Why Nerds Are Unpopular

Jason Quintana's picture
Submitted by Jason Quintana on Wed, 2006-11-22 18:16

This morning I read an excellent essay by a gentleman named Paul Graham, which really hit home.   The essay can be found at http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html.  It is called “Why Nerds are Unpopular”.  For me, my junior high and high school years were by far the most miserable years of my life.  The 8 years since I have graduated from high school have been absolute bliss in comparison.  My return to college (something I never finished because I've always hated the school environment) has put me back in touch with hundreds of 19-22 year olds.  The mentality that Graham describes in his essay is very easy to detect in many of them.  Especially in the younger ones since they are so close to the secondary school experience.  I have a lot more to say on this.  I post this here because I suspect that many of you can relate to this as well.   

In any case, for those who don't want to read the whole essay, here are the highlights (the essay itself is much better). 

  •  Because America is a modern industrial economy, teenagers need many more years of training before they are economically useful then they did during past historical eras.  Because of this American society has decided that it is best to pen them up in government schools, not just for an education, but to keep them from wreaking havoc on the rest of society.
  •  In this environment, which resembles a prison, the inmates develop their own perverse standards of value and social hierarchy.   Since they have no clear purpose or vocation in life yet, the average student derives his self worth based upon his success within this social structure.  His sense of self esteem is based upon the arbitrary notion of “being cool”.  This is his primary purpose.   
  •  In American secondary schools smart kids are rarely popular.  This is the case, not because they are envied or despised by their peers because of their intelligence but because they don't care enough to take the time learn and do what is necessary to become popular within this social setting.   Most still want to be among the popular kids, but they are not nearly as dedicated.
  •  Being popular requires that American “teenagers are always on duty as conformists”.  It is an intense and difficult struggle that most smart kids don't spend as much time focusing on because they have real life interests.  
  •  Because of this smart kids are on the low end of the social totem pole, are victimized by the various tribal cliques that rule this social sphere and are generally miserable from grades 7 or 8-12. (age 13-18)
  •  In contrast, the real world is much more hospitable to nerds, because in the real world smart people are recognized as having something of value to offer.  In addition, the real world is much larger. The American secondary school environment locks kids in and forces them to associate with the rest of the kids.  In the real world people are free for the most part to associate with who they want and there is less need to obsess over absolute social conformity
  •  Adults often say that the teenage years are naturally full of angst, confusion, rebelliousness and depression. but this is not the case.  This is a modern American phenomenon which is caused by this perverse secondary school environment.  In previous eras, teenagers were apprentices, or workers of some sort.  They were just starting their adult lives, and they were focused on real world concerns.
  •  “Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time."

 - Jason

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Although I had my social

Ted Keer's picture

Although I had my social issues in high school, from which I was graduated in 1986, being a "nerd" never bothered me. I had wonderful teachers, even though this is not what is supposedly to be expected from a public school in the US. I found that I got out of it what I put in, and more. College was the big waste of time. I never met a student or teacher there who was more intelligent or engaged than at my high school.

I dropped out of college in my senior year just short of graduation to take a job in NYC. I remember what you might call the "culture shock" of moving to New York and going from a rural-suburban upbringing to that setting. Just the manner of dress was a spectacle- pre-"gansta" or West Village "queer" was all the rage. Then, later, upon visiting my home town after finishing my degree, I simply couldn't stop laughing at the high school students I was seeing a decade later.

They were dressing in one of two modes. Either these street soft white kids had "gansta" do-rags (which started as a fashion in prison among balcks to prevent lice infestations) and had the left leg of their pants rolled up (another prison affectation meant to display a gang tattoo - and these were white kids with neither Afros nor gang tattoos) or they were dressed as West Village "queers." These had the short bleached spikey hair, white underware worn as shirt, the baseball cap, and the obligatory snap-bead necklace/auto-erotic strangulation device. None of these kids knew who they were emulating or why, or what they meanings or uses of their clothes and accessories were. Then Eminem came out dressed as half gansta/half West Village, and within months every "cool" kid in suburban and rural America was now dressed as an urban-gay-black-anonymous-sex-cruising-prisonmate without knowing why. And this extended down to the pre-school kids whose "loving" mothers were preparing them for a life of conformity to god-knows-what.

And people remark that the Pope was in the Nazi Youth. Hah.

Happy Turkey Drop.

Politics is less important than you suggest

Jeff Perren's picture

"The phony teenage culture can probably be laid directly at the feet of the statist mentality behind goverment schools."

I've loathed public schools for 45 years, but I very much doubt this explanation. They certainly are awful, but public education has been around since just before the turn of the 20th century. The causes of those creatures' behavior and thought patterns is better explained by ideas both farther down and much simpler.

Look to their parents and what those individuals are taught at home, both directly and by example. Almost total lack of self-reliance, self-responsbility, and the minimum of logic, objectivity, and respect for facts.

The "statist mentality" is an outgrowth of that, but not a primary cause. And that's true not only in relation to what goes on in public schools.

Secondary School, The Government and Social Conformity

Jason Quintana's picture

James -- I really enjoyed my own musical experience in high school, which also included St. Paul's Suite and several much greater pieces. I was lucky to be a member of what was one of the best high school symphony orchestras in the country. I should also be fair and say that high school was better for me then junior high and that I probably could have taken actions that would have made both experiences better.

That said, Chris and Billy mention the government and its role in all of this and they are absolutely right. The phony teenage culture can probably be laid directly at the feet of the statist mentality behind goverment schools. Not because their explicit purpose is government propaganda (though that does exist) but because they operate via state enforced decree and not for any clear objective standard or purpose (which the market provides via the mechanism of free choice and competition). Therefore the goal is merely to keep kids occupied, or as the author of "Why Nerds are Unpopular" says :

"The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric."

"...What I didn't realize at the time, and in fact didn't realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same cause."

It is a phony environment, which breeds a phony culture and unfortunately large numbers of phony kids. I am sometimes amazed at how "socially adjusted" and conformist some (of course not all) of my younger classmates are. They have never read a book on their own, they've never thought of school as anything beyond memorization and test taking and they are just not prepared to deal with any kind of conceptually serious subject matter. (I'm sorry that I am sounding like Phil Coates).

One of the most obvious things I encounter almost daily is the ingrained social mimicking habits. The young girls all subconsciously work hard to sound exactly the same. "Like, I can't believe he said that... like, did you see her hair?... like... like... like...". I remember when I was in Europe two summers ago and I spent several days with a couple of young american 20 year old girls and a bunch of Australians. After a just a couple of days of being around the Australians their accents began to subconsciously change to the Australian accent. They started to use the Australian slang terms when they spoke to me that I didn't even understand and I have no idea how they did either. It was one of the strangest examples of the social mimicking ("adjusting") habit I've ever encountered.

- Jason


Daniel Walden's picture

I haven't yet heard about any shootings at private schools, but that doesn't mean that they don't happen. If I had to guess, I'd say that they happen more at religious day schools, which are often only marginally above public schools in educational quality and far more restrictive of their students.

However, even the top of the heap isn't without problems. I make no secret of attending possibly the finest boarding school in the country, Phillips Exeter Academy. We recently had a case that I won't divulge the details of, because a victim was a good friend of mine. Suffice it to say that my friend is physically alright but is getting professional psychiatric help dealing with what happened; the offender was summarily expelled and now faces a good chunk of prison time. Bad eggs get in at even the best sorts of places. We need to make sure that our schools have the requisite systems in place to catch them before they cause real, tragic harm (as PEA thankfully managed to do).

I Was A Teen-Aged Lab Rat

Billy Beck's picture

In discussion with other adults, and right in front of me, my father would often point right at me as if I weren't there and say something like; "That boy is living proof of the folly of compulsory public schooling. He's not getting a damned thing out of it, and his time would be far better spent at working for a living."

He was right, of course, by the time that I was fifteen years old. I think high school -- as it was impressed on me -- was the biggest waste of time in my whole life. But I had to sit there and take it, by law, and everybody in the place understood my contempt for it. (I was making myself very clear. Being in constant -- I mean daily unrelenting -- battle with Mr. Coleman, I set a record at flunking Civics faster than anyone in the school could recall back in history, and it's one of the proudest things in my life.) They needed me a lot less than I needed them, and we all should have been able to part ways peacefully.

It might go without saying that I was a "nerd", right off the top of the scale.

Nobody in my school knew who Bastiat was, and I mean nobody.

So much of the high school "curriculum"

Chris Cathcart's picture

is built not for the benefit of the students, exactly, but for the state. Now, that's not just the content of the curriculum (probably not as much statist brainwashing as some claim, though there was at least a bit), but the fact that tons of "make work" is created to "fill time" and justify budgets, and the result is a curriculum that proceeds at a uniform, slow pace. Demonstrated mastery in a subject gives way to time-filling. I found myself too bored with the curriculum in high school, and as a result managed to take some courses at a nearby college. I had a year's worth of college credits in by the the time I actually got into college.

I was decidedly a "nerd," and decidedly not a part of the social "crowds" that developed. The high school setting didn't seem much conducive to the "nerds" developing social skills and connections, something I'm working on fixing to this very day. Eye What we need is a lot more SOLOites all gathered together in a closer area, so it isn't all internet.

But, yeah, the public school system sucks to a large extent. It's meant to keep kids penned up for 6 hours a day, and like most any state-run institution, isn't responsive to market pressures of the real world. (Private schools aren't competition to the state schools, as long as state schools still get the dough whether it performs a service or not.) So how do you expect there to be a normal incentive to improve things and make the students happier?

BTW, are there stories of shootings at private schools like we hear about happening at public schools?

High School Years

Daniel Walden's picture

As the only regular who's still in high school (and who's seen more years of it than most), I can say that this is still the case at a lot of places, especially the public schools that so many of my friends are stuck in. One of the things that I like so much about boarding school is that living with each other 24 hours a day forces teenagers to drop the pretenses. I've seen people open up before my very eyes and become a lot more genuine than they were when they first arrived, to the delight of everyone around them.

Another facet of public high school life that I've watched disappear has been people's fear of showing their passion about something. Eventually people realize that every healthy person is passionate about something, and frequently about a lot of things. My friends and I have even coined the term "art-gasm" to describe our reactions to a great poem or painting or aria or any other great work of art. Even teenagers can be civilized if they're forced to deal with one another as people and not just as obstacles to be trampled.

High School

J. Heaps-Nelson's picture


I would say my high school years were some of the best of my life. The main reason why was the abundance of terrific activities and the time to do them. I remember how fun it was to play in a good orchestra (Our orchestra instructor was the second chair violinist in the Des Moines Symphony). We competed and won second in the state playing Vivaldi's Spring and a Dorian mode piece from Holst called St. Paul's Suite.

We also had a terrific tennis team that placed high at State. Although I only made the team my senior year, the hours out on the court every day in spring were amazing.

I also had an old generation Physics teacher (he got his education through the GI Bill after WW2) who showed up early and we would show up an hour early to school to work "advanced" physics problems and discuss Timothy Ferris' Second Creation and Freeman Dyson's Infinite in All Directions. I had a terrific Anthropology teacher who was on a first name basis with the Leakeys and taught from original sources.

I had two terrific years of High School Biology and I remember dissecting cats, frog and fetal pigs. We would also do bacterial classification by Gram Stain, culture our own bacteria and had tests with lab practicals.

Our high school did have a liberal bias in the English and Journalism courses, but the teachers were generally pretty good.

The social scene was generally a lot of fun. I hung out with a group of friends that were kids from families that were more well-to-do than mine, but we got along great. I had a terrific time at my ten year reunion catching up. The kids were kind of Bohemian and I don't remember a lot of social status pressure.

I don't think my experience was typical from talking to other people. I also was sad to see my old high school years later. Now it's pretty run down and doesn't look like a very pleasant place to be.



EBrown2's picture

"Adults often say that the teenage years are naturally full of angst, confusion, rebelliousness and depression. but this is not the case. This is a modern American phenomenon which is caused by this perverse secondary school environment. In previous eras, teenagers were apprentices, or workers of some sort. They were just starting their adult lives, and they were focused on real world concerns."

This is a function of belittiling blue-collar labor and thinking that "everyone" needs a college degree. My uncle was a plumber who was intellectually aware and active well into his 80's.

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