Monday, July 24, 2006

Why Nerds are Unpopular

Here's the first paragraph of the most lucid and succinct reflection about youth, adults, school, history and implies quite a bit about our role in all of it. Here's the first bit - if you want to read the whole article click here. Paul Graham has some interesting things to say on other topics as well. It's worth a read!

When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.

My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. So I've seen a good part of the popularity landscape.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

Why? To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way. But it could. Being smart doesn't make you an outcast in elementary school. Nor does it harm you in the real world. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. Why?


Anonymous said...

loved the bit about mapping the lunch room! But I disagree with the author and the 'nerds'. Being intelligent doesn't make you unpopular. It's just that the bookish intelligent kids really can't (sometimes) grasp fashion, not the trendy part of it, but a fashion that suits them... and they walk about with the attitude that they aren't cool, so self esteem in that area works against them. In my school and I bet others, the most popular people were the extremely intelligent, physically fit people who dressed in their own style, no matter the cost of the outfit. Most of the cheerleader types were annoying and self centered and pretty much hung out with each other -- yes they were 'popular' in the caste system of high school, but not really 'liked.' I wonder if things have changed much today? I hope its still based on personality, friendliness, intelligence and self esteem.

Hans Mundahl said...

I think the implications of this article are interesting for us as educators.

If in fact - as you and the author seem to indicate (and I don't dispute) that high school has a caste system of popularity - an almost Lord of the Flies culture - then it is our job as educators not only to educate but to create a culture. Otherwise any curricular goals we have beyond pure information transfer is hampered by the environment students are trying to survive in.