘I was nervous’: Texas whiz kid beats teens in 2012 National Geographic Bee. This Texas whiz kid, Rahul Nagvekar, beat a prodigy from Wisconsin, Vansh Jain. Here were the 10 finalists for the GeoBee:

– 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

Speaking of bees, the National Spelling Bee is coming up. Here are the contestants (page down). And here’s a list of the 2012 Intel Science Contest finalists. And winners of the American Mathematics Competition.

I think it’s great that kids from certain demographics do so well at these academic competitions. But I have to be honest and wonder if sometimes we aren’t seeing individuals who are so focused on the measure, that they forget what we’re trying to measure. God knows I think metrics are very important, but the pursuit of knowledge ultimately has nothing to do with a panel of judges or selection of correct answers. South Korea already exists, it’s a fine enough country, we don’t need to replicate it.

  • Andrew

    That last line is so perfect.

    Also the rest of it but the last line is awesome.

  • dave chamberlin

    I’ll bet there are some hungry North Koreans that would just love to see South Korea replicated :)

  • Matt

    I was actually a contestant in the National Spelling Bee when I was younger. I’m not trying to brag; I acknowledge a lot of my being there was due to luck. If you think those folks look driven from the outside, try staying in a hotel with them for a week beforehand.

  • Dm

    I stayed at the hotel owned by the parents of our state’s two-time winner, and chatted with them and with him about learning and about immigration and about community. They were fighting deportation and lost the fight soon afterwards, when our elected representatives decided that it’s no longer the right epoch to support struggling and overachieving immigrants. This sort of a thing doesn’t happen in South Korea, I suspect

  • marcel

    Looking at the spelling bee and usajmo finalist lists, it appears that stoners have mastered the 3 Rs. Who’d athunk that pot has beneficial genetic effects? Or maybe it’s the cookies?

  • Tom Bri

    Try Googling for Thai Scrabble winners. For some reason, Scrabble is big in Thailand, and they regularly beat native English speakers in the world championships.

    By the way, #4, you are right about deportations being rare in Korea, but that is because Korea lets in so very few immigrants to begin with.

  • Razib Khan

    but that is because Korea lets in so very few immigrants to begin with.

    well, fair number of viet. and filipino brides for rural korean men now….

  • Tom Bri

    True true. I didn’t want to get into that. Heard about a lot of that in Japan too. No Japanese women want to marry farmers or fishermen, men with dirty hands, so men in those professions import brides who are less picky. My understanding is that it is a similar situation in Korea. The women are moving upscale faster than the men can keep up. Gonna be a lot of unmarried middle aged women soon, I’m thinking.

  • Sandgroper

    But it seems like it doesn’t bother them now. Not getting married, I mean. A high proportion seem not to be too interested.

    I saw results from one survey of 16 year olds, where 1/3 of the boys and more than half the girls said they had no interest in getting married.

  • Tom Bri

    #9 I haven’t been back to Japan for 6 years now, but I was there for 15. I taught high school in low-ranked schools, so most of the kids were average at best. They seemed like normal kids with normal sex drives. Adult Japanese women seemed rather interested in sex. As far as marriage, harder to say, Japanese don’t talk much about it, and they seemed to wait an awfully long time to make the jump. Teens would not consider themselves ready for marriage, for the most part.

  • Luciano

    I have recently thought about that. What’s that special characteristic of anglosaxon culture that makes people both disciplined and still can think frelly about what they’re doing ?

    In Brazil, the educated few also has this Chinese/South Korean style of learning things by heart to pass exams that will put them at the higher strata of society. But one hardly finds people who really know what they’re learning, so we often have to import professionals from other countries.

    Feynman famously made remarks about this when he taught in Brazil. Students could give correct answers to difficult questions, but could not answer simple ones if it involved meaning. I was once reading about Arab armies and they seemed to have the same problems with aspiring officials trained by Americans, they knew entire portions of military manuals by heart, but didn’t seem to know much about what to do with this knowledge.

    What is it ? A special combination of autism and social trust ?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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