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March 4, 2003

Posted by Teresa at 12:08 AM *

Let me recommend Paul Graham’s essay, Why Nerds Are Unpopular. It’s a very illuminating discussion of a painful subject:

If it’s any consolation to the nerds, it’s nothing personal. The group of kids who band together to pick on you are doing the same thing, and for the same reason, as a bunch of guys who get together to go hunting. They don’t actually hate you. They just need something to chase.
Graham’s basic thesis is that nerds are unpopular because their interest in other subjects makes them unwilling to devote themselves exclusively to the struggle for popularity:
[P]opularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school. … I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.
He goes into some detail about how high-school popularity works, which is extremely interesting if, like me, you’re a nerd who never got the hang of it and always wondered what you were doing wrong. Graham deplores the whole system for its boredom, its arbitrary cruelty, and its wastefulness. He points out that instead of being sequestered with their agemates, teenagers used to be much more integrated into their communities. They worked. They were useful. Adjusting for circumstances, they appear to have been on the whole happier than their modern American counterparts. And he has small use for the convenient modern theory that teenage misery is a function of their rampaging hormones:
I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen year old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course, but they weren’t crazy. As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead.
IMO, this does more to explain the Columbine shootings than any amount of nihilist or goth teenage culture.
Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

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.
Yes! The last thing out of the box is hope:
Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it’s populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don’t think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage.
(via Abbi Ball’s Things to Come, where she adds her own reflections on the subject.)
Comments on Nerds:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 07:48 AM:

I'm happy to see the "raging hormones" notion marked for the lazy cliche that it is. I know parents my own age who habitually remark about "testosterone" in reference to the behavior of their male children. They don't mean anything bad, but it always makes me wince.

#2 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 09:32 AM:

It's a good article, with lots to commend it.

Amongst all the other things that Buffy is sharp about is that it's sharp about what teenagers have to do if 'fitting in' is the most important thing to them.

#3 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 09:33 AM:

Graham92s basic thesis is that nerds are unpopular because their interest in other subjects makes them unwilling to devote themselves exclusively to the struggle for popularity

Of course, this is also the basic thesis of every "nerd" ever to be taunted by the "cool kids." I recall saying more or less the same thing myself on more than one occasion, and I still cringe when I hear students say the same thing.

Back in the day, I followed a fairly similar track to what he describes. Junior high was unremitting misery, but I started playing basketball, and then soccer, and gadually found a niche. Today, the only people I'm still really in touch with from my high school class are some of the "category A" students who helped make my life a living hell in seventh and eighth grade. The biographical stuff resonates for me, but the basic thesis sounds like the same mix of sour grapes and self-justification I see now in my own memories of that time.

If I had to expound a theory of what's really going on, I'd attribute it to the sudden change in socialization that takes place in schools at about that time-- through elementary school, at least back when I was there, the only real interaction you had with other students at school was in class, and structured by adults. After moving into junior high, there was suddenly a lot of interaction outside of class-- extra-curricular sports and social activities like dances started happening in junior high, and there was also a lot of mostly-unsupervised interaction between classes, and so on. Suddenly, there's a whole new basis (several bases, actually) for hierarchical re-organization of the students, based entirely on things not in the classroom. Being good in class has no bearing on the new hierarchies, and it takes some people a while to work out what they're good at that isn't schoolwork, and find a place for themselves. Add in the fact that some people are more socially adept than others (that whole introvert/ extrovert thing again), and things can get ugly.

But then, I'm late for work, and shouldn't be putting forth half-assed theories without adequate time to really work them out...

#4 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 09:53 AM:

I went to a school where the tormenting of the smart kids started in kindergarten, so the theories of why it starts in junior high don't make any sense to me. Of course we had extracurriculars and lots of socialization outside grade school, too, and the supervision by adults was minimal at best in things like recesses, so Chad Orzel may still be right on that.

#5 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:21 AM:

As someone who's live on both sides of the line -- jock and nerd -- I note is the root cause is simple fear.

There's always a few jocks who insist on ostracizing anyone else who isn't "cool", and typically manage to browbeat thier fellow jocks into going along. In football, they tend to be in the "small" positions -- QB, WR, FS and the like. Why? Because they know, deep down, the only thing they have going for them is that they're good at sport element X, and if it gets around that they can't read, they'll be ridiculed. So, the defense mechanism is to make intellegence uncool, and sports cool -- esp., of course, sport element X, which they just happen to "excel" at.

(Aside, in the real world, they find out throwing a football throw a 5' ring at 30 yards is pretty cool -- but the guys getting free rides to college are throwing them into 3' rings at 50 yards. Oops. This does *very* bad things to thier psyche. Remember this point, later.)

There are always a few jocks who don't play along with this -- but they can get away with it. They've got the atheltic ability to stay on the team (which means they can't be attacked, for fear of weakening the jock class-as-a-whole) and the brains to look others in the eye and say "Bull. You're just covering for your own weakness." They're not really common, but there's one or two on every team.

How do we fix this? How do we break this clique?

Simple. Get coaches out of school. What do washed up jocks with little other skill become? High school coaches. Not only do they tend to the petty tyrant, the setup means they're in close contact with the jocks for many hours a day -- during gym, after school, often, before school as well.

That's where the "Jock Elite" mentality comes from -- coaches trying to prove to themselves that they are worth something, by making thier teenaged analouges the elite class. Administrators go along because it promotes a sort of peace in the school -- everyone has their place. Get full-time coaches out, make the people working with the atheltic kids be teachers first, coaches second (and no, a coach teaching one hour of remedial math is *not* being a teacher first.) and the problem will diminish considerably.

MHO, of course.

#6 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:28 AM:

Chad -- sounds to me that what you did was decide to work at it. I think that fits right in with Graham's thesis.

#7 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:50 AM:

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects.

I'm not going to try to put forth a theory of the pathologies of adolescent culture. However, I do think this is a good observation: the sheer *space* to be yourself after you get out of school is a wonderful thing, even if you don't realize at first, oh, that's why I've grown comfortable with myself.

I'm actually looking forward to my 10 year high school reunion these days. That John Mayer song about going to your reunion is overplayed, but I bet it's partly because those last two lines resonate with all the nerds out there: "And when I stand on these tables before you / You will know what all this time was for." (Though I hope I won't gloat, rather, will just reinforce to myself that it's all behind me.)

#8 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:52 AM:

Chad: It's my theory that junior high is unremitting misery for everybody including the popular kids. Suddenly everything has changed and maybe your status will go too. Of course given that I wasn't one of the popular kids, I wouldn't really know.

Patrick: Well, you know, maybe the raging hormones induced hysteria was suppressed in earlier ages by the need to earn a living, be an apprentice, have children etc. If you see what I mean. Of course, I doubt that it's horomones alone but I know mine sure didn't help what was definitely a traumatic time.


#9 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:57 AM:

Good article. I think Graham's got a great point in the "humans like to work; if we're bored we turn on each other" theory. A new variation on "the devil finds work for idle hands."

One thing Graham didn't explicitly discuss was the introvert/extrovert factor, which I'm sure is a big part of nerdism. Smarts alone certainly isn't all of it. In high school I was one of a 16-student "gifted" program, chosen from a sophomore class of about 300. Of those 16, we had four girls and twelve guys. Two of the girls were quite popular and outgoing; me and Shelly S. (who later was the valedictorian of our class), were fairly introverted, although both of us muddled along all right.

The boys, though, were extremely stratified. The twelve smartest guys in school ran the gamut from Mike C., prom king, rich kid, laugh like a donkey and semi-professional shoplifter; to Scott N., who was a borderline idiot savant, I think. These days I wonder whether he was mildly autistic. He was the kid who knew the chemical composition of Kevlar and the population of Uganda, but thought he was being clever to wear a mirror on his shoe.

Even in that class of smart kids there was a clear dividing line down the center of the room. Brains over here, nerds over there. We nerds huddled together and muttered while the brains laughed uproariously and threw things at us.

That class was also my first exposure to the Myers-Briggs test. We were divided into work-groups of four, and given Future Problem Solving Scenarios to research and discuss (good introduction to SF world-building, by the way). Everybody in my quartet was an introvert. We were also the group that took the top prize in the "nerd bowl" competition. :-P

Lack of distractions, as Graham said.

#10 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:58 AM:

Chad, I'd offer the suggestion that your peers may have felt it wise to stop picking on you after you reached the sort of size that indicated, even to the lurking monkey brain, hey, wait, he could stuff me in *two* lockers*. (Something fairly similar happened to me.)

The 'nothing real to do' is the important part of Graham's essay; for almost everybody, sports in high school aren't real, either, they just feel more real because they involve lots of effort and bruising. As a means of adjusting your access to some choice space you'd like better, they don't do very well.

#11 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:21 AM:

I was about to say, Jesus H. Christ, Chad, if I were your size, I'd find it easy to dismiss this stuff as "sour grapes and self-justification," too.

Like you, I decided to "work at it," and in fact unlike a lot of people I know, for me high school was a much better time than the years prior to it. But while I don't ignore the crap that gets handed out to big guys (I saw it happen to my kid brother), the fact remains that it's better to be a big guy than a little bitty guy, by every measure of human well-being.

#12 ::: Trent Goulding ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:36 AM:

I tend to agree, in a general sort of way, with what Chad's saying. The problem for me with making general remarks about the travails of nerddom is at least two-fold: it rests overmuch on the evidence derived from my own personal experiences-- I have to question how representative they really are-- and then, I've been really out of touch with that whole milieu for a number of years now. Who knows how much things have changed or I've forgotten.

At any rate, I went from being seriously picked on in seventh grade (ca. 13 yrs. old) to, if not popular, then at least known and respected and left alone by the knuckle-dragging troglodytes by the time my junior and senior years (17-18 yrs. old) rolled around. In between, I grew a foot in height and at least 60 lbs. in weight, started playing basketball, and found a peer group that was really bright, driven, and mostly confident, while not at all obsessed about various indicia of popularity.

I'm not trying to downplay the misery that must be out there for a lot of kids; I know it exists, and I certainly experienced some of it myself. But Chad's observation about sour grapes and self-justification can't help but ring some bells, too.

#13 ::: Adam Rice ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:38 AM:

My school was small, most of the kids were very smart, and most participated on some athletic team. So the traditional nerd/jock division doesn't apply. Needless to say, though, you had the popular kids and the unpopular kids. I was one of the latter. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I was very awkward socially, very self-conscious, for a very long time. I don't think this is a matter of socialization so much as the way I'm wired up. This is perhaps gets back to the introvert/extrovert issue.

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the Trey Parker interview in Bowling for Columbine yet. He had an interesting take on this. He comes from that area, and was one of the nerds. He says he wishes he could go back and tell Klebold and Harris that after he graduated high school, the popular kids all stagnated, and the nerds went on to do interesting things (like create South Park).

#14 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:45 AM:

I feel obligated to point out, on Chad's behalf, that he was that tall in high school, but not that big; actually, he was really skinny until college.

Carry on.

#15 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:48 AM:

I think it's hormones. But not testosterone: melatonin.

This is from Discovery Channel's Teen Species program: adolescents switch over to the adult melatonin realease timing (about 10:30-11:00 Zulu), but because they're still growing, they still need 10 hours sleep.

One of the studies they showed indicated that teenagers in well-darkened, comfortable rooms, with no distractions, can not get to sleep before 11:00 - 11:30.

Since most high schools start at 8:00 or so (mine started at 7:45), this means teenagers are constantly sleep-deprived (and going to bed earlier, the typical parental solution, will not help one whit). This harms their attention span, their ability to concentrate, and their mood.

When one researcher persuaded a local high school to start an hour later (not really enough, but it was what she could get), grades improved, the students' moods were noticeably improved, and incidents of violence dropped dramatically.

Yes, there are lots and lots of factors, like the fact that teenagers are treated as adults on the one hand, and as children on the other - whichever is more to the disadvantage of the teenager in question...they are neither of those things, of course, and treating them as if they are is unjust in the strongest sense.

But I think we could go a long way by just letting them f***ing sleep.

#16 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:56 AM:

As far as the size thing goes, a lot of my present bulk came in college, when I started playing rugby. In high school, I was extremely skinny (even Kate couldn't help giggling at some of the old pictures my parents keep around), and not particularly violent.

The point I was shooting for, and didn't express that clearly, isn't that I decided to start working at being popular-- I worked at it all the damn time, even in junior high. I just wasn't very good at it, then.

I got the hang of it eventually, by finding a niche for myself-- I found some sports that I was reasonably good at, I found a group of category B and C kids to hang around with, and I learned how to talk to my peers in a way that didn't make them want to smack me. But even when I was failing utterly at being popular, I was putting effort into it.

When I was unpopular, and telling myself that this was a result of some sort of principled refusal to play the popularity game, I was kidding myself. When I told myself that the other kids didn't like me because I was smarter than they were, and they were jealous, I was kidding myself. Those were psychological crutches, to try to cover for the fact that I was desperately trying to play the popularity game, and hopelessly incompetent at it.

And when I hear teenagers say things like that, I cringe because I hear myself saying it, back in the day, and I want to reach back through time and slap myself.

The problem, in hindsight, looks like a combination of a difference in social development, and the general desire of kids that age for self-determination. But the unpacking of that statement will have to wait, 'cause I'm off to play basketball...

#17 ::: Emilio ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 11:56 AM:

On a related (but tangential) note, I just read a couple of articles that drew a line for me between Al Qaeda and the middle-class alienation that led to Columbine. The terrorists of Sept. 11 weren't the poor and downtrodden that so often get talked about being 'turned' to terrorism by desperate economic circumstances, they were the often young, well-off in their countries, and with a grievance they wanted to take out on others. Likewise, the American Al Qaeda supporters making the news also seem to be middle-class and pissed off with their country.

Its a chilling thought that the current world could simply be high school on a larger scale. Free-flowing resentments can have horrific consequences when someone also has the economic opportunity to do something about them.

#18 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 12:32 PM:

Without meaning to pick unduly on Chad, I must note that height is more important in social ranking among adolescent males than sheer bulk. If you're average-to-tall, you don't notice this fact; if you're short, you do. I note that the comments in this thread bear this observation out.

Coming up: Rich people are rich because they're more deserving.

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 12:33 PM:

By the way, I quite like Xopher's comments, which tie into my general theory that human beings have been low-level crazy with sleep-deprivation ever since the invention of the electric light.

#20 ::: Brick Barrientos ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 12:45 PM:

Hey, Teresa. Long time reader, first time commenter.

I forwarded the nerds article to Craig Barker. His blog is at He currently teaches history at the same public high school in Michigan he went to. Craig was a pretty
good quizbowl player in college and the "trash" he refers to is a sub-genre of quizbowl consisting entirely of pop culture. This was his
response to me:

"I am only working off my own experiences as a high school geek (nerds do sciences, geeks do the liberal arts. I am adamant on this point. Nerds also have a greater awkwardness in social situations, they grow up and become awkward engineers. Geeks can move with some adeptness in social circles and usually have knowledge of a common popular culture, where as nerds tend to stick to sci-fi-like things. Again, I am generalizing, but I think that this comes from something.) I am also working as an AP teacher this year of sophomores, and I firmly believe that sophomores have it the hardest of any group in a four year high school.

"I don't buy a lot of his premises, because I think they fall more into the mythologies of high school rather than the realities of high school. I do think that many times the intelligent are too busy being smart to care about being popular, but only in a general sense. They desperately want to be popular within their own social strata. Smart kids are often segregated by intelligence through tracking, so by the time they reach high school, especially in a smaller town, they would know all of the other smart kids in their classes exceedingly well. Which means that they would know how to be king of their strata. Similarly, remember that smart kids, being smart, often understand more of the world, or know more of the world. They reference that which is beyond most of their friends, and they tend to become iconoclastic or cool because they have the knowledge to know better. Frankly, smart kids are on a different timetable than the average kid, high school is the first stop on their way to college and achievement at that level. AP kids are more aware of the life that awaits them beyond high school, so they really couldn't care less about how high school goes. The 'we'll win in the end mentality' would be bad if they took time to rub it in people's faces.

"High school stratifies much more rigidly now. People just don't interact outside their social circles because there is little benefit. We lack the Austenian social climbers because you find your rut and you decorate it and make it your own happy world. People who don't know each other don't pick on each other, they ignore each other. I find this to be much more true in the post-Columbine America because you never know which one of the kids in your class might snap and you don't want to be the one that pushed him over the edge. There is probably still disdain and mocking, but it is far moresubtle and far quieter than it ever has been, and that can't really be a terrible thing.

"But, here's the thing in my mind. The current sophomore class president at Stevenson has one of the five highest GPAs in her class and is easily one of the best students I have ever had in my class. She is likely on track to go to Michigan for pre-Med, which I get the feeling is not completely her choice, since she left A.P. U.S. History at her parent's insistence that it was not going to help her be a doctor. But back to my point, you don't win an election of your peers if people don't like you, and while there is a lot of voter apathy, you still have to convince a percentage of your peers that you are the right person for the job. When I think back on every Student Body President at Stevenson over the past ten years, only twice has a smarter kid lost the election to a less intelligent candidate (OK, one of them was me, and while I am bitter, I don't think I lost because I was smarter, I lost for many other reasons.) Smart kids can have social graces, they can work in and out of many circles easily because like Jarod on the Pretender, they can know just enough to fake it for long enough to meet, greet, and engender a warm glow. I always loved sports when I was younger, I used my deep knowledge of sports as an icebreaker to talk to almost any other guy. Don't know sports, OK, how about music, or TV, or movies. The reason I was such a good trash player as a undergrad was because I spent most of high school learning the stuff that you're supposed to learn as an undergrad. There are ways of working yourself into society, you got to know how to play it.

"Oh, and if this guy feels like he was a nerd in high school, it's because he turned a nice short article into David Foster Wallace esque saga which hammers the same point over and over when it was already made.

"I hope that perspective was enough to make it to this point. Thanks for the article."

#21 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 01:18 PM:

On a related tangent, John Taylor Gatto's book 'The Underground History of American Education' is a fascinating read:

#22 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 01:32 PM:

Smart doesn't have anything to do with it in any practical sense of 'capable'; it has something to do with it as a social identification.

There are a bunch of available social identifications; "good kid", "weird", "popular", "skilled" for values of skilled that range from sports through music/art through pretty much anything with any associated coolness whatsoever.

I'd say that the difficulties come in two ways; where some social identification involes 'better than them' somewhere, especially if it includes an associated expectation of subjugation, and where the desired social identification is something that someone can't actually *do*.

I think the later is worse, but then again I would; I have had a wistful desire to be taken for normal for a very long while now.

I think the 'better than' meme is the real kicker; a non-ordinal judgement of wierdness is much less troubling to one's existence, at least as I have experienced them.

#23 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 01:38 PM:

The word "charisma" has come up once or twice. Has anybody considered the likelihood that charisma and self-confidence are the salient factors to popularity?

I would posit that self-confidence can be learned, but charisma is an inherent trait, like musical ability. Social perfect pitch, so to speak.

#24 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 01:41 PM:

Hmmm. So guys can go for sports to win friends and influence people. What about girls? At least back in the Dark Ages when I was a teen, that wasn't an option for girls. Don't say cheerleader. You had to already be popular to do that where I went to school, because, yeah there were tryouts, but the choices were voted on by, wait for it, the girls themselves. Note that this was in northeastern Oklahoma in, um, mid to late 60s. Town of about 40K.

Another thought, I don't think I was working at being popular the way others have said they did, because I had no clue how to go about it. The interactions among other girls, let alone among girls and boys, were a complete mystery to me. Books were my companions until high school when a larger pool let me find some other geeks like myself and have a few friends. I guess I'm just offering a data point in opposition to some of the other posters. No, really, not all of us were trying. Though I probably would have if I'd had a clue how to go about it.


#25 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 01:53 PM:

I was thinking of something a bit like that, Graydon. I wonder how much of generic anti-smart-kid sentiment (distinct from sentiment against people who are socially obnoxious) is due to the assumption that smart kids are enjoying school. If we know that most people are miserable in jr high/high school, but a lot of people don't seem to realize that at the time, and we also know that smart kids are the one getting what's supposed to be the rewards (good grades), maybe the assumption is that the system that makes everybody so miserable is benefitting the smart kids.

I had one conversation in high school that actually helped me get by socially outside my honors-student circle (which was pretty internally nice despite the range of personalities). The kid with the locker next to mine was what we called a stoner (but some schools called them metalheads or hessians--black T-shirt and trench coat, you know). He was frustrated one morning, slammed his locker, and turned on me: "I'll bet *you* f***in' love this place."

I was having a bad morning, and all of a sudden it was too much. I said, "I *don't* f***in' love this place. I f***in' hate this place, and the minute they f***in' let me leave, I am f***in' *gone*." (Most uses of that particular word in a short time period to date, and possibly since.) He stared at me. Then he started laughing and called some of his buddies over to "check this out!" (I was sure it was going to be more nerd-baiting, but no.) "Even the *nerds* f***in' hate this place! That's how bad it is. Tell them." "Can't f***in' stand it," I said. From then on, those guys were really, really nice to me and would stick up for me if the "popular" kids started in. We had periodic conversations about how much it sucked to be there and how incompetent you'd have to be to run a place that was that horrible for everybody.

Also, usually all it took was, "Leave her alone" to stick up for someone. Once I found out that one voice saying, "Hey, let him/her be" was enough, I wondered how come we nerds didn't say it for each other more often. We'd have said we didn't want to dignify it with a response, but probably we just didn't want to attract attention to ourselves.

#26 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 02:16 PM:

What I found most frustrating about Graham's essay was its statement that nerds don't succeed at popularity because they don't try hard enough, as they have other things to do.

No: if you don't have what it takes (what Holly calls "charisma," which is close though I think that's not quite it), all the trying in the world won't help. Sure, social graces can improve with practice. But in a zero-sum game, you don't get points for effort: one also needs talent at popularity to succeed, and that doesn't come with practice.

Graham notes that the real world is bigger, and bigness and complexity can help at school too. If one is lucky, one can find a clique that values what one is good at, and give up the "popularity" game altogether.

I appreciate Erik Olson's comments on the internal character of the jock culture. This is something one doesn't read much about (jocks tend not to go in much for that sort of analysis, and nerds who do are rarely also jocks, as Erik is).

Erik also mentions coaches, and their purely nominal standing as classroom teachers, usually math teachers. (Why is that? Is math considered easier for a bad teacher to teach?) Has anyone considered how bad this is for the math students? My biggest obstacle to learning math in high school was the teachers - though they were real math teachers, they were also all coaches, and during their sports' seasons they far preferred sitting around the classroom shooting the bull about their sports, rather than teaching us math.

#27 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 02:26 PM:

Holly -
I don't think being charismatic is the social equivalent of perfect pitch, because I'm (still, and I'm way, way better than I was) not entirely socially ept, and I am charismatic, at least in some contexts.

I think charisma is the stuff that involves bypassing concious evaluation mechanisms entirely.

#28 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 02:58 PM:

Graydon, I think Holly's analogy was more apt than you give it credit for. There exist folks with perfect pitch who haven't any other recognizeable musical skill. They don't know why they can pull A 440 from thin air, they can't sing, they may even be rhythmically oblivious; heck, they may have all the musicality of an enraged porcupine, but they can tell whether you're sharp or flat. It's just one of those things. They may not even like it!

Social aptitude can be learned, like relative pitch, playing an instrument, singing, rhythm, and musicality. Charisma is an act of genetics, or the divine, or whatever, as is perfect pitch.

Now somebody's going to come along and tell me that perfect pitch can be learned and I just started too late, and my argument will be blown to flaked cod. Oh well.

#29 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 03:05 PM:

Scratch the above, and cod flakes to me. My argument was not materially wrong (or at least I haven't discovered it to be so in the three minutes since I posted it); however, it occurs to me that I'm arguing the wrong thing.

Graydon, correct me if I'm wrong this time, but I'm thinking now that you weren't arguing that charisma is innate (which is what I took you to be arguing), but that it evolves as a product of not having any sort of truck at all with the whole idea of evaluating oneself against external criteria. Did I get it, this time?

#30 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 03:23 PM:

I'm arguing that charisma references stuff that isn't social; not 'oh, what an admirably well conducted person that is, I shall admire them' but rather the little bit of neural net which, way deep down, does the rapid evaulation of who to follow should the wee hominid band find itself fleeing from an enraged mammoth. Not unreasonable trust, but unreasoned.

"Social perfect pitch" makes me think of someone who always knows just what to say to make another party feel at ease, or how to interpret expression and body language between tired and irritated with reliability. This can produce trust, and indeed unreasoned trust, but it does not appear to me to be pushing the same type of button whatsoever.

#31 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 03:43 PM:

Aha! What you think of as social perfect pitch, I always think of as having a really good social barometer, (and the understanding of what to do with it) As I stated, perfect pitch doesn't mean that a listener can tell Wagner from Gregorian Chant, or that they'd know what to do with a krumhorn if they met one in a dark alley. Perfect pitch (as opposed to really good relative pitch) is a bit like the aural equivalent of knowing red is red and green is green, as far as I've ever heard it reported.

#32 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 04:11 PM:

The more I talk to adults about their school experience, the firmer the impression that everyone finds it hard. A few kids may be popular all through school, but for the most part that waxes and wanes. And we all remember the most dreadful bits.

I'm sure we could do more to sort it out (things like not employing psychotic failed athletes as teachers would be a good start); but you know, there's not really a lot of enthusiasm for spending the money. In the UK we're just waking up to the realisation that the teaching class is no longer comprised of our brightest women earning far less than they deserve, for example.

And some of the people who whinge most poetically about how awful their schooldays were, are the same folks who whine about the expenditure of any public money whatsoever on kids.

I have a big bucket of rotten school memories, like most of us. But I observe that round here, a lot of the very smart people who, you know, run stuff, show definite signs of having been picked on mercilessly in school. Did we ever get our own back. The most popular and beloved girl in my primary school, (who wasn't in any way horrible) is now a jobbing actress and dancer who just about keeps body and soul together -- but at nearly 40, I reckon I have rather more career in hand than she does.

#33 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 04:33 PM:

Some more information about his school would have been useful. When was he in school? How big was it? Where was it? How many kids go on to college?

I was in high school in 1985-1989, a public school in moderately affluent suburban CT (not the uber-elite area). My graduating class was about 340 people. Most of the students go on to college. There was, IMHO, a good deal of status among the smarter kids in my class. There certainly were degrees of popularity, and I never made much of an effort to be popular (being an introvert, and not particularly caring), but I never really suffered abuse for it.

If there was a hard division, it was probably between the academically inclined and the "shop" students.

#34 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 05:15 PM:

I somehow managed to avoid any real interaction with the issue of popularity in school. I had my group of friends, we were diverse in all ways (punk to preppy, smart to drop-outs, actors, and artists, and future chemistry phds, etc.) We were drawn together by our participation in Renaissance Festivals and reading SF/F. We just didn't notice any one else... I pretty much liked school, and I was busy leading my life.

Now as a teacher I wonder what I can do to make school less awful. Mixed age classes, relevant work, smaller schools, many good ideas are outside of my control; what can I do now to make my students not find it so hard?

I must say that in my school we have very different types of groups because I teach in a Fine Arts magnet school that draws from a large urban district and several smaller suburban districts. We are a voluntary desegregation middle school. To some extent the kids seem to segregate based on their arts major as they reach 7th and 8th, the dancer girls all hang out together, and my visual arts students form funny and unlikely groups based around their art style rather than any other distinctions... all the photo realists looking down their noses at the expressionist types and so on...

#35 ::: Rachel Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 06:31 PM:

My high school and junior highs were both fairly large, with a big split between the rich white kids and the poor Hispanic kids. I was an oddball, being a white immigrant whose parents' work paid off in money about halfway through high school.

The gifted classes were 100 % white, and most of the kids in them were at least not unpopular, because they were all (again, except for me) rich. So being smart was not a guarantee of unpopularity, although none of the really smart kids were in the top ranks of the popular.

I had no clue how to be popular. I had no clue how not to be a total outcast. I was convinced that I was ugly and utterly socially inept and hopeless at sports and anti-charismatic, because that was what the other kids told me and how they reacted to me. But then, like the essay says, I was so sure popularity was impossible that I never tried.

(Oh, and I was small and wore glasses. One kid regularly threatened to rape and murder me, and when I told the teacher, he refused to even let me change my seat so I didn't have to spend every class listening to the boy telling me all about where he'd put his Daddy's hunting knife.

"You've got to learn not to come running to the teacher every time you've got a problem," the teacher said. "Deal with it yourself."

So I knocked over the boy's desk with him in it. Then I got my seat changed. Somehow I don't think that really taught me autonomy or problem solving skills.)

(My best concrete suggestion for improving high schools is that PE teachers should actually teach kids to play the sport they're supposed to be learnin, not just throw them on the field and scream at them. I think they've now gotten better about taking death threats seriously.)

Then, at some point after I finished grad school, I figured out the "pretty and charming" thing. Now all it takes is fifteen minutes putting on makeup, a decent set of clothes, the decision to turn on the charm, and sure enough, people think I'm I'm kind of cool. So I guess it's possible to learn charisma.

But the question that I still wonder is whether, if I knew then what I knew now, and had tried that stuff in high school and junior high, would it have worked?

#36 ::: caplan ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 09:55 PM:

I think it mostly has to do with the present and historical anti-intellectualism found in much of American and English culture, combined with huge impersonal high schools existing in sterile suburbs.

Does this "nerd"="unpopular" exist in other cultures?

I have asked colleagues who went to high school here in Hong Kong and there didn't (at least when they were in high school) seem to be as much of a divide between the "nerds" and "non-nerds" - although there is a disparaging word for people who read and study all day and don't pay attention to others. My straw poll (2 women in my department I just asked) said that generally the kids who studied in the "Sciences" track were considered more clever than the ones in the "Arts" track, and that clever was considered a good thing.

One volunteered that while she didn't look down on the boys who studied arts, she *really* admired the girls who studied sciences.

They also appeared to be surpised at the idea of high school students hitting each other, breaking glasses of classmates, etc. (of course the majority of all people in HK wear glasses). They said "by high school people were old enough to behave like adults".

That said, my sample attended Band 1 and Band 2 schools (an examination at age 11 sorted kids into the 5 Bands) and there might have been a very different story to hear from people from Band 4 and Band 5 schools.

Even within the Band 1 schools, the most high achieving kids were put together and everything was categorized that way. Sports were also not as important a status marker in the high schools here.

Another intersting question would be the role played by clothes. Almost all the high schools in Hong Kong have uniforms that everyone wears and strict rules about how the hair may be worn - so the coolness factor is reduced. It's really hard to look "cool" when you're 16 and wearing
the standard clothes

examples: some boys and girls in uniform

some boys in form 5 (age 16) at lunch

some boys in a form 2 (age 13) class photo

#37 ::: caplan ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 09:55 PM:

I think it mostly has to do with the present and historical anti-intellectualism found in much of American and English culture, combined with huge impersonal high schools existing in sterile suburbs.

Does this "nerd"="unpopular" exist in other cultures?

I have asked colleagues who went to high school here in Hong Kong and there didn't (at least when they were in high school) seem to be as much of a divide between the "nerds" and "non-nerds" - although there is a disparaging word for people who read and study all day and don't pay attention to others. My straw poll (2 women in my department I just asked) said that generally the kids who studied in the "Sciences" track were considered more clever than the ones in the "Arts" track, and that clever was considered a good thing.

One volunteered that while she didn't look down on the boys who studied arts, she *really* admired the girls who studied sciences.

They also appeared to be surpised at the idea of high school students hitting each other, breaking glasses of classmates, etc. (of course the majority of all people in HK wear glasses). They said "by high school people were old enough to behave like adults".

That said, my sample attended Band 1 and Band 2 schools (an examination at age 11 sorted kids into the 5 Bands) and there might have been a very different story to hear from people from Band 4 and Band 5 schools.

Even within the Band 1 schools, the most high achieving kids were put together and everything was categorized that way. Sports were also not as important a status marker in the high schools here.

Another intersting question would be the role played by clothes. Almost all the high schools in Hong Kong have uniforms that everyone wears and strict rules about how the hair may be worn - so the coolness factor is reduced. It's really hard to look "cool" when you're 16 and wearing
the standard clothes

examples: some boys and girls in uniform

some boys in form 5 (age 16) at lunch

some boys in a form 2 (age 13) class photo

#38 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:09 PM:

I don't think "charisma" is quite the right concept here-- in large part, at least in my past, the issue was one of learning the rules of conduct. What used to get me into trouble wasn't not trying to be popular, but making attempts at it in really awkward and counter-productive ways. Talking about the scientific esoterica I was interested in almost inevitably came off as lecturing, and that puts people's backs up. Adults generally have the self-control to refrain from lashing out in response; teenagers, not so much. Part of the process of starting to fit in was finding something else to talk about-- pop music, bad movies, stupid tv shows.

It's all about context, and knowing the appropriate responses-- I don't try to discuss quantum physics with my barber. When I get a haircut, I talk about sports, or politics, or the disgraceful condition of kids these days, and I get along fine. What I was doing in junior high was like holding forth on quantum field theory in the barber's chair-- I came off as a pompous ass.

My earlier mention of sports was a bit unfortunate-- I tend to use soccer and basketball as an example because the only people I'm still really in contact with from my high school days are some guys from the basketball team. But any sort of niche will do-- one of the few things that got me through junior high was being in the band with a bunch of other category C and D nerds. The important thing is to find something outside the classroom that lets you place yourself somewhere in one of the overlapping social hierarchies in the school.

My half-assed psychological theory about why it has to be something outside the classroom is that it's a question of self-determination. Grades can't be an element in the school status game, because grades are ultimately a hierarchy imposed by adults. The seemingly arbitrary cliques and groups that spring up are an attempt to define some sort of social structure based on criteria determined by the kids themselves, which means that it has to come from extra-curricular stuff. Sports are the easiest and most direct method, but you get a whole host of semi-overlapping hierarchies based around different things that people do.

I think the reason that junior high (7th-8th grade, or thereabouts) is sort of the pinnacle of misery for many people is that that's the point where students start really having freedom to define their own groups.

At least when I went through public school (I graduated high school in '89), groups were fairly rigidly defined by the school up through sixth grade. You spent half the day with one teacher, and half with a second teacher, and when you went to lunch you went with your whole class, and sat at the same table with the rest of your class. The seeds of the future cliques were there, but the ability of cliques to fully form was somewhat circumscribed by the fact that everything was tied to specific classes.

At the start of 7th grade, suddenly, everything was wide open. You didn't go to a specific room in the morning, you hung around in the hall until your first class started. You didn't go to lunch in a group, you went all in a bunch, and you didn't sit with a specific class, you sat with whoever would let you sit with them.

On top of that, interscholastic sports started to be offered in 7th grade, providing yet another set of social ranking tools, and extracurricular social activities-- school dances and the like-- started at the same time, providing yet another opportunity for reveling in social stratification.

Suddenly, there were all sorts of extra-curricular social hierarchies springing up out of nowhere, and suddenly your position in the various rankings made a huge difference in your daily life. This was wildly disorienting for those of us who hadn't figured out the ground rules of social interaction, and doubly so for those who hadn't quite worked out what they did, other than classwork.

By high school, most of us had figured out where we belonged, and school became much less traumatic. But it's worth noting that the same sort of non-academic hierachical impulse carries through into college-- even at the best liberal arts colleges in America, social groups are organized primarily around non-academic pursuits of one variety or another, and being seen to spend a great deal of time studying or doing schoolwork lowers your status. I suspect ther easoning is still the same-- even in college, academic standing is ultimately determined by adults outside the student social structure.

By this logic, I should note, sports and "jock culture" are something of a red herring. They're common mechanisms for social stratification now, but removing sports from the schools won't solve the problem-- it'll just force the same impulse into different channels. There will always be hierarchies based on something other than schoolwork-- indeed, you can see this in some of the comments here, regarding districts where family wealth figures more prominently than jock-hood. I've also herad anecdotal reports that my old school district has recently been struggling with a phase in which sports have been deemed "uncool," and they're having trouble fielding teams. I don't know how they're organizing the cliques these days, but I'm pretty sure there are still people whose life is utterly miserable...

Wow, that's a lot of babble. I'll shut up now.

#39 ::: Berni ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:43 PM:

Am I the only one who went to a single-sex high school? I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and don't remember such social stratifications. We all wore uniforms, so the clothes issue wasn't there either. I think the popularity was more tied to income at my school. I was friends with the brains who were on scholarships. The daughters of the car dealers were the popular ones. But that didn't stop the ones like me from getting parts in the school plays. (Or is that another measure of nerdiness?)

Maybe I was just too much of a music geek to realize what was going on. I went to a large public junior high school for 7th and 8th grade. Being fat, wearing glasses, and wearing clothes my mother made should have made me a walking target, but I don't remember any incidents. I was concert mistress of the school orchestra, which drove the older boys crazy -- the thought of a girl younger than themselves being better at playing the violin. (It was a crazy time at home and I dealt with it by practicing the violin. You practice for many hours a week, you get better.)

#40 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 10:51 PM:

Vaguely echoing Adam, I remember talking to the kid next door (to our apartment, somewhere around 1990) who was feeling put down and unpopular in school. I said I couldn't do much about what he had to put up with, but if he could endure until it was over, things would likely get better. "Look at me," I said, "I wear white socks and high-water pants every day, and nobody cares a bit."

I suppose I was a nerd, though I had occasional bursts of brief popularity when I amused the alphas somewhat. There were also times I tried to hard and they got sick of me.

In high school, it was different. I was in the hippie class, and there was open warfare with the goatropers (our term of affection) in school. One in particular used to threaten me in the locker room (though things got better when he vanished from class -- turns out he was on trial for manslaughter of his nephew; I never found out anything more about it). He used to taunt me with clever remarks like "fag" and "hippie fag" and "fag hippie." I shut him down once by saying that at least I didn't wear lipstick (he had very large, fleshy lips). One of the other cowboys made it a point to say hi to me in an affable way, and I always thought his friendship probably kept worse things from happening to me there.

I saw my old tormentor one more time after that, sacking at Steele's Market. I muttered "hey" at him, and he muttered something back. I didn't mention his nephew.

#41 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 12:16 AM:

In addition to the criticisms that have been raised, I suspect the writer knows less than he thinks about apprentices. Even leaving aside family situations (cf. the young Ben Franklin), I see no reason to believe that apprenticeship was particularly pleasant, or that apprentices didn't have an unpleasant pecking order -- although they may have had small enough social circles not to fall in to pecking classes. (Does anyone else remember Hell's Pavement (Damon Knight)? The opening scene of the main story shows a plausible collection of apprentices/underlings.)And as for not having raging hormones -- at that age, if they weren't too tired to be interested (entirely possible considering the workload) they could save up their pennies for whores instead of having to negotiate with social equals brought up to different goals.

(Xopher -- you didn't really mean that everyone around the world gets sleepy at 11pm Greenwich time, did you? Although that would explain the level of attention at some of my evening chorus rehearsals....)

#42 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 08:40 AM:

Years ago, I sketched a cartoon called "The First Time," with an apprentice asking, "Master Gutenberg, may I use the press after work tonight? I'll provide my own vellum..."

Um, and they have these really funny looks on their faces. You shoulda been there.

#43 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 12:59 PM:

I agree with a lot of what Chad is saying, and I'm seeing a fair amount of what looks to me like a false dichotomy. There is social space between "outcast" and "most popular" - there's a broad realm of basic social competence. I found that I got along much better in and out of class when I internalized some lessons from debate, for instance: learning to monitor myself and take out the nasal whine, checking my pitch, adjusting my tempo, and so on. Learning a bit about sports from my more athletic friends let me know enough to exchange a sentence or two with classmates about the latest big game (and was sometimes actually interesting to me). Learning to throttle back on the vocabulary when talking with people whose vocabulary just wasn't that good solved a lot of problems, and I remained free to get wordy and obtuse with my friends.

There's a lot of crap floating around schools, or at least there was when I was there, about the requirements of authentic identity. I did not become any less of a bookworm or technophile or any of the other things I was and am when I started being able to converse more comfortably with folks who share none of my major interests. I simply became less isolated and fearful - and in time I picked up whole new interests because of it.

And on at least one occasion it significantly saved my bacon. I'd gotten along okay with one of the big gansta wannabes in my senior civics class ever since asking him a question along the lines of, "Hey, is it really a good idea when X (someone on the Lakers at time) spends all that time trying to set up three-point shots? Wouldn't a bunch of faster two-pointers pay off?" It gave him a chance to hold forth about something he knew, and explained some things about basketball to me. The next year I was working at the local mall, and there was a rash of muggings in the parking garage, with witnesses agreeing on it being one of the Northwest Pasadena gangs. So there I was coming off a night shift, and here came quite a menacing gang of guys getting out their knives...until one of them recognized me as the one who'd been nice to him in civics. He waved me on. I guess they went to mug someone else.

It wasn't that much effort on my part. The key point was the willingness to believe that I could function better in the society around me without betraying myself.

#44 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 02:04 PM:

I really enjoyed this article, and it's not the first time I've seen it. It's good to know that it's not just my friends and I who sit around discussing why we think highschool can break people.

That being said, I think that while the essay does end on a note of hope (the world gets bigger and one finds out that highschool isn't really life, after all), this isn't really a consolation to anyone who's currently in that situation, though it may become one after the fact.

I used to have people--teachers, my pastor, even my parents, on occasion--tell me that there was more to life than highschool. "You'll find your niche, given time." The fact that that is true doesn't invalidate the fact that highschool is life, socially speaking, for many teenagers.

There's a fascinating Orwellian kind of doublethink there, where you have to keep the fact that "highschool is life" and "highschool is not life" in your mind at the same time for the different definitons of life while you're going through the schooling process. The entire process becomes clear after you're done with highschool only because you get to discard the first hypothesis after it's no longer needed.

#45 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 02:28 PM:

Chip - no, I just goofed. Now I was SURE there was a name for "the local time wherever you happen to be" -- what was it? Anyway, that's what I meant. Zulu, of course, is UTC aka GMT (except I think Zulu changes if they change to Summer time, while GMT does not).

#46 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 07:32 PM:

Shades of the '60s! There were a whole group of educational radicals like John Holt who held that a big problem of education was its isolation from the rest of society and actually ran schools that attempted to implement alternatives; some of them are still around. I think the idea goes back further than that, to people like Montessori and A.S. Neill.

My impression is that over the years these people have made a big dent in educational practices, and that in another few decades things will be better still in the USA. Far as I'm concerned it can't happen fast enough.

#47 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 10:24 PM:

Aaron Swartz has a very interesting diary called 'schoolyard subversion':

It runs until May 1, 2002, so there's no point in subscribing. It's worth reading the whole thing, in my opinion.

#48 ::: Rachel McGonagill ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 01:32 PM:

When I went to junior high, back in the mid 80's, the "bright kids" were bussed in from all over the city to one school. We made up two Advanced Placement sections and went from class to class together, but all the rest of the students attended their own classes as groups, too, so it wasn't so different as to be marked out for taunting. And there were a lot of us, so there were few difficulties between "nerds" and "non-nerds."

It didn't hurt that one of the most popular kids in school, captain of the boys' basketball and football teams, was also in AP. There was a lot of competition amongst the AP kids, but many of us were also involved in extra-curricular activities; I was in basketball, band and the school musicals, among other things.

But maybe there's safety in numbers.

Or maybe there are other solutions, such as cutting down on distractions. I went from that large public school to a small--graduating class of 105--all-girl's Catholic school for HS, where I was one of the "brains on scholarship." As Berni pointed out, the differences there rested primarly on how much money people made, and my friends tended to be other girls like me, whose fathers couldn't afford to send them skiing at Lake Tahoe for winter break. But we wore uniforms, and though there were cliques all of us were all aware of, there was very little of the nastiness others have described.

I've often thought it might behoove more public schools to adopt a uniform policy, to hold peer pressure and sniping to a minimum, at least when it comes to kids trying to keep up with the latest styles.

Here's a link about current uniform policies in public schools, including NYC:


#49 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 06:39 PM:

High-school anomie has been microscoped at least since Rebel Without a Cause, too often with the sort of sleazy-publisher approach that makes you wonder how much is real and how much is made up by adults who haven't come to terms with offspring developing their own identities. I can't judge this -- I went entirely to private schools, and if I hadn't would have found being just north of Washington DC a very different experience from Oklahoma or Arizona. (How much experiences from such areas reflect peers' picking up their parents prejudices?) Does the sheer size of a modern U.S. high school to leave room for worse behavior? (cf. comments from Rachel and others.) C. S. Lewis argued (in The Silver Chair) that Progressivism was responsible because it let the little monsters (as he saw them) out from under adult control before they were nearly ready for it; this would suggest an advantage to the more regimented schools (as noted here) -- if you buy the rest of his politics. (From what I've heard, too many such schools regiment intellect as much as behavior.)

As the Boston Globe noted today, athletic coaches in college can be just as intolerant as in high school.

Xopher -- this time zone map suggests that Zulu is labile; the time on the local NPR relay of BBC news suggests GMT isn't. (That's a fascinating map; I knew there were more than 24 time zones, but 37?). I'm sure somebody has a technical term for local time, but I've usually just heard it called local time (or assumed if there's no label). I do wonder about the reported melatonin shift; I had a morning newspaper route in 8th grade (2 years after my voice broke)and remember no trouble getting to sleep well before 11pm -- but that's a sample of 1. (I've read claims that school hours were set to let parents get to work; I wonder what would happen if hours were set to erase the time between end of school and parents getting home?)

#50 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2003, 04:33 AM:

Surely the melatonin mechanism works on Solar time. Get yourself a sundial...

The more I learn about US Schools, the happier i am that we are homeschooling our boys.

#51 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2003, 10:33 AM:

I'm not going to bring up my own JHS/HS experiences. Though they might be informative, they're quite similar to those already mentioned (Though I will note that largeness is no protection: I could have defended myself, easily against one, or even two, of my JHS tormentors. It took five of them to beat on me, but beat on me they did).

What I am going to bring up is one of my pet peeves:
I92m suspicious of this theory that thirteen year old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it92s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I92ve read a lot of history, and I don92t think I92ve seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course, but they weren92t crazy. As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don92t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they92re made to lead.

This is likely true. Nature v. Nurture is to some extent unsettled, but the turbulence of teenage life as a Nurture/Culture issue, to my satisfaction at least, is, and has been since 1928.

Coming of Age in Samoa has been the subject of a right-wing assault for decades, and where the attacks aren't explicitly ideological, they're deeply flawed and dishonest. Despite their attacks, its thesis still stands: Teenagers are not miserable the world over. When they are not MADE to be miserable, they actually seem quite happy.

This is what happens when good research is attacked for no good reason. Someone has to reinvent the wheel, and base it on conjecture rather than being able to simply go to the source.

#52 ::: fluffy ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 09:24 AM:

There's some sort of assumption underneath all of this that doesn't quite gel with me. Perhaps this is because I attended a selective school in Australia, and am hence somewhat removed from the system being discussed in that article and on this board, but I've never seen a huge corelation between being intelligent and/or academicaly inclined (they are not the same thing) and popularity. Certainly in my school, marks had no effect I could see on someone's social standing, nor did studying make you unpopular.

I have a high IQ, had generally below average marks, and for most or all of high school I would probably consider my social skills to be deficient, mainly due to a lack of self confidence. I had no trouble talking to people I know, but the seeds planted by being picked on from an early age meant paranoia undermined any casual one-on-one conversation with someone who wasn't a long trusted friend. And yet by the end of high school I had quite a lot of friends. Partly this is down to luck. I happened to bump into some very nice people. But the other part, well, that brings me to my second observation...

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, adolescence is where we grow up and learn to function in a society. I happen to think that is the primary function of high school, and that the whole deal would work better if they were run with that in mind (that whole coached elite thing sounds pretty nasty, I 'm glad I never had to deal with that).
My point is that some kids are arseholes. Most bullying behaviour starts early in primary (grade) school. And when I started high school it was still pretty vicious. Popular kids could gang up and pick on the loners. But as the years wore on things changed. Some kids grew a conscience somehow. But more importantly, the kids that didn't, and kept picking on people, became less and less popular. It's just hard to keep friends when you're an arsehole. I on the other hand was always pretty nice, so I didn't lose many friends in the six years I was there. I just made new ones.
Which isn't to say I didn't have an awful time as often as a good one, but at least I came away from it with valuable skills for coping with nasty people.
Excuse my rambling. It's late. What I'm getting at, and what I'd like to ask all of you, is what sort of structures do you think need to be put in place so that a school fulfills the purpose set out above (teaching students to function properly in society)?

I think that it is important that a school does not denigrate its students, nor elevate some and give them the impression that they are more important (re:coaches). I also think a school needs to be made to resemble the diversity of society (i.e. single sex schools are just plain wrong) and encourage them to mix with each other outside their immediate peer group. But how could this be done? Help me out, people.

Oh, and arse is how Australians spell ass, if you were wondering about the funny spelling up there.

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