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."