Pawan Dhingra, a Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, writes about what he calls “hyper education,” the stress that parents apply to get their children to become high achievers. In this article, he writes about the phenomenon of Indian American students dominating spelling bees.

He begins:

Succeeding in the Spelling Bee for Indian Americans is more than a family affair

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, my parents insisted on me receiving good grades in school. They were eligible to immigrate from India in large part due to their advanced educational attainment, which helped earn them work visas. As long as I attained good grades, they did not worry about what activities I chose after-school. If I was a child today, that would probably be very different. I would likely be enrolled in some after-school scholastic activity to supplement my schoolwork. And as a family of Indian origin, there is a good chance that would have been a spelling bee or some other academic competition.

Over the past 20 years, Indian Americans have come to dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The last Scripps Bee without an Indian American champion was 2007. In 2019, the last time a Scripps Bee was held, there were eight co-champions, seven of whom were Indian American. There is even a documentary on this trend, Spelling the Dream. What’s more, they have over-achieved in National Geography Bees, MATHCOUNTS, and other academic competitions.

I spent years with families engaged in spelling bees, math competitions, and other forms of after-school academics for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. In part, I explain why Indian Americans have come to dominate them, which has to do with their own ethnic circuits of academic competitions, their command of the English knowledge, the family commitment of support and time, and the financial resources necessary to prepare.

Why care about academics in the first place?

But there is a more fundamental question I focus on, which is what motivates Indian Americans’ and others’ interest in after-school academics (e.g. learning centers, competitions) in the first place? Most other parents have their young children in sports, the arts, religious, or civic extracurricular activities. Indian immigrant parents do all of these as well. But they also put their children in extracurricular academics and, in particular, competitive ones.

As immigrant minorities, parents believed college entry would depend on having an undeniably strong academic record to compensate for a lack of networks, college legacy status, or athletic recruitment. They worried about being held to a higher standard in college admissions as Asian Americans. As one father told me, “The college admission system is that we need to be one step up. From what I’ve read, we have to have 130 points above others. That is how admissions are determined. Spelling bee will help with the SAT.”

Parents were not narrowly focused on spelling as how to boost their children’s competitiveness. I shared with a mother at a bee that my son enjoyed U.S. history but was not much into spelling. She excitedly shared that there is a national history bee I should enroll him in. The important point was to enroll the child into something academic.

It is indeed interesting to wonder why some immigrants are super strivers, others are not. Some see education as a route to success, others do not. In my own family, with an immigrant mother and eight children, we ran the gamut. I was focused on education, along with at least one other, but most were not.