Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Perceptive Essay About High School and Nerds

I came across a fascinating essay that starts with the question of why smart kids are, on average, low status in the high school environment. The short answer is that being popular in that environment is a full time job, and smart kids, even if they want to be popular, want to do other things as well. The author goes on to make quite a lot of interesting, perceptive, and disturbing points about how children are brought up. One sample:
What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.
And another:
In my high school French class we were supposed to read Hugo's Les Miserables. I don't think any of us knew French well enough to make our way through this enormous book. Like the rest of the class, I just skimmed the Cliff's Notes. When we were given a test on the book, I noticed that the questions sounded odd. They were full of long words that our teacher wouldn't have used. Where had these questions come from? From the Cliff's Notes, it turned out. The teacher was using them too. We were all just pretending.


Robert said...

I'm guessing if you're only seeing this essay now, you aren't familiar with the other stuff Paul Graham has written (plenty of it on that site). Plenty worth reading there on libertarianism, starting a tech start-up and other topics.

The Econtalk episode featuring him was interesting as well http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2009/08/graham_on_start.html

Jonathan said...

Interesting, and I generally agree with it, but the obsession with popularity is something I never experienced; perhaps because, not being an American, I never went to an American school.

In the schools I went to, there were sometimes one or two kids who were despised and ridiculed; that was a status to be avoided. However, if you were merely one step up from that, you could get through school life OK, and popularity ceased to be important. I'd have had to think hard at the time to try to place people on a scale of popularity. It wasn't something I normally thought about at all, and I don't think the others thought about it either.

Jonathan said...

Oh, and at my schools it was no disadvantage to be intelligent. Sure, scoring high marks in class wasn't a route to sure popularity; but I don't think it was held against anyone.

Anonymous said...

Also started meandering on his site after patri's facebook link? :)

I agree, lots of excellent material.

As for my personal theory about nerdiness: being a high-school nerd, back then already taking a keen interest in evolutionary biology, I couldnt help but notice the complete maladaptivity of the behavior of me and my peers. I was well aware i wasnt pushing any sexy buttons, had at least some clues of how to change that, but didnt.

OTOH, I did learn how to program computers, and god knows what. Even if thye were now so inclined the 'jocks' are now too old to ever become good programmers. And did any of them actually reproduce? Nope. And as opposed to programming, seducing women is something the male brain appears to be well capable of learning in its 20ies.

Id call the phenomena 'psychological sexual latency', and I can see it being an adapative trait; just another facet of neoteny. Too bad it doesnt sync up with 'physiological sexual latency' very well, but nature cares about efficiacy, not cruelty.

BobW said...

I too found this essay some time ago.

My time of torment was in middle school. That's when children are most savage.

SB7 said...

I'd echo Robert's comment. Graham has a lot of good essays up there. I'd start farther back in the archives for the best stuff.

offby1 said...

Again, what Robert said. Paul Graham is the best working essayist I know of.

Donna B. said...

Were it not for his the narrow declarations about suburbia, fast food, specialization, teens being economically useless, and schools being prisons as part of the problem, he'd have a good point. I suppose. But if all those generalizations from limited experience are false, how can we tell?

My HS experiences were 12 years earlier spanning 3 (southwestern) states and 5 different schools in small to tiny towns that were not within 100 miles of a city.

I wasn't a nerd and I am female, but I was always an outsider and keenly aware of the popularity hierachy.

In every one of these schools, popularity most often depended on wealth and how long your family had been "established" there. Two of the schools didn't have sports teams, one of those was a boarding school. (I wasn't there because my family was wealthy; I was sent away because of the violence of New Mexico's land grant war. Tierra Amarilla was where I would have gone to school otherwise.)

Wrestling and basketball were the big sports at two of the schools. Big muscles and bulk were not really desirable in either sport. Boys of every size were needed to compete in all the weight categories in wrestling.

Going back to the 1930s... my mother and her sister both hated school because they were constantly picked on. They were dirt poor rural offspring of a sharecropper. Not only did the well-off town kids bully them, but the teachers did too.

They weren't economically useless because there was always work on the farm. My aunt stayed through 11th grade. My mother quit after the 10th. Both told me how miserable they were in school even though they got good grades.

My daughters had it easy. They both attended a magnet school that had only fencing and golf teams. The older one was definitely a nerd. She joined ROTC so she wouldn't have to take PE and change clothes in front of other girls. ROTC turned out to the nerd club at that school which was mostly nerds to begin with. She learned to shoot, conned the school into paying for flying lessons and soloed on her 16th birthday.

Her sister found her niche in ballet and orchestra at that school.

But even there, the rich kids and those from families with long local heritages were the popular ones.

And all the kids from that high school were popular when it came to the rest of high schools in this small city and they looked down on them and scoffed at the lack of academics elsewhere.

Even nerds can be bullies. The popularity contests have been going on for at least 90 years when teens were definitely economically useful and long before suburbs, fast food, and specialization.

Oh... and nowhere to go and nothing to do? That's a common complaint of teenagers even such as mine who both had cars of their own and money they'd earned in their pockets.

What's the evidence for the claim that fast food was created to take advantage of teenage labor? What is the evidence that suburbs were intended to provide a protected environment for children?

He's real good at identifying the problems in his life and his neighborhood, but about half the cultural or social things he attribute them to are simply just stuff he makes up as it goes because it makes sense to him.

Frankly, he makes it sound like he grew up in the neighborhood Edward Scissorhands groomed. I read another of his essays about children & growing up and it's entirely possible that the big thing he hasn't yet socially figured out is that he's a full-fledged member of the Church of the Unwarranted Assumption.

It's a hard church to leave.

Donna B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Have you read C.S. Lewis's harrowing account of his time at boarding school? Compared with that, the typical suburban American public school is a paradise.

Kid said...

With only limited time and resources, you cannot learn everything that's important, or even everything that interests you.

Most children in high school naturally improve their social creativity and social intelligence. Nerds, for various reasons, prefer to improve other skills.

If you have strong social logistics skills, other people follow your lead. Else, you are a follower. The other followers, the people that make sacrifices to be part of somebody else's group, don't like it if you don't make the same sacrifices.

Nerds, for various reasons, cannot or don't want to make these sacrifices to fit in.

Unfortunately, this can cause them to eventually drop to the bottom of the social hierarchy. It's much easier to stay afloat than to fight your way uphill.

Michael said...

Paul Graham is awesome. You might like his essay What You Can't Say, about moral fashions and status quo bias.

Excerpt: "Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told.

The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable. That seems unlikely, because you'd also have to make the same mistakes. Mapmakers deliberately put slight mistakes in their maps so they can tell when someone copies them. If another map has the same mistake, that's very convincing evidence.

Like every other era in history, our moral map almost certainly contains a few mistakes. And anyone who makes the same mistakes probably didn't do it by accident. It would be like someone claiming they had independently decided in 1972 that bell-bottom jeans were a good idea.

If you believe everything you're supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn't also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s-- or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter?"

I wish more people would read that essay.

Ricardo Cruz said...

Interestingly, there seems to be a strong geeky strain within the pick-up community. The Mystery Method is full of diagrams and jargon, which seems to suggest it is directed to a geek audience. Not surprisingly, given those are the people who most benefit from it.

Anyhow, with regard to American schools vs those of the Rest of the world, I don't think the divide is that great. Maybe in America high-schools comport more students, and so the lines between groups are more clearly defined given that you can find other people whose interests and personalities are more aligned to yours. Coupled with that, in America I understand classes are more blurred, so jocks do not get bored hanging out with other jocks because their company is always changing. Maybe there are also school activities, which always groups to develop strong bounds.

But I'm sure this is a worldwide phenomena. In Portugal, while in high-school, I used to hang out with the cool kids too, because there weren't that many in the class, and so they appreciated my input in their group. But I wasn't invited as much as other guys to events, though I was invited quite a bit, including many times for soccer which I sucked a lot. In a big American highschool, nobody would want me to play soccer (or other sport) in their team, because they could easily find someone else to. On the other hand, I had no other geek friend to hang with in highschool, and exchange programming tips, or discuss the weird theories I'd come up with.

Patri Friedman said...

Just to chime in with the other authors - Paul Graham's writing is great, and it's well worth reading all his essays & subscribing to the feeds people have made for them.

Donna B. said...

@Ricardo Cruz - I have noticed the nerd factor in PUA arena also. This is mainly due to Razib of GNXP.

As an older female, I can tell you that this artistry is really nothing new and it's amusing to see it defined so well.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great essay. I was a freak. I opted out. I see myself in many parts of this essay. It also made me think of "The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris.

Abacaxi Mamao said...

This is a great essay. I wrote about it here: http://abacaximamao.blogspot.com/2006/05/embracing-nerd-within.html.

P.S. I arrived at your blog through Izgad (aka "BZ"). Interesting stuff.

Nick Oates said...

I think that all these types of high-school pupils are the same everywhere.