Terrorism, Bad Spelling, and National Defense Fellowships

Does anybody else remember the National Defense Education Agency? They were set up shortly after the Russians put a satellite in orbit, back in the late 1950s or thereabouts. Our leaders determined that the Russians’ having beaten us into space proved that our educational system was dangerously outdated, and that we especially needed to encourage people to study science, math, and foreign languages. This produced what was probably the best-educated generation in our history. And that generation in turn brought us — wait for it — THUH SIXTIES! Sex in our streets! Rock music in our earphones! Pot smoke in the air! Woodstock! Hair! (and “Hair”!)

I sometimes think that Our Leaders concluded from that episode that maybe we shouldn’t be working quite so hard to educate our younger generation, and in fact, that maybe we need an educational system designed to lower our consciousness and our expectations. But OTOH…

We didn’t catch Tamerlan Tsarnaev because the FBI couldn’t spell his name right. How humiliating is that? I can remember when sports writers — not exactly the intellectual elite of the journalistic profession — could spell Carl Yastrzemski. When music critics could not only spell but pronounce Gennady Rozhdestvensky. When a food writer could not only eat but spell canthaxanthin.

Some of us actually tried to help out. When I sent my FOIA request to the FBI many years ago, I included half a page worth of possible misspellings of my first, middle, and last names. You live in the US with three names subject to almost infinite possibilities for misspelling and you get used to this.

But one can hardly blame Tsarnaev, who was not a citizen and had been in the US only ten years or so, for not being more helpful. He probably never got past Stage One of the name game in the US. Stage One is what happens in a nation of immigrants when a person repeatedly hears his name (the most personal attribute of his being, actually sacred in some cultures) mangled beyond recognition, perhaps even badly enough to put him in the wrong alphabetical file folder (that happens to me occasionally.) After a while, he snapped. (Are the profilers considering this possibility?) If he had learned enough equanimity to get to Stage Two (where you do whatever it takes to get the right spelling across to strangers), obviously he would never have gotten into terrorism in the first place. (I’m sure Gandhi spent a lot of time telling well-intentioned Brits “no, the ‘h’ comes after the ‘d’.” But he was Gandhi.)

What does this have to do the NDEA, of blessed memory? It is, obviously, time to reinvent it, this time to provide fellowships and government funding for the study of spelling. (If you watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year, you would have notice that almost all of the top spellers in the United States of America are of South Asian extraction (perhaps fellow countrymen of Gandhi.)) A non-Asian young friend of mine was in the semifinals last year and is probably headed for the finals this year, but, so far as I know, she has not been offered any NDEA college money to continue her studies in orthography. She is exactly the kind of person we should be encouraging and subsidizing. Now that we are approaching this year’s terrorism season (yesterday, the Taliban announced its official opening, a bit later than spring training in major league baseball, a bit earlier than soccer and football and hockey) we need to start thinking about this more seriously. Defend freedom! Learn to spell!


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